Read an Excerpt
GUMSHOE AMERICA Hard-Boiled Crime Fiction and the Rise and Fall of New Deal Liberalism
By Sean McCann
Duke University Press Copyright © 2000 Duke University Press
All right reserved.
Chapter One CONSTRUCTING RACE WILLIAMS
The Klan and the Making of Hard-Boiled
In an emergency Americans will enforce their own law-not merely their statutes but also fundamental laws that they believe essential for their own or the national good-and ... they will use lampposts if it should become necessary.-Stanley Frost, The Challenge of the Klan
The flash of my gun showed me nothing. It never does, though it's easy to think you've seen things.-Dashiell Hammett, Red Harvest
From its first appearances in the pulp magazines of the 1920s, hardboiled crime fiction emphasized its populist credentials. These were stories, the genre's writers and fans claimed, with a privileged purchase on "real life" and a fundamental antipathy to genteel fantasy. Against the "bunk" of oversophistication, they promised to deliver the stark truths of contemporary society-"ugly, vicious, sordid, and cruel." And, at their most grandiose, they linked this antiliterary sensibility to a complaint against social corruption. Revealing unpleasant reality was not just pulp sensationalism, the fiction's writers and editors implied; it was part of a moral struggle againstdishonesty. The fiction thus railed against social decline-indicting "graft," denouncing "parasites," and complaining against "unjust ... wealth" and "tainted power." As one influential editor implied when he claimed that his fiction offered a "public service" to its readers, the champions of the genre were rarely content to see it as a form of entertainment alone. Hard-boiled crime fiction, they suggested, offered a popular critique of a decadent society.
In short, as many commentators have since noted, the hard-boiled detective story created a pulp version of the populist jeremiad. What has been less apparent about this antielitist fiction, though, is the way it developed in close proximity to a nonfictional variety of nativist populism. During the early twenties, as the hard-boiled genre emerged in Black Mask magazine, the recently revived Ku Klux Klan rose to prominence in American society by championing a social fantasy that closely resembled the mythology implicit in hardboiled crime fiction. Like the heroes of Black Mask's "new type of detective story," Klan ideologues during the twenties railed against class parasites and social decadence. Like the jaundiced private detective, they, too, spotted the signs of corruption in urban vice and moral decline. And, like the hard-boiled heroes, Klansmen imagined that the only effective response to social ills was a form of vigilante justice that imposed order on the confusions of an urbanizing society. The common ground was apparent in the title of an early Dashiell Hammett story, "Women, Politics, and Murder." In both Klan ideology and hard-boiled crime fiction, the American city was riven by illicit sexuality, corruption, and crime-closely linked forms of social disarray that demanded the control of vigilant men.
Such notions have, of course, a long lineage in the traditions of American populism, and their common presence in pulp fiction and the rhetoric of the Klan might seem merely coincidental were it not for a suggestive accident of publishing history. During the later months of 1923, at the same time in which hard-boiled crime fiction was gaining prominence in the magazine, Black Mask also featured an ongoing discussion about the Ku Klux Klan and its place in the moral regeneration of American society. Indeed, the first successful hard-boiled private detective, Carroll John Daly's tellingly named Race Williams, made his debut in a special issue of Black Mask dedicated to a fictional debate over the Klan-a dispute that Williams entered as an enemy of the Invisible Empire. And for the next six months, as Daly's and Dashiell Hammett's stories gained popularity in the magazine, Black Mask continued to run a "Klan Forum" in which its readers debated the KKK and its relation to "Americanism." This unusual event created a small sensation in the magazine, and it coincided with important changes in Black Mask's tone and direction. But its most important effect came in the way that it placed the magazine's "new type of detective fiction" in direct contact with Klan ideology at the moment when nativist politics were approaching their high-water mark in American history.
In the person of Race Williams, hard-boiled crime fiction began life directly opposed to the Klan's nativist populism, and, as we will see more fully, the fiction did its utmost to undermine the racial ideology and moral authoritarianism vital to Klan thinking. As the name of Daly's protagonist implies, however, the contest was a deeply ambivalent one at best. In Carroll John Daly's fiction, Race Williams and the Ku Klux Klan battled for the right to possess and define the spirit of "race," struggling over the characteristics of American inheritance and its meaning for national politics and culture. The Klan and hardboiled crime fiction developed different answers to the questions implicit in this contest, and as the Klan's vision disappeared from both national politics and the pages of Black Mask during the later twenties, hard-boiled populism rose to supplant it in the magazine-so that the genre invented by Daly and Hammett gained a reputation, first as the Black Mask and later as the peculiarly American version of the detective story. What Black Mask's Klan Forum reveals, however, is that hard-boiled fiction and nativist fantasy competed on the same ground during the twenties. Each sought to fashion a convincing populist account of contemporary life, and each supported that vision with a particular idea of race and its uses. The results of that competition would be apparent in hard-boiled crime fiction's characteristic ambiguities long after the Klan faded from view. In order to recognize those effects, though, it will be helpful to trace the thinking against which the genre contended and the context in which it first appeared.
