THE PARADOX OF BEN HECHTIf Ben Hecht is remembered at all today, it is not for his novels. It is not even for his journalism or the movies he wrote, credited and uncredited, but for a more general reputation as the most successful screenwriter of his time. He was the fastest, most prolific, and highest paid. By his own account, he wrote 60 movies. According to his informative and judicious biographer William MacAdams, he had a hand in 100. Complete scripts on average took him two weeks, none more than eight, earning him fees during the 1930s of as much as $125,000. He rewrote the first half of “Gone With the Wind” over nine days for $3,500 a day. His Hollywood landmarks are as diverse as “The Front Page,” “Scarface,” and “Wuthering Heights.”
Hecht’s novels are so totally forgotten that when I asked Richard Lingeman, the biographer of Theodore Dreiser and Sinclair Lewis, what he thought of Hecht’s fiction, he drew a blank. All he could remember was the title and nothing else of Hecht’s first and best-known novel, Erik Dorn. I suppose it was unfair to coldcock Lingeman with a question out of the blue like that, and I don’t mean to embarrass him here by telling the story. It’s meant merely to illustrate how removed Hecht’s fiction is from the literary canon.
A sadder story: When I managed to find my favorite Hecht novel, Humpty Dumpty, his fourth of 10 and the one I consider his best, I saw that the copy I’d borrowed from a university library had never been read. The pages were uncut. A check of the records showed that I was the first to borrow the book since the library acquired it in 2003. It was a first-edition copy printed in 1924, so surely it must have passed through other hands. Had it been unread all those years because of the title? Humpty Dumpty sounds comical, absurdly so, for a serious work.Another question: Why would anybody be curious to read any of Hecht’s fiction? Despite his ubiquitous presence among the writers of the Chicago School during the years it flourished and an outpouring of novels afterward — Erik Dorn (1921), Gargoyles and the novella Fantazius Mallare: A Mysterious Oath (1922); The Florentine Dagger (1923), Count Bruga and the novella The Kingdom of Evil (1926); A Jew in Love (1931); A Book of Miracles (1939); I Hate Actors (1944); The Sensualists (1959) — let alone a handful of plays, including Broadway hits such as the enduring and spectacularly successful “The Front Page,” and more than a dozen short-story collections — he’s been largely dismissed as a literary figure of any significance.
In a review of Hecht’s autobiography A Child of the Century (1954), Louis Berg calls Hecht “a word slinger rather than a stylist, master of invective rather than wit, poetaster rather than poet, crackpot philosopher and calculating crackpot, romantic cynic and cruel sentimentalist, third-rate Mencken and fifth-rate Rochefoucauld.”
Never mind that Mencken himself was an early admirer who published Hecht’s stories in Smart Set or that Hecht’s writing had already appeared in the Chicago-based ur-literary magazine The Little Review, alongside poetry by Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Hart Crane, and Carl Sandburg, stories by Hemingway and Sherwood Anderson, prose by Gertrude Stein, and chapters of James Joyce’s Ulysses.
Never mind that Hecht touted his friend Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio stories before they were ever published; that Hecht drew deft portraits in his novels of Dreiser, Anderson, and Sandburg (a newsroom colleague whose poetry he revered), as well as indelible depictions of The Little Review founder Margaret Anderson (no relation to Sherwood) and the Chicago School poet Max Bodenheim, a close friend who collaborated with him on the satirical novella Cutie: A Warm Mama (1923).Never mind that Hecht published and edited his own “little” magazine, The Chicago Literary Times (1923-24), and wrote the city’s most entertaining daily newspaper column, “1001 Afternoons in Chicago” (1922), much of it fiction passed off as journalism and still unequaled for color and verve.
Hecht’s obscurity is part of a critical feedback loop designed to ignore him, especially among academics. Historically as well as literarily, the grandest oddity of all is that Hecht himself diagnosed the issue that would come to haunt his reputation.
