Richard Wright: The Life and Times by Hazel Rowley, “Dashiell Hammett: A Daughter Remembers“ by Jo Hammett, Richard Layman, and Julie M. Rivett, and “Mark Twain: An Illustrated Biography“ by Geoffrey C. Ward, Dayton Duncan, and Ken Burns all serve up their subjects on a platter rich with scope, detail, elegant writing, and plenty of surprises. Rowley‘s book on Wright, in particular, virtually defines what a biography should be, but across the board, each celebrates the business of words and ideas, while providing valuable insights into three extraordinarily fertile minds.
Richard Wright: The Life and Times by Hazel Rowley
“How in hell did you happen?“ a Chicago sociologist once inquired of Richard Wright, the novelist who posed, through his work, some of the most profound questions ever raised in America about the volatile nature of race relations. Well, the answer is found in exquisite and painstaking detail in Rowley‘s engrossing biography, which emerges as dramatic and impressive as Wright was.
From the beginning, he was an outsider who never fit in, and through his turbulent life until his death in 1960, he was a fiercely independent man and thinker who pursued writing as a means to independence. Born in Mississippi in 1908, the grandson of former slaves, Wright spent his formative years doing menial labor and enduring prejudice, events that were to shape his writing later in acclaimed works like “Native Son,“ “The Outsider,“ scores of essays and articles, and a revealing autobiography entitled “Black Boy.“
A man of paradox and contradictions, his books earned him both popular and critical regard, as well as a comfortable income, though his leanings were Communist, something for which he was denounced from the floor of the United States Senate. He was even accused of anti-Americanism and suspected of spying for the Russians, which resulted in his books being banned in a number of U.S. cities and states. Wright married a white woman and had two children with her, though he had a number of complex relationships with other women and rumors flew about his homosexuality. Eventually unable to cope with the hypocrisy of his homeland, he became an ex-pat in France, where he is buried.
Rowley pulled from an incredible wealth of archival material, largely available because “Wright kept everything--drafts of manuscripts, letters, photographs, hotel bills, newspaper cuttings.“ It all contributes to this fine and factual account of a man driven to affect change, even at a high personal cost.
Dashiell Hammett: A Daughter Remembers“ by Jo Hammett, Richard Layman, and Julie M. Rivett
This fairly short, but very moving memoir sheds a great deal of personal light on a man who was as enigmatic as he was talented. Hammett, the author of “The Maltese Falcon“ and “The Thin Man,“ has been best documented over the years through the writings of his longtime companion, author and playwright Lillian Hellman, and in the 1976 movie, “Julia,“ where Jason Robards won a Best Supporting Actor award for his portrayal of the writer. Still, his personal life has remained somewhat elusive to the general public.
Now, a little more than forty years since his death, Hammett‘s daughter, Josephine, has compiled a candid and admiring tome that doesn‘t shrink away from the flaws of her famous father. Her memories create a portrait of a man who had a significant impact on contemporary crime fiction, yet described himself as “as bad an influence on American literature as anyone I can think of.“
Both traditional and uncompromising, Hammett separated from his wife while his children were young and took up with Hellman, who played a very important role in his life. He stopped writing after his early successes, and ended his love affair with alcohol far later. In the meantime, he volunteered for WWII, was blacklisted and then imprisoned during the HUAC era, and hung with elites of the film and literary worlds.
He was a guarded, private man whose self-doubt and ability to torture himself ran deep, but to his daughter, he was a father. Whether she is recalling trips to the racetrack in a limousine during the Depression or summers with him and Hellman, this is a tale that spans several decades and gives us the most intimate look at Hammett to date. Putting the icing on the cake is a wonderful collection of never-before-seen photographs from family archives.
Mark Twain: An Illustrated Biography by Geoffrey C. Ward, Dayton Duncan, and Ken Burns
This beautiful and lavishly illustrated companion book to the four-hour PBS series on Twain (Samuel Clemens), one of the country‘s most treasured and timeless authors, bursts at the seams with all things Twain, and what a joy that is.
An eloquent, but to-the-point narrative ties together extensive Twain quotations, rare photographs, passages from correspondence that include love letters to his wife and a heartbreaking reflection on the death of a beloved daughter, contributions from admirers such as actor Hal Holbrook and writer Russell Banks, well-known works like “The War Prayer,“ and much, much more. All of the threads of this rich tapestry reinforce how greatly Twain has impacted our cultural and political landscape.
Humor abounds, but so do controversy, frankness, poignancy, and sharp edges. Twain said that “The secret source of humor itself is not joy but sorrow. There is no humor in heaven,“ and that tenor flows through the book, giving it just the right balance between Twain‘s public and private personas. Burns has become a celebrated documentarian, and Ward and Duncan are frequent partners in crime, having all partnered on “The Civil War,“ “Baseball,“ and “Jazz“ series. In focusing their attention on the first figure of American letters through the documentary and the book, they have created a deserving tribute to a gifted writer, humorist, and lecturer who, as Banks so aptly puts it here, made possible “an American literature which would otherwise not have been possible.“