Dashiell Hammett Biography

Biography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 817 words.)

Biography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Raymond Chandler observed that Dashiell Hammett “took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley.” The two main ingredients of Hammett’s breakthrough are the creation of the hard-boiled detective, a ruthless and often violent man who is bound not by the law but only by his own rigid and private code of ethics, and the perfection of an almost entirely objective narrative style, restricted primarily to terse descriptions and crisp, idiomatic dialogue, revealing the characters’ thoughts and emotions only between the lines. Hammett’s creation of the hard-boiled detective and the corrupt world in which he works provided the inspiration for Hammett’s most noteworthy successors, Chandler and Ross Macdonald, and introduced the tough, cynical private eye into American popular mythology.

Biography

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Born in Maryland, Samuel Dashiell Hammett spent his early years in Philadelphia and Baltimore. He left school at fourteen and worked at a variety of odd jobs including that of a manual laborer. Between 1915 and 1918, he worked for the Pinkerton’s Detective Agency as an operative, finding this work to be interesting, challenging, adventurous, and at times dangerous. While serving as a sergeant in the U.S. Army Ambulance Corps during World War I, he contracted tuberculosis; although it was cured, his health was permanently impaired. Married with two daughters, Hammett returned to the Pinkerton Agency. (In all, he spent eight years in its employ as an investigator.) He then separated from his family and began to write bits of verse and sketches from his experiences as a detective. In October, 1923, the first story in which the Continental Op appeared was published; by the middle of the 1920’s, Hammett was known as an original talent, an innovator in a popular form of fiction, and the central figure in a new school of writing about crime. His writings made him the “darling” of the Hollywood and New York sets. He began to drink heavily and continued to do so despite his meeting with Lillian Hellman, who remained his closest friend for the rest of his life. With the onset of World War II, he enlisted in the Army at the age of forty-eight and served in the Aleutians, where he edited a daily newspaper for the troops. He was discharged in 1945 with emphysema and in poorer health than before. He continued drinking until 1948, when an attack of delirium tremens convinced him never to drink again.

During the 1930’s, while he had been writing for the film industry, Hammett had become involved with various left-wing and anti-Fascist causes. He had become a Marxist, and, while he never lost his critical sense regarding the absurdities of many of his associates, he remained loyal to communism. During the McCarthy era of the early 1950’s, he served six months in prison for refusing to testify in court. Released and blacklisted, he lived a quiet life with the care and companionship of Lillian Hellman. His lung condition was diagnosed as cancerous and he died in 1961.