“I’m a victim of too plastic a vocabulary,” says the protagonist of Humpty Dumpty, a cynical young writer named Kent Savaron clearly modeled on the author. “Its ability to defend any action of mine has deprived me of a conscience.” Savaron knows so well how to manipulate the language of simile and metaphor that he gives a contemptuous demonstration of his skill. “Writing is a bastard art,” he tells Helen Dean, who is modeled on Margaret Anderson.A wolfish philanderer, Savaron is intent on seducing Dean. Although he regards her as “a redundant and make-believe aesthete,” she is nevertheless “a stimulus that hoisted him onto a pedestal of rhetoric and started him shoveling adjectives into her lap.” More than that, he sees her as an antidote to his romantic involvement with the conventional Stella Winkelberg, whose philistine family he despises for its bourgeois conformity. He serenades Helen not only with his technical brilliance but lays on his aesthetic judgments and vents his rage against the moralistic clichés of the booboisie, even against what he regards as the clichés of the avant-garde:
It is dependent for its effects upon its least important asset — technique. I imagine you would like the imagist method. No emotion. Allegedly passionless translations of phenomena. A very jaw-breaking sentence. I’ll let you read some of my rain mathematics some time. Rain, like frightened diagonals, covering the sidewalk with Vs. Rain beating like a wing against the roofs; rain like domino lines, like ramrods, like hair, like strings of a towering harp. Gusts of rain like gray flags disappearing in the wind. Rain that tiptoes down the street like a phantom. Rain smelling of hazelnuts and well water, turning the walls of buildings into dark mirrors. Rain like ghost-ships riding over the chimney.
“Look how the afternoon gleams with rain.” He smiled. “Why don’t you play the piano when it rains? Scriabin played in the rain becomes a lonely child weeping for its mother’s return. Satie, Prokoffief, Schelling — try them. Let’s hear how the rain distorts their modernistic tonal algebraics into variations of ‘Home, Sweet Home.’
“Oh yes,” he went on, “the third approach. Our old friend the moralistic calciminer. No, they don’t overlook anything, these life haters. They see in every phase of nature a mystic cleansing fluid for man’s spotted soul. The purifying rain. The rain like a benediction. It rained and he grew sad remembering his sins. The virgin rain. The dark herald of rainbow. Every cloud is silver-lined. The sweet and invigorating rain. . . . What filthy decadents these moralists are! What a race of befouling egomaniacs! They see in the swing of the stars, in the mind-exhausting mysteries of nature—what? Proofs of their little swinish idealizations. Sermons in stones and tongues in babbling brooks.
“It’s one way to write successfully. Reduce lie and nature to mystic vindications of Americanism. Honest as the day. Noble as the sun.”
Is it surprising that the avant-garde was no less inclined to forgive Hecht than the academics? Furthermore, his brief against “Americanism,” expressed throughout his books, didn’t help with the wider audience. His libertarian politics in general also ran counter to the liberal-left establishment. During the Depression his anti-communist mania made him something of a raving neoconservative avant la lettre.
And there were other problems. For example, when Savaron confirms what he has suspected — that Helen Dean is a lesbian (her virginity “a bit more involved than the usual hymen complex”) — his homophobia rises to the surface. It turns out that he’s as narrow and conventional in his attitude as any conforming moralist. Although the homophobia is applied with a fair amount of subtlety in Humpty Dumpty, Hecht’s own queer bashing can be so overbearing elsewhere in his writing that it’s hard to stomach. This would support the view that Hecht’s personal limitations infected his fiction, that the characters in his novels are a reflection of them. Savaron can rant all he wants about the Winkelbergs and the artist bohemians both, but he is as flawed as they are and in the end defeated by his own inauthenticity. “I’m a theory that has refuted itself,” he says on the point of suicide.Nelson Algren understood that this was the problem. When the University of Chicago Press asked Algren for an introduction to its 1962 reprint of Erik Dorn, he took the view that “no American yet has written a novel this good yet this bad.” The least academic of critics had qualms worthy of Berg — not because of the word-slinging (if anything, he admired its pungency) but because he believed Hecht lacked the conviction to back it up. “This is the one work of serious literature we have that by the same token stands as a literary hoax,” he wrote. “Erik Dorn is so true that nobody but his creator could have made him so spurious. No other writer has written a novel anything like it—and yet it resembles many novels.”
“A bag of wind with a hole in it. Ha! That’s me. Words. All kinds of words. Home and fireside. That’s what I want. Goddamn them. I can’t keep on. I’ll go back. I’ll kneel. Sure. Why not? Let me in, I’ll say. Here I am, the prodigal. Bring on the feather bed. And an ice pack. Let me in, I’ll say.”
One has to wonder why the publisher chose to use Algren’s pan for an introduction to a novel it was trying to sell. Certainly Hecht wondered. When he learned of it, he refused to help market the book, failed to show up at the publication party, and pretended that Algren was so far beneath him he couldn’t recall reading anything of his. (This, despite having worked on the screenplay of The Man with the Golden Arm.)
