In an English class I took a few years back, my professor spoke about Gertrude Stein and Dashiell Hammett. Both are among the most famous American literary writers – I am not sure if those adjective can be used together anymore without some irony.
These two write vastly different works – Stein is a poet that makes you hate poetry but her works are sticky, never leaving your head until you feel as though you “get” what she’s doing. Hammett writes pretty cut and dry detective fiction, Maltese Falcon being his most famous book. But what elevates Hammett is that Stein liked his writing so much to ask for a meeting with him. She quiped something about to the effect of him being the only genre writer in the States worth his salt.
Why that matters is because Stein worked with Picasso, Hemingway and just about anyone else you could swear was in Midnight in Paris (Stein’s played by Kathy Bates in the Woody Allen movie). So, Hammett became something more than a genre writer trying to earn his daily bread. He became a writer of literature to some extent. A big rule I follow in life is real recognizes real, can’t think of a better example than this (that suits this piece but anyways).
Hammett wrote, like a lot of men at the time, about a loss of place in society, a loss of confidence and typical roles. Many great things were beginning in the nearly-century ago era that saw the demise of a rigidly ordered society, women getting to vote is the main one. As Christopher Hitchens often reminded us, you can measure how progressive a society is by how little it oppresses women – an inverse proportionality to beat all others in my opinion.
Hammett showed, through his own flaws and insecurities, the issues which pervaded society at the time and still do to this day. I think it’s because we don’t have a Boogeyman to hate. At one time, when we were all the same, when homogeneity was a rule and not something crass idiots strived for, it was easy to vilify certain aspects of society because it was easy to understand what made people tick. But it isn’t that easy any longer. Sure, you can point to Trump and what he is doing but it’s not as though he enjoys the total support of his people or anything bordering on widespread love quite the same way other cult-of-personality rulers like Hitler or Stalin did.
I think Stein saw this lack of confidence in him and it piqued her curiosity over the direction of society. Why were people all of a sudden so forlorn when before they had at least accepted their sad life. Not to be callous about it, but it seems we only recently realized life is insane when you really consider it. We exist on a giant, spinning rock that floats through space. We know gravity exists, and space, and the stars but we don’t know why. We used to pretend it was all about God but many people – Hitchens notably – pointed out how inane and at the same time falling-short-of our God really was.
Maybe it was just the existentialism of the time mixed with a good writer and that’s what Stein saw. I don’t like present-day writers who use famous people/events to prove points so I’m trying not to. It is just really interesting when you hear of an encounter like this. And to think of the confusing, lost and unconfident characters – always gruff, handsome men – in Hammett’s works is to think of a society which is confused. Temporally sandwhiched between the worst land-wars in European history, feels sort of like being in North America right now.
I see so much hatred springing out of the least predictable places. I don’t know what is going on that makes people think just because a politician says something you can finally too. But, I know how dangerous this time is for anyone who isn’t a well-off, white guy. A girl I used to date, for example, has to be careful when she returns to Africa lest Nigeria become the next country to be banned from travel to the US. She has siblings in the states studying, in a country where Neo-Nazis (capitalization for effect a la Trump) are allowed to parade their idea that immigrants are causing unemployment, drug epidemics, the downfall of society. I can’t imagine how or what they feel, but I know how angry, vehement I would be. I’ve had events in my life minimized or at least have felt that I couldn’t participate in certain public conversations lest I am looked at differently (though I certainly don’t have these sort of feelings anymore because they were immature and silly). But I’ve never been told that I am inherently bad. Every person of colour in the states had to be slapped with that one last August when Trump defended the Neo-Nazis at Charlottesville.
And so, this brings us back to where Hammett was when he piqued the curiosity of Stein. She might’ve felt it too, likely did. I think their feelings can be seen today, and the feelings of those who loved the disorder then, budding facists for one, can certainly be seen today. My point in this disconnected rambling and story is to consider for a second experience that is outside of our own lived experience. It is hard to do but those in privileged positions who ought to do it the easiest very rarely demonstrate such facility with the endeavour. And people in disadvantaged positions don’t fare easier. It is rare in society to see more than a handful of elites spewing and benefitting from vitriole, from targeted attacks. When we leave each other well enough alone is when we are happiest as a society. When you can have a public and private life for real is the peak of happiness on Earth so to speak. If people are feeling Hammett-like it is important to consider why. No matter how gross and somewhat icky such considerations make you. Doug Ford just cancelled over 700 environmental projects for example. For some reason people wanted that. Let’s find out why.