Monthly Archives: June 2009


The hard-boiled style has roots in literary naturalism, a genre of writing most often associated in American literature with authors such as Frank Norris, Stephen Crane and Theodore Dreiser. Naturalism, in turn, is generally considered to be an outgrowth of realism, and in a rough approximation of its difference from that cultural mode we can argue that if realism’s mise-en-scene is the bourgeois parlor then naturalism plays out in the ghetto among urban lowlife. William Dean Howells, one of the major figures of 19th century American fiction, is easily the most famous praciticioner of realism (though movie studios have been kinder to Henry James) and novels such as The Rise of Silas Lapham and A Hazard of New Fortunes are essentially stories of the vicissitudes of social mobility told with a genial warmth that a younger generation of writers– notably the above-mentioned Norris and Crane– found claustrophobic. Norris in particular, ambitious and cocksure, sought to transform the American literary scene and so borrowed quite heavily from perhaps the absolute master of naturalism, Emile Zola. Naturalism, then, was in a sense an import, but one that morphed– as do all cultural products and practices– in translation.

Scholars and aficionados often date the inception of hard-boiled fiction with the publication of Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest— a dirty, violent, and canny first novel featuring a body-count equal to any Jerry Bruckheimer flick and one of the most compelling “dames” of pulp modernism, Dinah Brand. Hammett has long since become an icon, not only for his four magnificent novels (excluding the never-completed Tulip) but in deference to his delinquent charm, political courage, and variegated past. He worked as a detective, served in the Army, wrote ad copy for Samuels’ Jewelers, and helped build Black Mask magazine, a veritable school for crime fiction talent, into a lucrative venture. While working for the notorious Pinkertons in Montana– a company that was essentially a mercenary force against unions– he refused $5000 to murder IWW agitator Frank Little, whose body was later found castrated and shot hanging from a railroad trestle.  Increasingly disillusioned by this sort of ubiquitous reactionary violence and suffering from tuberculosis, Hammett quit the Pinkertons and moved to San Francisco, where he began his writing career. Years later, a success and a celebrity, he went to jail rather than fink on his comrades during the red paranoia of the 50s.

Red Harvest was published the year of the Crash and there followed in rapid succession three more brilliant novels. At the same time James M. Cain was producing classics such as The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity, Serenade, and Mildred Pierce. In the early 40s Raymond Chandler began to consolidate his reputation as a writer of calculated crime fiction. Though Chandler is usually grouped with both Hammett and Cain as one of a triumvirate of seminal roman noir authors, he resisted identification with the latter. To Chandler Cain’s novels were lurid and cheap, and he famously remarked to his publisher that

“Everything [Cain] touches smells like a billygoat.  He is every kind of writer I detest, a faux naïf, a Proust in greasy overalls, a dirty little boy with a piece of chalk and a board fence and nobody looking.  Such people are the offal of literature, not because they write about dirty things, but because they do it in a dirty way.  Nothing hard and clean and cold and ventilated.  A brothel with a smell of cheap scent in the front parlor and a bucket of slops at the back door”.

Chandler’s asperions are worth considering not only for their vitriol but for what they tell us about his vision of the hard-boiled style. If “dirty things” are the subject of the American crime novel then the method of execution required to make them interesting– perhaps even render them as art– depends on the writer’s ability to calibrate language, to take control and produce a text that is “hard and clean and cold and ventilated.” The Chandler aesthetic values lowlife– the dingy bar, the slow-witted ex-con, the slatternly cigarette girl, the arid banality of Los Angeles– on the condition that in their representation such tropes and themes become more than the sum of their parts.

For Chandler, Cain’s work fails because it is excessive, a style that relishes extremities– “cheap scent” and “a bucket of slops”– for their own sake. This self-indulgence occurs at a formal level– after all, what would “a dirty little boy with a piece of chalk and a board fence and nobody looking” write?

Realism sought to represent the world as it was (or seemed to be) yet largely confined itself to a polite social zone. Naturalism revised that impulse to verisimilitude though its obsessive concern for the abject was weighed down by theories of innate depravity and the over-determinism of heredity. The hard-boiled school drew its energy from both of these movements but tended to eschew gentility or over-arching theories of human nature in favor of a style that lingered on the surface of things, that approximated the key values of late modernity: smoothness, functionality and precision.

Franklin Rosemont

Fellow-worker Franklin Rosemont, I belatedly discovered today while reading June’s issue of the Industrial Worker, died in April.  Rosemont– agitator, founding member of the Chicago Surrealist Group, and author of many books including Joe Hill: The IWW and the Making of a Revolutionary Working Class Counterculture and What is Surrealism– is known widely as a a pivotal figure in the  reorganization of arguably the most significant publishing house in the United States, the Charles H. Kerr Company. With their comrades, he and his partner Penelope Rosemont  fought against cultural and historical amnesia and the paralysis of the human imagination, bringing out works such as The Rambling Kid, The Big Red Songbook, Rebel Voices, and A History of Pan-African Revolt. You can read more about Rosemont here.

