One of the most influential writers in the crime fiction genre, authors such as Raymond Chandler, Robert B. Parker, Ross MacDonald, and James Ellroy credit him as inspiration. His characters, narrative, and authenticity in his writings left a profound impact on both print and film.
Hammett dropped out of school at 13 to help support his family. He joined the Pinkerton National Detective Agency in 1915. The time he spent here would be his inspiration for many of his infamous crime fiction and detective stories. At some point in his early years, Hammett dropped his first name, going by his middle name Dashiell or Dash.
When the United States joined the First World War, Hammett enlisted and soon contracted Spanish influenza and tuberculosis. While Hammett recuperated, he never fully recovered from these illnesses and their effects followed him for the rest of his life. Hammett was honorably discharged in 1919. Still suffering from the aftermath of his illnesses, Hammett was sent to an Army hospital in Washington State at the end of 1920. It was here that he met his wife, Josephine Dolan. Josephine was one of the nurses at the hospital. They were married in 1921. They had two children together. Mary Jane was born in 1921 and Josephine in 1926. After Josephine was born, Hammett had a relapse with his tuberculosis and it was recommended that, for the girls’ health, he no longer live with them. The marriage suffered and was ended with a Mexican divorce in 1937. Hammett had found a partner with playwright Lillian Hellman in the early 1930s. They were together for 30 years.
Hammett began writing detective stories when he was no longer able to physically work for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency in the early 1920s. His main characters were no-nonsense men that became a staple in the “hard-boiled” crime drama genre. His first novel, The Red Harvest, was serialized in 1929. The majority of his writings, both novels and short stories, were published in various magazines, including Black Mask where he was a staff writer. Some of these publications are in this collection in their serialized format. One of his most famous work, The Maltese Falcon, was made into a movie starring Humphrey Bogart in 1941.
In 1942, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Hammett re-enlisted in Army at age forty-eight despite his poor health. He had to pull strings in order to be admitted. Private Samuel D. Hammett was stationed in Aleutian Islands where he created and edited the local Army newspaper, The Adakian. In 1945 he was once again honorably discharged at the rank of Sergeant. In the collection are materials relating to his time in service in both world wars, including his dog tag and honorable discharges.
Hammett was politically active for decades, participating in several organizations including the Communist Party USA. In the age of McCarthyism, Hammett was swept up in the Red Scare and was imprisoned for refusing to name the sources of bail funds for communists. Later in 1953, he was blacklisted after testifying to a Senate Committee and his writings were branded “subversive”. In the collection are many publications relating to the various political causes that Hammett supported. From the Spanish Civil War to U.S. government guide to subversive organizations.
Following his long history of poor health, drinking, smoking and a heart attack in 1955, Dashiell Hammett died of lung cancer on January 10, 1961 in Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.
The Dashiell Hammett Family Papers, contain many types of materials relating to the personal lives of Dashiell Hammett and his family. While he was not a present father, Hammett did sporadically correspond with his family. The letters that he sent to his daughters and to Josephine are in the collection. After his death, his partner Lillian Hellman was the executrix of his estate and frequently wrote to his daughters concerning the management of the estate. These letters are also included in the collection.
Outside of family life there are materials about Hammett’s time in military service, financial documents and publications both professional and political. There are also clippings relating to the Hammett family, particularly Dashiell Hammett’s writings. A collection of books also accompanied the Hammett Family Papers. These have been catalogued and are searchable in the University of South Carolina’s library catalog.
The Hammett Family Papers are open for research and the finding aid to the collection can be accessed by following the link on the left.