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November 20, 2017

Dashiell Hammett on Not Talking

On this day in 1951, Dashiell Hammett was sentenced to six months in prison for contempt of court, having refused to give testimony before a judge representing the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Hammett had little to conceal, but he was determined to offer nothing that might help the Committee track "the footsteps of Karl Marx" through Hollywood. As reported by Lillian Hellman, his reasons for not cooperating were hard to explain, though pure Sam Spade:
    I don't know why. I guess it has something to do with keeping my word but I don't want to talk about that.... I hate this damn kind of talk, but maybe I better tell you that if it were more than jail, if it were my life, I would give it for what I think democracy is, and I don't let cops or judges tell me what I think democracy is.
Nor, afterwards, did Hammett wish to see his actions as heroic. Shortly after his release from prison, he met an old acquaintance who was just about to go in, and who was bemoaning the injustice of it all. Hammett's advice: "It will be easier for you, Howard, and you won't catch cold, if you first take off the crown of thorns."

Like hundreds of others he was blacklisted, but for Hammett this merely accelerated the process of withdrawal and silence which characterized his last decades. Hammett wrote The Maltese Falcon when he was 35; when he died in 1961, at the age of 66, he had not written a novel for 27 years. He was poor and increasingly dependent on his few remaining friends, who would return from their visits to his small cottage with reports of piled-high ashtrays, books and unopened mail. When asked by Hellman if he wanted to talk about the cancer that was killing him, he said, "My only chance is not to talk about it." On their last shared Thanksgiving, she typed this message and left it for him to sign:
    On this thirtieth anniversary of the beginning of everything, I wish to state: The love that started on that day was greater than all love anywhere, anytime, and all poetry cannot include it. I did not then know what treasure I had, could not, and thus occasionally violated the grandeur of this bond. For which I regret. But I give deep thanks for the glorious day, and thus the name "Thanks-giving." What but an unknown force could have given me, a sinner, this woman? Praise God.
Hammett laughed and signed, adding this postscript in an uncertain hand: "If this seems incomplete it is probably because I couldn't think of anything else at the time."

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