The Youth and the Nation


Harry H. Moore’s The Youth and the Nation (1917) is a reformist tract which attempts to “enlist” young men in the fight against social problems such as disease, “feeble-mindedness,” juvenile delinquency and crime, “the evils of immigration” (which include “the utter failure… to Americanize [the] foreign-born population”), “commercialized prostitution,” “liquor and the saloon,” “the disasters of industry,” “child labor,” “women in industry,” unemployment,  “rural poverty,” “poverty in the city,” “the luxury and extravagance of the rich,” and “the inequitable distribution of wealth.” All of those issues number among the most pressing concerns of Reformers in their quest to rationalize and improve social life in the United States through a combination of the principle of efficiency, which had already transformed the economy, and a middle class sense of morality deeply influenced by Christian theology.

In today’s sclerotic political environment it seems likely that Moore would be castigated as a “socialist” by post-conservative pundits. In his own day, Moore’s views were shared by many people who had witnessed first hand the devastating consequences of laissez-faire capitalism. Recall that at the turn into the 20th century the bloated corpse of a horse lying by the street, children with fingers or limbs amputated by industrial accidents begging for food, or impoverished old men and women scavenging for scraps to sell to the rag and bone shop were common sights in the larger cities. Civilization itself seemed to be in decline. The massive uptick in productivity characteristic of the Machine Age, and the rise of the United States as an industrial power in general, brought with them scenes of abnegation that shocked European visitors such as Charles Dickens and Knut Hamsun.

Here was a sort of industrialized barbarism, one in which the bottom tenth of society– what was at the time called “the residuum”– was left to vegetate in the tenements, to scrape by as best they could. Such immiseration– or proletarianization, to use a marxist term– was held to be the fault of its victims. Defective character, the champions of this most exploitative form of capitalism argued, or perhaps the hereditary consequences of deviancy transmitted across generations via “gemmules” seeding the blood, were responsible for social ills. It was against such claims, and with a solid conviction that they system could be redeemed, that people such as Harry Moore, Charles Loring Brace, Jane Addams and many others called for reform.

The Machine Age (take one)

The period of American history known as the Machine Age– the half-century between Reconstruction and the Crash– was the era of white supremacy, what is often termed the rise of the “New Imperialism” of the European powers though also of the United States, whose experience with offshore expansionism– the latter term itself is pure euphemism, a rhetorical form of American exceptionalism recasting the realities of military force and colonization– had up until then been focused on completing the conquest of the continent. 



The project of national consolidation, of imprinting republican political forms and free market norms on the as yet untamed terrain, was thus linked in practical geo-political terms with the entry of the United States into a world arena. Already a leading economic power, the nation sought final unification not only via the occupation of its southern states and victory in the Plains Wars, but by asserting its ability to obtain and govern colonies. If the effort undertaken was modest by the standards of Britain, which at that time controlled perhaps one sixth of the planet’s surface– it was evident that the vision of an “empire of liberty” espoused by Jefferson was not simply a grandiose phrase but a strategy. 

This effort to assume the mantle of power– to achieve some level of parity with “old Europe”–  was complicated by the virtually existential belief in American distinctiveness, a sense of destiny coded in terms of race and religion by the misconstrual of English settlement in the western hemisphere as a largely Puritan affair. The first enslaved Africans arrived in Virginia in 1619 aboard the White Lion. The first permanent settlements were established in the South, and in fact most of the colonists undertook their voyage for economic reasons. In the retrospect of mythmaking, however, the United States was the destination of a spiritual elite whose stern virtues would constitute the kernel of a nation made great by its resolution and purity of character. 



Yet the Puritans were not enough, particularly as technological innovation accelerated in an industrialized context. If the sharp yankee trader delineated in Constance Rourke’s American Humor continued to exert an undeniable influence on national self-perception, he was morphing from a rural figure to a city “type,” one who might contain apparent contradictions that would in turn serve as the vital force galvanizing American industrial progress and propelling the nation onto the world stage. The paradoxes animating this stream-lined Jonathan– provincial innocence and a keen sense of the main chance, rustic manners and technical mastery– were rapidly being reworked. It was not that a new archetype was needed– for the development of cultures is not so simple that a pantheon of personified traits is sufficient to explain its continuities and changes–  but that new qualities were to be emphasized in order to bring forward core cultural values into an emergent socio-historical context.


With the Redemptionist counter-revolution which extinguished Reconstruction and sentenced the United States to another century of racial violence and subjugation, citizenship retained its essential white, Christian, male identity. Those cultivated to assume its obligations and grasp its opportunities– in a word the young–  would require training. The category of the condition which was seen to describe though in fact produced them would have to be revised. All of the genius of science, particularly the nascent disciplines of psychology and sociology, would play a part in youth’s rationalization. If the American identity remained, in spite of the nation’s touted immigrant character, a birthright, if the proper subjects of modernity — those burdened with the tasks of civilizing the planet in the name of God, political liberty and untrammeled commerce– were still white male and Christian, then even so Americans were made rather than born.