Dashiell Hammett’s Pinkerton Past

Dashiell Hammett’s status as one of the most beloved detective writers of the twentieth century partly stems from the authenticity readers see in his works. As an operative for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency from 1915 to 1922, Hammett gained first-hand insight into the handling of a case, the mindset of a detective, and the seedy underground world of American crime and corruption. Through the readings we covered in class, I became fascinated by the effect of his history on his writing, an interest clearly shared by many of Hammett’s readers. In my exhibit, “Dashiell Hammett’s Pinkerton Past,” I provide an overview of some of the connections between Hammett’s writing and his time in the investigation game — this will hopefully help readers gain new and unique perspectives on the narratives Hammett produced.

Cover. Hammett, Dashiell. The Continental Op. (New York: Lawrence E. Spivak Publishers, 1945) From the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University. Photo by Laura Ewen
Cover. Hammett, Dashiell. The Continental Op. (New York: Lawrence E. Spivak Publishers, 1945). From the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University. Photo by Laura Ewen.

Readers and scholars have identified various characters and plot points that Hammett drew directly from his own experience as a private eye. These specific details from Hammett’s personal past helped me develop an interest in the ways in which his career shaped his art. For example, his most frequently recurring character, the Continental Op, was actually based on a fellow detective. This stout, no-nonsense private investigator was supposedly modeled on James Wright, the assistant manager of Pinkerton’s Baltimore branch. His image laid the groundwork for Hammett’s understanding of the true detective, since he was the operative who trained the young Hammett in surveillance.

Cover. Hammett, Dashiell. The Maltese Falcon. (San Francisco: Arion Press, 1983) From the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University. Photo by Laura Ewen
Cover. Hammett, Dashiell. The Maltese Falcon. (San Francisco: Arion Press, 1983). From the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University. Photo by Laura Ewen.

Aside from his resemblance to Hammett’s trainer, the Continental Op demonstrates another significant feature of Hammett’s early days of detective work. The Continental Agency featured in each of his stories is named for the Continental Trust Building in which Baltimore’s Pinkerton branch was headquartered. Aspects of this building are featured in Hammett’s other works as well – it is a common theory that the valuable statue in his novel The Maltese Falcon was modeled on the black bird ornaments Hammett walked under everyday as he entered the Continental Trust Building. The impressive cover of this special edition provides an image of the falcon, now a well-known icon of both detective fiction and film noir.

These elements and the many other stories and characters he incorporated into his narratives lend Hammett’s writing an integral sense of realism. Not only do his books provide readers with entertainment and adventure, they grant a glimpse behind the scenes into the enthralling world of crime and investigation. Perhaps it is this insider’s allure which has helped maintain the popularity of Hammett’s detective fiction for so many decades.


Review of Nabokov Under Glass

In 1999, the New York Public Library celebrated the centenary of Vladimir Nabokov’s birth with an exhibition of materials from the prolific author’s archive. Sixteen years later, much of the information and many images of the materials featured in the physical exhibit can still be accessed through the library’s digital exhibition, Nabokov Under Glass. This fascinating exhibition chronicles Nabokov’s writing, correspondence, and Lepidoptera to provide his curious readers with a deeper look into his incredible life, impressive career, and ingenious mind.

The convenient layout of the homepage makes the exhibit easily navigable. A list of links on the left hand side of the page offers an introduction as well as general information about the collection and the library itself. However, the main focus of the homepage is the “Exhibition Timeline” which allows visitors to enter four different sections of the collection. In an unusual but particularly helpful feature, the timeline is divided geographically, so the first impression each visitor receives is of Nabokov’s international associations.  By designating the four temporal segments of his life in accordance to his geographical location, the exhibit emphasizes the major impact of his national ties and émigré status on his artistic works.

Nabokov 1
Vladimir Nabokov, List of clothing for trip to Cape Cod (Summer 1944). Holograph manuscript on the verso of a letter from Katharine White, dated July 3, 1944. Berg Collection

Upon clicking on any of the four timeline segments, visitors are taken to a new page featuring a number of subsections arranged in chronological order. The first title in “Russia 1899-1919” is “Early Life and Poems,” while the last title, found in Switzerland 1966-1977” is “Look at the Harlequins! New York, 1974.” Most of the sections feature one picture underneath the grouping title showing a related item featured in the archive collection. All photographs are accompanied by explanatory descriptions and citations, such as this packing list for a summer trip, which provides a fun look into Nabokov’s daily life. Clicking on any picture allows visitors to take a closer look at the interesting materials from Nabokov’s archives.

