Hammett: Have Pen, Will Edit

Terry Zobeck returns for another Guest Blog spot, to kick off the month of June. He plans on more posts on pure texts to follow his detailed surveys of “This King Business” and “Death and Company.”  This time he looks into a little known facet of Hammett’s life as a pulp writer in San Francisco: 

By the end of 1922, Hammett was through as a detective. His health had deteriorated so much he could no longer do such strenuous work. To supplement his disability income, he began writing fiction. By the beginning of 1924, Hammett had published 18 stories in a variety of magazines, including The Smart Set, Brief Stories, 10 Story Book, The New Pearsons, Saucy Stories, Action Stories, and Black Mask. While this magazine work served Hammett well during his period of apprenticeship as a writer, it did not pay well. He needed to further supplement his income with work that was not physically demanding.

It is only within the past five years that we’ve learned about one of Hammett’s attempts to earn a few more dollars — he offered his services as a professional editor to other aspiring writers. Starting in January 1924, Hammett placed a monthly classified ad in Writers Digest — the magazine for authors that had begun publication four years earlier. 

Three variations of the ad ran through July of that year — these are pictured above and below.

A few years ago, a seller on eBay offered the July 1924 issue of Writers Digest, noting it had a classified ad by Hammett offering his editorial services to writers of prose fiction. This was news to me. It sent me scrambling to the book shelf for the June 1924 issue, which contains Hammett’s article “In Defense of the Sex Story”, a response to H. Bedford-Jones’ “Sex Deftly Handled” from the October 1923 Writers Digest that was critical of the gratuitous use of sex in fiction. Sure enough, there on page 37, was another classified ad from Hammett. A few weeks later I searched microfilm copies of Writers Digest at the Library of Congress and discovered the third variation, and that the ads ran for seven months.

These ads had escaped the attention of Hammett scholars, bibliographers, and collectors all these years. Admittedly, they are the most minor of Hammett, yet they provide a further glimpse into his life at this time. He obviously believed himself to be sufficiently skilled at writing fiction — after only a little more than a year at practicing it — that he could charge other writers for his editorial services. He was after all a fiction writer who had “found a consistent market” for his “marketable fiction”, and he didn’t believe his “experience too slight.”

And, even this early in his career, he knew breaking the rules could make for more effective writing.

Given that the ads only ran for seven months, it is unlikely they were successful in attracting clients. In addition, as Don notes in the Dashiell Hammett Tour, writing about the first ad, it is hard to imagine Hammett working on his own stories while editing the work of others.

But it is an intriguing thought that there may be some long forgotten short story or even a novel or two waiting to be discovered that benefitted from Hammett’s blue pencil.

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