Harvests (225)

To some extent, you can judge a book by its cover. The original cover of Red Harvest, first published by Knopf in 1929, exhibits many of the characteristic features of art deco, the dominant design style of the era.

Note the angularity of the lettering. The way the title itself has been squeezed so tightly it forces a break in the word “Harvest.” The bold black on white. The flat, bright patterning of the borders. These are all signifiers of a new cultural phase of modernity. They represent a conscious rejection of the curvilinear font and rich, embellished illustration found in an art nouveau poster like this advertisement for biscuits (what Americans call a cookie):

The image asks that we consider the pleasure of eating Lefévre-Utile biscuits by directing our gaze to the figure holding them artfully on a plate. She is young and appealing, not explicitly sexualized but with an engaging expression. This invitation to biscuits functions by identifying a commodity with the woman presenting it to us.

First, consider the proposition that if the woman is like a cookie she may be possessed. The image is an object for us to look at. So is she. And yet at the same time when we look at the woman she looks back, something objects don’t do. What is her expression, her presence, supposed to tell us? What do her clothing, her strange flowery headpiece, her tendrils of hair, and her bare foot suggest?

The pattern on her dress appears to consist of crescent shapes and plants. These tripartite sprigs resemble fleurs-de-lis as well as evoking thyrsi. The fleur-de-lis has a lengthy historical association with French royalty and the Catholic church. The thyrsus is an object related to Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, ecstasy, and fecundity. If the second of those possibilities symbolizes bliss and fertility, the first is heavily-invested with multiple meanings, which in sum represent France or Frenchness. In other words, tradition.

And what about the crescents? Though the crescent moon has a deep connection to Islam which uses a lunar calendar to calculate holidays and important events, as a sign of mutability it also has a place in astrology and the occult. In the context of this advertisement it seems to suggest something magical. Without treating an ad for cookies too seriously, we can see it as a metaphor for natural and cosmic power, for mystery.

But, asks the careful reader, don’t those designs on her dress look like wheat and sickles? It’s a bit more pedestrian, but doesn’t it make sense that an ad for biscuits would include some indication of where the biscuits come from? Biscuits are made of flour. Flour comes from wheat. Wheat is harvested with sickles. It even gives her a whole “spirit of the harvest” kind of vibe.

All of that is true.

Hair, and the way it is dressed or worn, has a deep significance in every human culture. In Western art hair generally communicates something meaningful about the social status and moral condition of women. Headpieces such as wimples and fillets have often indicated marital status, particularly during the Middle Ages. Loose hair may signal not only being single but being licentious. The biscuit girl in our image wears a chaplet of flowers, her extremely long hair undone, simultaneously invoking the Classical era and maidenhood. The absence of shoes can be taken to signify “natural” innocence.The knotted shawl has slipped down, emphasizing her neck and a bare shoulder. These elements viewed together provide us with a set of values that are intended to shape our response to Lefévre-Utile biscuits.

The cursive font of the lettering echoes the ornamental border. The colors are warm, contrasted by a bit of cool blue in the background. At the base of the ad the year is framed by another, embellished crescent. All of these visual components embody the art nouveau style: organic, sweeping, and mythic. A novelty in its moment, yet redolent of the past.

Now back to the 1929 hardback cover of Red Harvest. Notably we still have something like flowers, though they have been rendered decoratively rather than realistically. Instead of flowers that look pretty much like actual flowers, the designer has chosen to geometricize (a real word!) them. Needless to say, the aesthetic values in question here are very different. In the world of 1929 the Lefévre-Utile biscuits advertisement is already old-fashioned. Innovative for its time, it is now a residue of the turn of the century. Such ads still existed, of course, but they were not fully part of a modernist sensibility that had already begun to transform not only advertising and the arts, but architecture and literature.

This is one reason why Red Harvest is so important. The cover of the novel’s first edition is a visible counterpart to its text. The rectilinearity of the title and the simplified outlines of the stars (flowers) and diamonds speak to a stripped-down, even minimalist form of representation that valorizes concision and rejects ostentation. Hammett is fairly explicit about this preference when he has the anonymous Continental Op deprecate Personville’s “gaudiness” (3). People can also be judged thus– tasteless and over-ornamented– as with “the gaudy boys from pool rooms and dancehalls” who mingle in the crowd outside the police station (6). Notably these dandies are contrasted with “sleek men with slick pale faces” in the same paragraph.

Yet it’s Max Thaler– Whisper, the gambler with the ruined voice– who, at least initially, seems to best embody the Modern in Red Harvest. His “pretty features [are] as regular as if they had been cut with a die,” the Op observes (11). Whisper is like a machine. He moves quickly. He is “dark” and compact.

Red Harvest, then, isn’t just a crime novel about a mining town in Montana taken over by gangsters, though its author helped build the hard-boiled school that still tends to dominate American crime fiction. Nor is it simply a dramatization of recent events such as the violent conflict between IWW miners and strikebreakers including the murder of Frank Little and the Anaconda Road Massacre. Certainly, learning about the historical context of Red Harvest and the social composition of its setting, the fictional town of Personville, will deepen our understanding of both early 20th century and the present.

What we also need to consider are the ways that Red Harvest and crime fiction contribute to a major development in American culture– specifically a form of Modernism that increasingly transcends the division between “popular” and “high” forms of cultural production. As we’ll see, a key to this transformation lies with capitalism.