Algren’s opinion of Erik Dorn helps to explain why it never became the iconic novel of the period that Sinclair Lewis’s Midwestern novels Main Street (1920) and Babbitt (1922) did. Other reasons, I would suggest, are that Erik Dorn is more acid in style and more opinionated, more introspective in tone and more intellectual, its concerns narrower and its targets more elevated. Although “Erik Dorn is a man who seems, to himself, to be a perfect translation of his country and his day,” as Algren noted, he is nevertheless a sophisticated if bored-with-himself newspaper editor, which was a more rarified breed of creature than a middle-aged, suburban real estate agent like George F. Babbitt. Also, the milieu of Erik Dorn is big-city Chicago and fashionable Michigan Avenue. For the period, Main Street’s small-town Gopher Prairie and Babbitt’s midsize Zenith were more representative of America.
The difference between Lewis and Hecht is apparent from the very first pages of the novels. In the opening lines of Main Street we meet Carol Milford, the central character. She is a college girl standing on a hill by the Mississippi River not far from Minneapolis and St. Paul. We see her “in relief against the cornflower blue of Northern sky.” She is “meditating upon walnut fudge, the plays of Brieux, the reasons why heels run over, and the fact that the chemistry instructor had stared at the new coiffure which concealed her ears.”In Babbitt, again in the opening lines, Lewis introduces the title character. He is “beginning to awaken on the sleeping-porch of a Dutch Colonial house in the residential district of Zenith known as Floral Heights.”
A breeze which had crossed a thousand miles of wheat-lands bellied her taffeta skirt in a line so graceful, so full of animation and moving beauty, that the heart of a chance watcher on the lower road tightened to wistfulness over her quality of suspended freedom. She lifted her arms, she leaned back against the wind, her skirt dipped and flared, a lock blew wild. A girl on a hilltop; credulous, plastic, young; drinking the air as she longed to drink life. The eternal aching comedy of expectant youth.
His name was George F. Babbitt. He was forty-six years old now, in April, 1920, and he made nothing in particular, neither butter nor shoes nor poetry, but he was nimble in the calling of selling houses for more than people could afford to pay. … He was not fat but he was exceedingly well fed … prosperous, extremely married and unromantic; and altogether unromantic appeared this sleeping-porch, which looked on one sizable elm, two respectable grass-plots, a cement driveway, and a corrugated iron garage. Yet Babbitt was again dreaming of the fairy child, a dream more romantic than scarlet pagodas by a silver sea.
When Hecht introduces us to the title character of Erik Dorn, he sets an entirely opposite scene.
The crowds moving through the streets gave Erik Dorn a picture. It was morning. Above the heads of the people the great spatula-topped buildings spread a zigzag of windows, a scribble of rooftops against the sky. A din as monotonous as a silence tumbled through the streets—an unvarying noise of which the towering rectangles of buildings tilted like great reeds out of a narrow bowl, seemed an audible part.
The city alive with signs, smoke, posters, window; falling, rising, flinging its chimneys and its streets against the sun, wound itself up into crowds and burst with an endless bang under the far-away sky.
And Dorn himself is as far as one can get from either a college naïf or a dream-dazed realtor.
Dorn saluted the spectacle with smiling eye. As always, in the aimless din and multiplicity of streets he felt himself most securely at home. The smear of gestures, the elastic distortion of crowds winding and unwinding under the tumult of windows, gave him the feeling of a geometrical emptiness of life.
Here before him the meanings of faces vanished. The greedy little purposes of men and women tangled themselves into a generality. It was thus Dorn was most pleased to look upon the world, to observe it as one observes a pattern — involved but precise. . . . Things that made pictures for his eyes alone diverted Dorn. Beyond this capacity for diversion he remained untouched.
Shrewd and alert, Dorn has been hardened and made cynical by disappointed expectations:
At thirty he had explained to himself, “I am complete. This business of being empty is all there is to life.” Intelligence is a faculty which enables man to peer through the muddle of ideas and arrive at a nowhere.
It is this hardness, amounting to a form of self-pity, which Algren objected to. And self-pity is what ultimately defeats Dorn, though it is never expressed as such. He doesn’t kill himself, like Savaron, but is drawn back to the mothering arms of his wife.
