Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 817
Dashiell Hammett was born Samuel Dashiell Hammett on May 27, 1894, in St. Mary’s County, Maryland, to Richard Thomas and Annie Bond Dashiell Hammett. The family moved first to Philadelphia and then to Baltimore, where Hammett attended public school and, in 1908, one semester of high school at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute. His family never did well financially, and Hammett was forced to leave school to find work at the age of fourteen. This marked the end of his formal education. He held several different jobs for short periods of time until 1915, when he became an operative for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, the turning point of his life and the vocation that provided him with the background for the writing of his realistic detective fiction.
Hammett left Pinkerton’s to join the Army in 1918, reaching the rank of sergeant by the time of his discharge in 1919. He then returned to detective work but was hospitalized for pulmonary tuberculosis in 1920. This interrupted his work and eventually ended it in 1921, shortly after his marriage to Josephine Annis Dolan, a nurse he had met while at the hospital. They had two daughters, Mary Jane, born in 1921, and Josephine Rebecca, born in 1926.
While trying to support himself and his family with a small government disability pension and a series of part-time jobs, Hammett began publishing short stories in The Smart Set in 1922. He published the first of what would become known as the Continental Op stories, “Arson Plus,” in 1923 in Black Mask, the pulp magazine specializing in mystery and crime fiction that would publish his first four novels in serial form. The appearance of the first two novels in book form in 1929 made him a successful writer, and the next two, following quickly on that success, made him internationally famous. During this time Hammett moved away from his family, at least initially on the advice of a doctor to keep his younger daughter from being exposed to his tuberculosis. In 1930 he went to Hollywood as a screenwriter.
It was then, at the height of his fame, that he met Lillian Hellman, with whom he would have a close relationship until his death. Hellman was near the beginning of her distinguished career as a playwright, screenwriter, and essayist and was to be aided considerably in her work by Hammett’s expertise as an editor and critic. He, however, was almost finished as a creative writer. He published only one more novel, The Thin Man, in 1934, and would not write any fiction in the last twenty-seven years of his life other than a fifty-page fragment of a novel called Tulip.
Although he stopped writing novels and stories, royalties from his previous books and from a series of sixteen popular films and three weekly radio shows based on his characters and stories provided him with income. Occasional screenwriting and a daily comic strip, Secret Agent X-9, continued his public exposure. In 1954, his income from these various sources was more than eighty thousand dollars, an enormous sum for that time and an indicator of how popular his work had become. Hammett also taught courses in mystery writing at the Jefferson School of Social Science from 1946 to 1956.
The reasons that Hammett suddenly stopped writing after a series of five bestselling novels will probably never be known, but his involvement in left-wing politics, dating from the 1930’s, has often been cited as a factor. He was under investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation as a suspected Communist from the 1930’s until his death,...
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despite his volunteering for the Army again after the outbreak of World War II and serving from 1942 until 1945. In 1946, he was elected president of the New York Civil Rights Congress, a position he held until the middle 1950’s. Given the national temper at that time, any left-wing political involvement was dangerous, and in 1951 Hammett received a six-month sentence in federal prison for refusing to answer questions about the Civil Rights Congress bail fund—questions to which, according to Hellman, he did not know the answers.
Hammett was also called to testify before Joseph McCarthy’s Senate subcommittee in 1953 and before a New York State legislative committee in 1955, both times in connection with his presumed role as a Communist sympathizer. During these years, as direct or indirect results of his being branded as a Communist, his books went out of print, his radio shows were taken off the air, and his income was attached by the Internal Revenue Service for alleged income tax infractions. In a word, he was blacklisted. He spent his remaining years in poor health and poverty, living with Hellman and other friends until his death on January 10, 1961. The year before his death, his reported income was thirty dollars. It is perhaps ironic, after all of the government persecution to which he was subjected, that Hammett, as a veteran of two wars, was buried as a hero in Arlington National Cemetery on January 13.