Hammett: More Reviews from a “Careful Reading, Deep Thinking Advertising Man”

Terry Zobeck has raided the Library of Congress again, and found that they now have color copiers — but that copies of Western Advertising are a bit larger than their scanner bed, and that his scanner program just doesn’t do the original colors justice. But the image at top for December 1925 and at bottom for February 1926 will give you something to look at, anyway.

Thing is, Terry had thought he’d wrapped up tight coverage of Hammett’s side career as a book reviewer. But the guy keeps his nose to the ground, ever sniffing out rumors — and the rumor of a rumor — about any unknown Hammett materials.

He readily admits finding a “lost” review column by Hammett isn’t as sexy as locating a forgotten Hammett short story, which also happened this year — but he thinks some of you might enjoy the news:


Two years ago, I reviewed Nathan Ward’s excellent Hammett biography The Lost Detective. At that time I noted Ward’s claim in a throw-away line — “by the end of December 1925 Hammett became a regular reviewer for Western Advertising magazine” — that this is “bibliographic news”:

Hammett is known to have published five pieces in Western Advertising between October 1926 and March 1928; only one of these was a book review — an omnibus review of the advertising literature of 1927. If indeed Ward has discovered that Hammett began reviewing books for the magazine as early as December 1925 he needs to tell us the details.

I meant to ask Nathan about this subject when we met at last year’s Bouchercon in New Orleans, but it slipped my mind.

Recently I was reminded of it when I received an email via Don from Marc LaViolette, a Canadian reader of Mean Streets, asking if I had copies of Hammett’s articles from Western Advertising that I could share. I sent him scans of the four articles and the book review.

In reply he asked if I had “How Samuels Campaign Developed” from the October 1927 issue. Such an article was news to me; it is not in Richard Layman’s Dashiell Hammett: A Descriptive Bibliography, my go-to Hammett bibliographic bible. I asked Marc his source for this information.

He replied that the sixth piece was mentioned in the “publications” section of Layman’s Discovering the Maltese Falcon (2005). I have a copy of this book, but had never paid attention to the list of Hammett’s publications it contains, having no reason to think there was anything new. But sure enough, it’s there.

Discovering the Maltese Falcon is an updated trade version of Layman’s Dashiell Hammett: The Maltese Falcon (2003), a hardcover edition aimed at an academic reference audience. The article is not mentioned in the list of Hammett’s publications in that volume, so apparently Rick discovered its existence sometime between publication of the two books.

Another visit to the Library of Congress was obviously required. This past weekend I made that trip. In addition to searching for the Samuels article I also wanted to investigate Nathan’s claim of Hammett’s book reviewer gig for the magazine.

After renewing my Library ID, I hit the main reading room in the Jefferson Building, which has to be one of the most beautiful library rooms in the world. I ordered up the volumes of Western Advertising for 1925-1928 and within the hour a librarian brought them to my desk. It didn’t take long for me to confirm Nathan’s information.

Hammett indeed appears to have been hired to write a monthly book review column. It ran from December 1925 through August 1926 for a total of nine columns. I say “appears” since the columns are signed only as “SH.” Perhaps Hammett was saving “Dashiell” for his fiction.

In “The Publisher’s Own Page” in that December issue, they announced:

Arrangements have been made with a careful reading, deep thinking advertising man to write the reviews for Western Advertising on the new books of advertising, selling, merchandising and allied subjects. The purpose of these reviews, much longer than we have formerly used, is to give a clear idea of the character and scope of the book, so that the reader may judge whether he wants the book or not, without the necessity of getting it first for his own examination. We believe from the several reviews already written, some of which appear in this issue, that we have added a valuable feature to the magazine.

Sometimes the table of contents attribute the column to SH, other times not, but after the first column all of the remaining ones are headed “Books Reviewed by SH”.

The clincher for Hammett attribution comes with the third column (February 1926) when Hammett reviews The Language of Advertising by John B. Opdycke. He thinks highly of the book and states: “It compels the reader to admit that advertising is literature and to be effective it must constantly endeavor to be good, interesting, remembered, influential literature.”

Later that year, he would expand upon this concept in the article “The Advertisement IS Literature” in the October issue.

