Saturday, May 30, 2015

The Dashiell Hammett Collection at the University of South Carolina

Dashiell Hammett
The University of South Carolina immortalized that saucy hard-boiled detective Sam Spade. His sandpaper personality made all the ladies quiver, and sent the bad guys scurrying for their hideouts. Humphrey Bogart got his start by playing the rough and tough Sam Spade in the Maltese Falcon.

Spade’s author, Dashiell Hammett created and perfected the noir genre. Hammett started out working as a detective for the Pinkerton Agency that helped with his writing. Most of his stories were first published as serials in magazines. He spawned many other authors in the genre including Elmore Leonard.

In addition to the Maltese Falcon, Hammett also wrote the Thin Man. His main characters in the Thin Man included a hard drinking couple Nick and Nora Charles from New York. He loosely based the characters on his relationship with his long time girlfriend, Lillian Hellman. Both stories became Hollywood classics.

Hammett’s literary contemporaries included Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Like these gentlemen, Hammett also enjoyed imbibing alcohol and smoking cigarettes. He suffered from lung complications most of his adult life, and died from lung cancer in 1961 at the age of 67.

The War Years

Hammett Grave Site Arlington National Cemetery
Hammett declared himself to be both a patriot and a Communist, two items not often seen linked together. He served in both the great World Wars. He enlisted in the ambulance core in World War I where he caught the Spanish flu and tuberculosis.

Due to his TB doctors recommended he separate from his wife, Jose Dolan Hammett and his two daughters. He used the proceeds of his books and films to support his two children. He later entered a relationship with Lillian Hellman, and remained with her the rest of his life. Like many artists of this era, Hammett joined the Communist party.

When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, he enlisted in the Army. Because of his TB and Communist affiliation, he needed special permission. He was assigned to the Aleutian Islands where he edited the Army newspaper. The Army provided close supervision to ensure no subversive Communist propaganda found its way into print. The cold Alaskan climate irritated his lungs, and he contracted emphysema.


In the late 1940s his activities against the Un-American Activities Committee and his support for the Hollywood 10 earned him the recognition of Congress. He was invited to testify, but choose to plead the 5th amendment. For this, he served time in a West Virginia Federal Prison cleaning toilets.

His time in prison further exacerbated his lung condition. He spent the last few years of his life in obscurity, and wrote no more. Hellman remained at his side the whole time. They were together 30 years. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery because of his military service.

The Collection

The University of South Carolina procured two collections for an undisclosed amount of money. The first collection was obtained from Hammett’s daughter and grandchildren. It includes family letters. The other collection came from Richard Hayman who has spent 40 years collecting materials, researching and recording Hammett’s biography.

The combined collection contains letters, books, family photographs, screenplays and memorabilia including his Pinkerton badge. The collection should be available for viewing in about a year. The University of South Carolina also houses other fiction detective collections including Elmore Leonard and James Ellroy.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Memorial Day 2015

As we spend the weekend celebrating, it is important to understand the importance of Monday’s holiday. Around 160 years ago, the United States was trying to recover from the Civil War. The nation had torn itself apart, and destroyed many cities, and killed irreplaceable numbers of our young men. We should never forget the devastation this war brought on our country lest we repeat it.

Shortly after the Civil War, Union Officers William F. Fox and Thomas Leonard Livermore estimated the combined death toll as 618,222 men. In 2010 the number of dead was raised to about 750,000 based on research compiled from census data by J. David Hacker.

The movement to remember the fallen began on a local level with cities and municipalities marking the graves of the dead soldiers with wreaths, and they called it Decoration Day. Overtime the name slowly changed to Memorial Day, and after World War II people started honoring all war dead.

President Johnson officially signed a proclamation in 1966 declaring the first celebration as occurring on May 5, 1866 in Waterloo, New York. However, this date and location are highly controversial. He also officially named it Memorial Day, and designated it as the date to honor all members of the United States armed services who died serving their country.

The estimate for the total number of deaths for U.S. military service members killed in war stands at 1,321,612. The American Civil War accounts for more than half the deaths of our military soldiers killed in war.

Memorial Day holiday celebrations occur on the last Monday in May. Flags are flown at half-mast, and markers are placed on the graves of fallen soldiers. Some towns still hold parades to honor the fallen. It is also considered the first weekend of summer, and many families participate in outdoor activities.

However you choose to enjoy the weekend, please take a moment to remember those that have given their lives for our freedom.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Tribute to B.B. King

Picture by Tom Beetz, CC-BY
From Mississippi to Las Vegas and all points in between, born B. B. King played and sang the blues on his Gibson guitar named Lucille. Last night blues legend B.B. King died in Las Vegas at the age of 89.

Born Riley B. King on a cotton plantation in Itta Bena Mississippi, he purchased his first guitar at the age of twelve. He played in the church choir, and by twenty-three he was playing on the radio in Memphis. He used the stage name of Blues Boy, which became truncated to B.B. 

I’ve seen B.B. King in concert several times. The last time was at the University of South Florida Sundome on December 30, 2004. B.B. King not only played the guitar, he entertained. Every song had a lead in story, a history, and a meaning. Like his music, his stories contained a bit of sadness, and a touch of irony. Sometimes you didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. After all, he was a master of the blues.

With his passing another great musician joins that fantastic band in heaven. Imagine the jam sessions they must play, that would truly be heaven to listen in. Most of his songs were written based on life experiences that evoke emotions. His concerts were a treat, and he will be missed.


Saturday, May 2, 2015

Three Reasons to Shop at an Independent Bookstore

Inkwood Books, Tampa, FL Picture by The Quiet Image
Growing up our little town in Northeast Pennsylvania we didn’t have a bookstore. The closest store was forty-five minutes away, a Walden Bookstore at the mall. There was no Amazon. As a kid, I depended on the school library for my reading needs. Around the age of fourteen, an independent bookstore opened in the next town. Once I discovered it, I begged for rides on the weekends. I fell in love with the store.

Today I still enjoy shopping at independent bookstores mostly because I enjoy the individual attention. A couple of weeks ago I bought a book at Inkwood Books in Tampa. The owner worked the cash register. She provided great service, and advice.

I wanted to purchase a signed copy of John Green’s, Looking for Alaska. The owner looked at the book then looked at me. “Is this a gift?” she asked. I shook my head no. She smiled. “You don’t fit our typical buyer. Usually, young teenage girls buy this book. Perhaps you would like something else.”

Picture by The Quiet Image
I appreciated the fact that she knew her merchandise and clientele, and she was willing to help me not waste twenty dollars. I assured her, I was willing to take a chance. I did enjoy the book.

Independent bookstores also build community. Inkwood Books has several book discussion groups for different ages and interests. I declined to attend the teenage girl’s reading group that meets on Thursdays after school.

Other local community building activities include local author autograph sessions and lectures. Customers get a chance to meet other people from the area that share similar interests. I’ve found that people attending independent bookstore events tend to be more interactive with each other than at the megabookstore author talks.

Lastly, buying books or services at a local independent bookstore supports the local economy. A 2003 study by the American Business Alliance in Austin, Texas found 13% of money spent at big chain stores stays in the local economy, while about 45% of money spent at a locally owned company goes back into the local economy.

Independent bookstores are a good place to shop, and a great place to have in the community. The owners know their merchandise and their market needs. Indie bookstores generate social interaction and build local community spirit, and they support the local economy.