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Now at University Libraries: The Dashiell Hammett Collection


A comprehensive collection of the works of Dashiell Hammett, the writer who turned the detective novel into literature and is best known for creating Sam Spade and “The Maltese Falcon,” has a new home: the University of South Carolina Libraries.

The university has acquired the Dashiell Hammett Collection, which includes the Hammett Family Archive, complete with love letters, political writings, family photographs and correspondence from editors, along with the Layman Hammett Collection, the archive of Richard Layman. Layman, Hammett’s biographer and a trustee for the Hammett Literary Property Trust, has spent 40 years researching the life and work of the man known as the ace of hardboiled detective fiction.

The university announced the acquisition on Hammett’s birthday, May 27, at an event attended by Layman and Hammett’s daughter and grandchildren. The collection features 300 first editions and multiple subsequent editions and printings of all of Hammett’s novels, including the rare British first edition of “The Maltese Falcon” in book jacket. There also are 42 issues of Hammett’s work published in “Black Mask” the popular pulp magazine where Hammett’s stories were originally published in serial form.

 “This is the most comprehensive Dashiell Hammett collection in the world,” said Tom McNally, dean of USC Libraries. Wednesday was proclaimed Dashiell Hammett Day in the City of Columbia by Mayor Steve Benjamin and Columbia City Council. Select pieces of the collection will be on display in UofSC’s Hollings Library from May 27 to July 31.

Hammett is best known for “The Thin Man” and “The Maltese Falcon,” which went into seven printings in 1930, the year it was published. A story of lies, greed and betrayal, John Huston’s 1941 movie version featured Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade, the private eye who came to symbolize a different breed of detective hero. In 1934, “The Maltese Falcon” became the first detective novel to be published in the prestigious Modern Library.

In the 1930s, Hammett was a national literary celebrity, enjoying success as a novelist and screenwriter. He lived a life as colorful as some of the characters he created. He drew on his time as a Pinkerton detective to inform his crime stories, creating authentic dialogue and scenes. He served in the military in World War I and II, yet was a member of the Communist Party USA and spent six months in federal prison for contempt of court charges. A dapper dresser, Hammett was rail thin, with a shock of white hair and a dark mustache. He lived recklessly, spending most of his money on women and liquor, yet he never divorced his wife and had a 30-year relationship with playwright Lillian Hellman, whom he met in Hollywood in 1930.

“Hammett is probably the single most important writer of crime fiction this country has produced,” said Greg Forter, English professor at the University of South Carolina. “Hammett invented almost singlehandedly a new kind of character (the hardboiled detective), a new code of masculine response to the temptations and dangers of the modern world, and a new kind of style based in reduction, omission and emotional restraint.”

While his work became known as detective fiction, Hammett wrote stories with rich characters, descriptions and scenes.

Layman, who became interested in Hammett while he was earning his doctorate at the University of South Carolina, went on to write Hammett’s definitive bibliography and the first full-length biography of the writer, “Shadow Man.” Layman has written and edited nine books about Hammett, four of them with one of Hammett’s granddaughters, Julie M. Rivett. Layman is president of Bruccoli Clark Layman and managing director of Layman Poupard Publishing in Columbia, South Carolina. The firms produce reference books and literary history for Gale Cengage, including the Dictionary of Literary Biography and the Literature Criticism Series.

“I first became aware of Dashiell Hammett's work in a graduate-level class on American literature. He was introduced to me as a major writer, taught along with Faulkner, Hemingway, Steinbeck and Fitzgerald,” Layman said. “That first impression, I think, made all the difference. I didn't have to overcome the prejudices that stigmatize crime fiction to arrive at the realization that Hammett is a major writer, not a major detective-fiction writer. “

Both Layman and the Hammett family believed their two collections needed to be kept together.

“While it would have been easy to sell off individual Hammett items or parcel them out to any number of eager institutions, there was never any question that that would happen,” Rivett said. “As a family, we strongly believed that our collected Hammett cache needed to both remain intact and be made accessible to researchers.  The individual pieces—letters, documents, photos, personal items—are fascinating and informative.  The aggregate is even better — rendering a wide-ranging portrayal of the life and times of an important American writer, activist, and celebrity.  It’s important material and that needs to be shared responsibly.”

Hammett’s work is now part of UofSC Libraries’ extensive crime fiction collection, taking its place among the archives of Elmore Leonard, James Ellroy and George Higgins that already are part of the library’s holdings.

“The acquisition places the University of South Carolina at the very forefront of places for archival study of American crime fiction—adding papers and photos relating to the most influential hardboiled crime writer to our considerable holdings of James Ellroy and George V. Higgins materials,” Forter said. “The addition of these new materials — especially the stories he published in magazines like ‘Black Mask’ in the 1920s — makes it possible to trace in rich detail his development as a writer.”

UofSC’s commitment to the collection is one of the reasons it is in Columbia.

While other universities were interested in his Hammett archive, Layman said he chose the University of South Carolina Libraries for a simple reason: “They care more here. You want to be assured that people will care for the collection, that they will use it, bring people here to use it, and add to it.”  

Rivett said the family, too, believes the collection belongs in South Carolina.

“We had good reasons for settling the archive at UofSC Libraries. First, the collections in the Irvin Department of Rare Books reflect a respect for crime fiction as literature. That’s important. I love that F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Joseph Heller sit in the same library as James Ellroy, Elmore Leonard, and, now, Dashiell Hammett. I think my grandfather would be pleased,” Rivett said. “It was his ambition to ‘make literature’ of the detective story, so it means a lot to us as a family to see him recognized alongside America’s foremost mainstream authors.  Also, we were excited to have the opportunity to pair the family archive with the Layman-Hammett collection.  Together the two parts form an inimitable resource, combining the most comprehensive assemblage of publications and professional research with the family’s most personal treasures. I can’t imagine any better pathway to understanding my grandfather and his world.”

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