Over the course of the 9 issues Hammett reviewed 28 books on such topics as the psychology of advertising, the history of the field, trademarks, direct marketing, salesmanship, publicity, biography of leading admen, copy, newspaper advertising, typography, competitiveness, and business problems. Of the three regular, extended reviewing jobs Hammett undertook he produced his longest reviews for Western Advertising.

At first blush, given the subject material of the books reviewed, it appeared that, while of significant bibliographic interest, the discovery of these reviews was of minor importance to the overall Hammett oeuvre. But after reading them I think they provide interesting additional insight into his personality, reading habits, and world view.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this reviewing stint is its timing. I’ve always presumed he applied himself to learning the advertising trade and then writing about it after he gave up the fiction game following Cody’s refusal to increase his payment rate, and once he went to work writing advertising copy for Albert Samuels’ jewelry store.

But that doesn’t seem to be the case. His last fiction publication for nearly a year was “The Creeping Siamese” in the March 1926 issue of Black Mask. Presumably he wrote and submitted it a few months prior to that — in a letter to Phil Cody from November 1925 he noted he was still planning on submitting his next novelette by the end of the month. So, he made his decision to stop writing fiction sometime after November 1925. Apparently, around the same time he had entered into a contract to produce book reviews of advertising literature for Western Advertising. The Publisher’s Page noted that by the December issue he had already written the first several reviews.

It’s difficult to believe that Hammett simply started reading these books and reviewing them. There are too many allusions in his reviews to the history of advertising, other books by the authors under review, and references to authors and their works not reviewed.

As the publisher noted, these reviews were by a “deep reading and clear thinking” advertising man. Surely Hammett spent some considerable time immersing himself in the world of advertising, presumably at the San Francisco Library. We know Hammett was self-educated and widely read in a variety of fields, including history, science, and politics. We can now add advertising and related fields to that list.

He must have embarked on this journey of self-education several months prior to the start of his monthly column in December 1925 and many months before he started work at Samuels Jewelry in May 1926.

Was he considering quitting the fiction game sometime in mid-1925 and switching to advertising?

He had written nearly three dozen stories for a variety of magazines; the Continental Op was well-established and Hammett was one of Black Mask’s most popular writers. Presumably, his frustration at the lack of adequate pay for his writing simmered for a long time before he acted upon it. While it did he made plans for a supplemental or even alternate career.

Another interesting aspect of these reviews is what they imply about the development of Hammett’s socio-political views. The common wisdom is that Hammett was radicalized by his experience as a strike-breaker while employed by the Pinkertons. In later life he recounted the perhaps apocryphal story that he was offered several thousand dollars to murder Frank Little, the leader of the Industrial Workers of the World strikers during the Anaconda Mining strike in Montana.

If so, it took several years for the impact of that event to sink in and the radicalization to occur.

There can’t be a more capitalist endeavor than advertising and Hammett jumped aboard wholeheartedly. His reviews champion the efforts of the country’s leading corporations and businessman to sell Americans crap they didn’t need in the most efficient and effective manner possible using the latest scientific methods.

At times his reviews are effusive and over the top in their praise of what surely are some extremely dry tomes (one book is described as “the greatest treatise ever published on advertising”). These books receive far more praise than any of the mysteries he reviewed for the Saturday Review of Literature or the New York Evening Post.

It’s possible he is taking the piss out of these books, but if so, he is doing it with a mostly straight face.

That’s not to say the reviews are without humor or that he liked all the books.  The January column begins with a review of Psychology in Advertising by the improbably named Albert T. Poffenberger, Ph.D. of Columbia University. Hammett wrote:

Way back East, up above the roarin’ Forties and the sharp-shootin’ corner of 42 Broadway, where swirl the hick-ticklers and tickled; away, far up in the spinster environment of Morningside, near a certain great cathedral, there is a university called Columbia where many a teacher has pried “dawta” outa books and returned to Keokuk, Iowa, and never seen Times Square.

It is a place of serious thoughts, cool, calm, steady, unflustered movement of purple-deep thoughts. Read the preface to this book.  We read it to our red-headed secretary (the introduction) then “us” went out for a pot of giggle tea and the wiff, later, rang up the office all evening and only the janitor answered.

But our red-headed secretary! The author of the book never pigeon-holed HER psychology at all, at all! And she is embued with the new Los Angeles spirit of “movie” youth that thinks a New York Night Club a “dumb dully,” as she calls it, “a bow-legged Charleston!”