A SIDE JOURNEY INTO THE INVISIBLE EMPIRE
Black Mask's unusual Klan debate began with few expectations apart from a desire to cash in on the recent and surprising popularity of KKK membership. During the early twenties, the Klan had risen from obscurity to become a nationally prominent mass movement of disaffected white Protestant men, and Black Mask's editors sought little more than to get in on the sensation. Describing the KKK as "the most picturesque element that has appeared in American life since the war," they presented their readers with a special issue dedicated to the group in June 1923. This "side journey into the Invisible Empire" was an unexpected success, prompting strong reader reaction and a wave of enthusiastic letters. For the remainder of the year, therefore, the magazine attempted to exploit its good fortune by running a "Klan Forum" in which reader letters and occasional essays debated the KKK and its relation to American citizenship. It was, the magazine claimed, the "only open, free, absolutely unbiased discussion for and against the Invisible Empire published anywhere in America."
That description was much exaggerated, but Black Mask did publish a series of letters from ordinary Klansmen and their opponents, and those often unlettered accounts of the appeal or repugnance of Klan politics were rare in the early twenties. The source of the magazine's surprising success with its Klan debate, moreover, seems to have been precisely its shallow pretense to neutrality. As pulp magazines were always apt to be, Black Mask was proudly deferential to its readers in the early twenties. But the magazine was also deeply uncertain of its market. "Enthusiastic readers bring joy to our soul. We publish this magazine entirely for them," the editors claimed in the midst of their Klan sensation, "but the trouble is that not all people are enthusiastic over the same kind of stories." To appeal to as many readers as possible, then, the magazine needed to pretend to a modicum of indecision about the Klan, and in that effort hit upon a marketing device that was well-suited to generating sensationalism. Casting their Klan number as a "literary experiment," the editors explained in their introduction to the special issue that the Klan had been drawn on not as a problem of political argument or critical investigation but as "a background for fiction stories" in which the magazine's writers expressed their personal "reactions" to the organization. These stories offered varying images of the Klan, allowing Black Mask's editors to claim that the magazine offered a "neutral" field for discussion. At the same time, by emphasizing narrative and emotion over analysis and argument, and by explicitly disowning any claim to authoritative commentary, Black Mask appealed to Klansmen who felt that their beliefs were "shunned, ... jeered [at], and ... misrepresented" by the mainstream press. For a brief period, the magazine thus unwittingly came to provide a home for readers who claimed to represent the neglected spirit of true Americanism.
The passion with which these Klan sympathizers and their enemies responded to the KKK in Black Mask mirrored the moral fervor that the organization attracted throughout much of American culture during the first half of the twenties. To many observers at the time, the Invisible Empire appeared to have sprung up from nowhere, confronting its allies and its opponents with the image of a "vigorous" popular movement of "incalculable" strength. In fact, this modern incarnation of the Klan had been in existence since 1915, when-inspired by Thomas Dixon's novels and fraternal organizations like the Masons-William Simmons took the name of the Reconstruction era vigilante force for an order of his own invention. It was only after 1919, though, that the modern Klan began to expand beyond its Georgia origins. Drawing on grassroots organizing tactics conceived by public relations executives Edward Young Clark and Elizabeth Tyler, the Klan spread rapidly throughout the South, West, and Midwest during the post-World War I economic downturn and continued to expand as the national economy began to boom. By 1924, the Klan could boast of several million members in some four thousand local "Klaverns" throughout the country, and Klansmen played prominent roles in the civic and political life of hundreds of cities and towns and several states. Perhaps more importantly, as the KKK's prominent role in the Democratic Party's national convention of 1924 and its support for the drastic immigration-restriction legislation of the same year suggested, the beliefs espoused by the Invisible Empire enjoyed wide public support at the time. During the twenties, Klan politics combined two broad dispensations: a populist critique of social corruption; and a nativist defense of "Americanism" against various "strangers"-especially Catholics, Jews, and immigrants. Both aspects of Klan belief were commonplaces of the era's social discourse. In fact, to the extent that the organization came under attack, many of the group's critics stressed the dangers posed by a renegade vigilantist society, or they scoffed at the Klan's moralism and its elaborate regalia. Fewer took exception to the Klan's vision of social crisis or attempted to defend a nonracial conception of citizenship against the Klan's nativist vision of "100 percent Americanism."