Visitors are also able to read more information about each section of the exhibition by clicking on the grouping titles featured in each timeline segment. For example, the ninth section, listed in “Europe 1919-1939” is called “Otchaianie. Berlin, 1936 (Despair, 1966).” By selecting this title, visitors are taken to a subpage with a few paragraphs describing the writing and publishing process behind Nabokov’s third novel, Despair. Below this follows a list of physical materials related to the book which could be found in the 1999 exhibition, and underneath visitors can immediately access any of the other timeline segments through convenient links. The detailed discussions in each section of the exhibition provide visitors with a wealth of information to contextualize and enlighten understandings of Nabokov’s written works.

Nabokov 2
W. J. Holland, The Butterfly Book (Garden City, New York: Doubleday Doran, 1933). Nabokov’s copy, with his extensive holograph annotations throughout, signed on the title page, Dmitri Nabokov, etc. Berg Collection

Especially interesting is the section entitled “Lepidopterological Papers, 1941-53,” which gives readers an impression of Nabokov’s lesser known career as a lepidopterist. The fascinating discussion of his impressive discoveries grants his readers a deeper look into his intelligent and creative mind, beyond his artistic production. Sections such as these highlight the biographical nature of the exhibition – it is not simply a catalog of works by a particular writer but an investigation of the man behind the books. Overall, this digital exhibition provides visitors with a thorough and extensive overview of Vladimir Nabokov’s life and works that can add significantly to any reader’s appreciation of his writing.

A Life in Writing: The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas

Although the title of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas suggests the story focuses on Alice herself, the book is actually centered on the events of Gertrude Stein’s life, as perceived through Alice’s imagined perspective. The free-flowing narrative rarely fixes on major events – rather, it wanders from story to story, exploring the range of Stein’s relationships with the many people whose lives she touched. However, there is an important frame to this seemingly fluid history; Stein is always sure to mention when a new writing project begins.

By beginning her exploration of the early Paris years with the statement “Gertrude Stein was just seeing through the press Three Lives,” and by ending the entire narrative with her proclamation that she will write Alice’s biography, “and she has and this is it,” Stein situates all of her life experiences in terms of their relation to her writing (6/252). Reading through the various anecdotes and character sketches, we are able to witness the progression of her writing career, from her first written work for a school competition to the political plays she was inspired to write from her experiences during the war. By placing these works within the narrative, Stein gives us new contexts in which to read her stories, plays, and portraits, providing us with important insights into the ways in which her writings were influenced and shaped by her life experience.


  • Three Lives published, around the time Alice moves to Paris (1907) pg. 6
Three Lives
Cover of Three Lives [1945]Crossett Library. Photo by Alvin Lustig via Flickr / (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
  • Began The Making of Americans, “her great work” (1906) pg. 57
  • First writing for a school competition (age 8) pg. 75
  • Began portrait writing (1908) pg. 113
  • Began to write plays (1914) pg. 132
What Happened a Play
Gertrude Stein, “What Happened: A Play,” [1913]. Page from manuscript notebook from the Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
  • Tender Buttons published, which “had an enormous influence on all young writers” (1914) pg. 156
Tender Buttons
Gertrude Stein, Tender Buttons, [1910-12]. Page from manuscript notebook from the Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas papers, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
  • Writing poems inspired by her experience during the war;
    “The Deserter” was inspired by the landscape of the Rhône (The War) pg. 185
Rhône Valley. Photo by Rob Alter via Flickr / CC BY 2.0
  • Political plays, inspired by the political upheaval of the war (The War) pg. 189
  • Elucidation, “her first effort to state her problems of expression and her attempts to answer them” (1919) pg. 209
  • “Composition as Explanation,” first college lecture at Cambridge University (1926) pg. 233
Comp as Expl
Gertrude Stein, “Composition as Explanation” Title Page. (London: Hogarth Press, 1926). From the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by Laura Ewen.
  • The Making of Americans published in French (1932) pg. 250
  • The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1932) pg. 252
Gertrude Stein, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, [1932]. Page from manuscript notebook from the Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas papers, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

The Mystery of Dashiell Hammett

After reading only a few works by Dashiell Hammett, it’s not hard to recognize the reasons for his popularity. His cool and collected detectives, ever calm in the face of danger, put a new spin on the concept of the traditional hero, while his casual yet carefully constructed language conveys masterful intelligence without pomposity. But beyond these modern innovations, Hammett still accomplishes the classic aim of storytelling; just as in any good story, he gives his readers a glimpse into a different world, one filled with excitement and mystery.

“Pulp fiction” covers, the lurid illustrations on mass market paperbacks, were primarily meant to draw readers into these worlds. With their insinuations of sex, crime, and violence, they gave readers a taste of the excitement to be found in each story. Many of Hammett’s novels and stories were published in this format, but later editions of his most popular works, like The Continental Op pictured below, completely abandoned this cover strategy.