Hammett concludes his review:

Professor Poffenberger has given the profession a masterly prepared tome — off with the hats, cheer the boy as he comes by, but don’t try to get in step with him or you’re liable to strike a funeral stride — let’s go inside the joint back of us and nip a Jerry then “at ’em” with the Charleston!

His review of Bruce Barton’s The Man Nobody Knows in the March issue provides some insight on Hammett’s perspective on the changing role of women in the Jazz Age:

Since woman shortened her skirts and discarded corsets, she has become more lithesome, more candidly a part of today’s living, more sunburnt; and there are fewer ugly legs and a nice regard for hosiery.

When she began her freedom the ravers told us that we were headed for “free love” tarnation, and nobody knew just how far it would go.

We find the new generation wiser, saner, franker. It will give the world a better posterity because of the freedom. Can we keep up?

In reviewing Paul Ivey’s Salesmanship Applied in the April issue Hammett fears that readers may get the impression “that real salesmanship is some kind of mysterious, magic hokus-pokus, which training will develop; that if you become capable enough you can make your prim, Baptist aunt start chewing tobacco — and like it ever after!”

He then confesses:

The writer of this review has never been a good salesman. He has searched through every book on the subject he could find — and never succeeded in “sparking up” until he heard B. J. Williams’ lectures over KGO, Oakland, and read his articles.

Hammett’s May column included a review of J. Eagleburger’s The Investigation of Business Problems. I can’t help but think Hammett was thinking of his earlier career as an Op when we wrote:

How many of us can define “investigation”; where or how to use an investigation; what are the qualifications of an investigator; what is the right mental attitude; how to develop a conclusion and then establish it?

How many of us know how to think impartially; how to be good enough sports to take facts and play the game with them and let the winner win?

Or of his most recent career as a fictioneer when he reviewed Ralph D. Casey and Glenn C. Quiett’s Principles of Publicity in the same issue: “At no time do the authors point out tricks or subterfuges or betrayals of trust with editors as good practice.” Was Phil Cody far from his mind when he wrote that?

In his review of Edward W. Bok’s Dollars Only in the June issue Hammett gives a glimpse of his thoughts on how a man should conduct his work: “most men who amount to something strive to give more than they receive payment from the world and age for doing.” Yeah, that was Hammett.

And in his review of a collection of lectures titled Post Graduate Course in Copy, also in the June issue, Hammett summarizes his preferred style of transcribing such lectures (not to mention his own dialogue): “just as it rolled off the tongue of the speaker — errors and poor construction — red hot and direct.”

A secondary reward of reading these reviews is the many cultural references Hammett makes and the background of some of the long-forgotten writers of the books he reviewed. Of the latter I was especially intrigued by his reference to the Duncan Sisters and their principle: “Know your groceries” (i.e., know what you are doing and do it well). The Duncan Sisters — Rosetta and Vivian Duncan — were a popular vaudeville and nightclub act famous in 1926 for their “Topsy” and “Eva” characters — based on Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Rosetta played the uncontrollable Topsy in blackface while Vivian played the angelic white Eva. Bizarrely, the sisters continued to perform these characters long after blackface was considered acceptable entertainment.

Bruce Barton, author of The Man Nobody Knows, was a successful advertising man; he was responsible for creating the Betty Crocker character and naming both General Motors and General Electric. His book was immensely popular and was reprinted through the 1950s, but oddly it was a book-length exploration of “what would Jesus do” in that he speculated that Jesus would be a he-man advertiser if he were to come back in 1926, using all of the methods of modern advertising to communicate his message.

In one review Hammett mentions Frederick Palmer, an experienced war correspondent who wrote several books about his adventures in the many wars he covered, including the Greco-Turkish War, the Philippine-American War, the Boxer Rebellion, the Boer War, the Russo-Japanese War, the Balkan War, the U.S. occupation of Veracruz, and World War I. I’m going to have look into his autobiography, With My Own Eyes (1933).

Hammett’s book review job with Western Advertising came to an abrupt end in August following the recurrence of his tuberculosis the preceding month — the famous incident when Samuels found him lying on the floor of the ad department in a pool of blood.

If not the most significant of finds, still damn interesting to Hammett fanatics like me.

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