In and of itself, Black Mask's forum added little to this national debate over the Klan. The few dozen letters and the handful of essays that the magazine printed through the later months of 1923 hardly amounted to serious political discussion, and they raised few new issues. What Black Mask's Klan Forum did reveal, though, was just how robust and ordinary Klannish views were at the time-indeed, of the way they would be defended precisely as the ordinary beliefs of ordinary citizens. Imperial Wizard Hiram Evans claimed that the Klan spoke for "the plain people," and Black Mask's patina of neutrality and its deference to its readers brought out this populist spirit strongly. Perhaps for this reason, the magazine's debate over the KKK presented a watershed for the development of hard-boiled fiction and its institutional home, both of which, as they evolved, would rely heavily on the notion of popular legitimacy. In any case, the Klan Forum appears to have influenced Black Mask in ways that its editors did not at first anticipate. When its KKK debate began, the magazine featured unconvincing images of polite society, and its miscellany of stories and columns tended to invoke the ideals of "good taste," "education and breeding." Over the second half of 1923, though, the magazine began to turn away from this pseudogentility and to emphasize thriller fiction built around masculine community and popular justice. By the following year, Black Mask had begun to define the market niche-"stories of virile, realistic action"-that would make it the most influential publication in its field. During this same period, both Daly and Hammett were just beginning to define the basic features of their fiction, and each specifically took up the Klan in the process. Though Daly did so with greater earnestness, both writers mocked Klan ideology and simultaneously stole KKK rhetoric in order to turn the group's fantasies about race and conspiracy to different purposes. In Daly's case in particular, the basic qualities of the hard-boiled protagonist-his ability to move between law and crime, his ostensible commitment to self-interest, his fluency and wit-emerged specifically as weapons to be used against the Klan and its fantasies of moral and ethnic control. By 1924, such features would lead Black Mask readers to declare the two the magazine's most successful writers.
It would be a mistake, however, to overemphasize the role played by the Klan in the development of either hard-boiled crime fiction or Black Mask magazine. After 1924, the Klan faded quickly from political and social prominence, the victim of a series of public relations disasters. Likewise, the group (and nativist varieties of fiction that it may have helped inspire) disappeared from Black Mask after the mid-twenties, and neither the magazine nor hard-boiled crime fiction ever made direct reference to the Klan again. It seems unlikely, then, that the KKK provided an essential element for the success of the genre or that the fiction could not have developed as it did without the Klan. Rather, the Invisible Empire functioned for Daly, Hammett, and Black Mask's editors much as it did in a broader way for the country at large. In historian Stanley Coben's phrase, the Klan served as "the most visible and powerful guardian of Victorianism during the 1920s," supplying both its adherents and its enemies with an exaggerated representation of beliefs that were prevalent throughout American culture at the time. For Daly and Hammett especially, the Klan and its analogs came to represent an absurd antimodernism and served by contrast to highlight the distinctive features of their own aesthetic. The Klansmen in their stories were fantasists, dedicated to wild racial theories and outmoded dreams of social order. They defined everything that the hard-boiled protagonist would refuse to be.
In particular, the generic protagonist fashioned by Daly and Hammett defined himself in opposition to the emotional core of Klan rhetoric-the ideal of community. The heroes of the hard-boiled genre are notoriously far from communally minded, and they are rarely-to use a phrase crucial to Klan rhetoric of the twenties-good citizens. Seen in the context of Black Mask's KKK debate, though, that often resentful independence can be understood, at least in part, as a tactic aimed against the affective force of nativist ideology. Klansmen were communally minded, intensely so, and they thought of themselves as exemplifying the traits of good citizenship. In the estimate of most recent historians of the group, moreover, those qualities reflected the central impulses of Klan politics. The KKK succeeded as a popular movement during the 1920s because it offered a cogent interpretation of the changes that were transforming twentieth-century American society and because it promised a compelling set of political responses to those changes. Vital to both features of Klan ideology was a charged image of "community." When Klansmen described the deleterious effects of modernity, for instance, they pointed to the decline of local control and intimate society. Ordinary men, they argued, exercised ever less influence over the moral qualities of their families and their worlds. More seriously, Klan leaders complained, the same difficulties dogged American society at a national level. The rise of political bureaucracy, of economic and managerial concentration, of "oligarchy" generally meant that the bonds of the republic were beginning to wither; a country built upon the fellowship of independent men was devolving toward a society of decadent elites, servile workers, and unhealthy parasites.
Excerpted from GUMSHOE AMERICA by Sean McCann Copyright © 2000 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.