The Continental Op, published by Lawrence E. Spivack, 1945
The Continental Op, (New York: Lawrence E. Spivack, 1945) From the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University. Photo by Laura Ewen

Why would Hammett’s publishers shift away from this typical structure? It seems this drastically different approach serves as a testament to Hammett’s mastery of his form and popularity with his readers. The most prominent aspect of this cover, featured exactly in the middle, is Hammett’s name in bold, drawing attention to his stamp as the most important feature of the book. This suggests that by the time of this edition’s publication, his reputation has already been firmly established. The blurb on the cover reaffirms this, as it emphasizes that Hammett “is our most important modern originiator.” The choice of this quote to advertise the book is unique in that it focuses wholly on the author and his skill rather than the content of the particular novel.

This approach serves another purpose, as it draws attention to the appeal of the book’s mystery. The artful use of suspense is integral to Hammett’s detective stories, as each twist and turn keeps the reader in the dark until the very end. Therefore, since Hammett’s quality as a writer has already been established, there is no need to reveal any content of the book – rather, the reader can approach it with the excitement of the unknown. Both the headline “Bestseller Mystery” and the gun paired with a mask, suggestive of hidden identities, emphasize the complete novelty of the experience of reading this book, in which previous knowledge of the plot would actually detract from the exhilaration of entering its dark and seedy world. Only the badge in the cover’s corner signifies that this book will share a story of detective intrigue and prepares the reader to reconnect with a character they may already know.

In this way, I think that this kind of cover allows Hammett’s stories to be read the way they were meant to be. I feel even more inclined to pick up this copy of The Continental Op than I would one with an illustrated cover – my previous experience reading Hammett has already given me a feeling of what this book has to offer, a story whose delights are best appreciated when completely unexpected.

Mencken’s Reflections on the Progress of Man

H.L. Mencken’s extensive career as a journalist, essayist, critic and even poet resulted in, to his estimation, the incredible amount of “well beyond 5,000,000 words” (vii). However, in A Mencken Chrestomathy, he impressively condenses this number to reflect only his “choice passages” (v). With so many options to choose from, it seems like an impossible task to select only enough essays to fill a single volume, yet the Chrestomathy is not only a reasonable size, but a cohesive unit, flowing from one subject to the next – a kind of large scale reflection of the miniature structure of each individual piece.

The reason for this is the careful arrangement of the writings into particular categories, and more importantly, the arrangement of the categories themselves. Beginning with “Homo Sapiens” and progressing from “Morals” to “Economics” then to “Literature” and finally “Buffooneries,” Mencken certainly organized these assortments with a particular purpose. Each heading marks a step forward in the progression of the human experience: the primitive man develops various natures in “Types of Men”; “Religion” and “Morals” lead to the creation of “Government”; the educational pursuits of “Pedagogy” and “Science” eventually progress to the fine arts of “Literature” and “Music.”

Mencken was co-editor of The Smart Set for many years, a literary magazine whose title exemplifies Mencken’s own feeling that it is artistic rather than rational minds that make up the “smartest” of men. The Smart Set, December, 1921.
Mencken was co-editor of The Smart Set for many years, a literary magazine whose title exemplifies Mencken’s own feeling that it is artistic rather than rational minds that make up the “smartest” of men. Cover of The Smart Set, December, 1921. From the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by Laura Ewen.

These categories trace a path through the development of mankind as a whole, exploring each important step along the way. By moving from the creation of social structures to the enhancement of knowledge and culminating in the appreciation of beauty and creativity, Mencken demonstrates his own values as an artistic intellectual. As is evident from his juxtaposition of mockeries of chiropractics and legislature with celebrations of Shakespeare and Brahms, he holds artistic expression as the ultimate achievement and the most valid intellectual pursuit. In fact, he seems completely opposed to the idea of concrete knowledge; in “The Critical Process” he claims, “Pedagogues believe in immutable truths and spend their lives trying to determine them and propagate them; the intellectual progress of man consists largely of a concerted effort to block and destroy their enterprise” (434). Although not many of Mencken’s statements can be taken at face value, it is clear from this rather serious essay that it is the stimulation of creative ideas rather than the deduction of pure facts that he views as the highest form of man’s intellectualism.

Although their placement may be primarily due to their unique structure, the fact that the “Buffooneries” and “Sententiae” come at the very end of the Chrestomathy seems to reflect an important ideal. Many of the previous categories are focused on serious subjects, “Crime & Punishment” and “Psychology” among them, yet these final chapters devolve into pure humor, minor sketches designed purely to make the reader laugh. It seems Mencken felt the need to include this final reminder that through all the seriousness of the progression of man, it is important to keep a sense of humor and appreciate the simple joys that make life, and Mencken’s own writing, so enjoyable to experience.