Babbitt, too, having had an extra-marital affair, ends up back in the bosom of his family. He has made peace with himself, however, and with the conformity he tried to escape from, finding redemption of a sort by counseling his son to go his own way. In the melodramatic words that end the novel, he says: “Don’t be scared of the family. No, nor all of Zenith. Nor of yourself, the way I’ve been. Go ahead, old man! The world is yours!” As for the young college girl in Main Street, she marries and moves to Gopher Prairie with her doctor husband, but eventually leaves because her life is miserable in a town she has so desperately and unsuccessfully tried to reform. She, too, returns — and Lewis makes the same point again: Older and wiser, she is not defeated. (Neither were readers. Main Street was a phenomenal best-seller. It sold 250,000 copies, far outstripping Erik Dorn.) Bittersweet was not Hecht’s style.By the beginning of the 1930s, Hecht was already writing screenplays for Hollywood. The fabled tale goes that his friend Herman Mankiewicz, who was recruiting writers for Paramount, sent him a telegram: “Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots. Don’t let this get around.” Hecht hadn’t given up on novels, though. In 1931 he published another major work. This time, instead of a silly title like Humpty Dumpty, he chose a provocative one: A Jew in Love.
Conceivably, he was trying for an association with D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love, perhaps hoping to capitalize on that novel’s scandalous reputation. But given his disdain for Lawrence’s novels (which he claimed were full of hot air), and given the anti-Semitic tenor of the times (the Ku Klux Klan was in poisonous flower and a little man named Hitler was on the rise), it’s more likely that Hecht was merely looking to make trouble.
He had already courted notoriety as a pornographer with Fantazius Mallare, an erotic novella vividly illustrated by his newsroom buddy the artist and writer Wallace Smith. This had resulted in a highly publicized lawsuit brought by the U. S. Postal Service. Accused of sending “lewd, lascivious and obscene” literature through the mail, Hecht wanted a show trial with Clarence Darrow as his attorney, but finally agreed to a plea of nolo contendere. (He and Wallace were fined $1,000 each.)
If you didn’t know Hecht was Jewish, you’d think from the way A Jew in Love begins that he was a Klansman in training:
Jo Boshere (born Abe Nussbaum) was a man of thirty—a dark-skinned little Jew with a vulturous and moody face, a reedy body and a sense of posture.
The Jews now and then hatch a face which for Jewishness surpasses the caricatures of the entire anti-Semitic press. These Jew faces in which race leers and burns like some biologic disease are rather shocking to a mongrelized world.
In fact, Hecht was a non-observant Jew who scorned all religions. Later in life he became a secular Zionist, denouncing Franklin Delano Roosevelt for failing to come to the rescue of European Jews who had escaped the Nazi slaughter. He raised large sums of money for the paramilitary Irgun and the underground Stern Gang in their drive to oust the British from Palestine. He also wrote manifestos to help establish an Israeli state. But that doesn’t minimize the bile of A Jew in Love.
People dislike being reminded of their origins. They shudder a bit mystically at the sight of anyone who looks too much like a fish, a lizard, a chimpanzee or a Jew. This is probably nonsense. The Jew face is an enemy totem, an ancient target for spittle and, like a thing long hated, a sort of magic propagandist of hate. Its persistence in the world is that of some repulsive and hostile fauna, half crippled, yet containing in its ineffaceable Yiddish outline the taunt and challenge of the unfinished victim. This, of course, is true only of the worst looking Jew faces and the worst Jew haters.
Boshere was not quite so bad as this. The racial decadence which had popped so Hebraic a nosegay out of his mother’s womb was of finer stuff than that glandular degeneration which produces the Jew with the sausage face; the bulbous diabetic half-monsters who look as if they had been fished out of the water a month too late.
The “brooding, ironic smile” he wears is meant to convey his “superiority to his Jewishness.” Boshere is someone to be envied if not admired. As disdainful of having “won a million in the stock market” as he is of being an eminently successful book publisher, he considers his wealth and his vocation pure accidents. But what is he? In short, not a nice man. He is a snobbish, egotistical, deceitful skirt-chaser with a parasitical need to enslave any woman who falls for him. He is also complicated.
The niggerish delight of the Jew in the blonde was no part of Boshere’s enthusiasm in his new conquest. His egomania with its neurotic underlayer of inferiority had long outstripped the simplicities of Jew-Christian reaction.
The novel might be more accurately titled A Jew in Lust. And it did cause a scandal. It also became a best seller. Banned in Boston, it was “reprinted five times in six weeks” with sales, MacAdams reports, of 50,000 copies.
Although Boshere was modeled on a friend of Hecht’s, the legendary Broadway producer and notorious cocksman Jed Harris (born Jacob Horowitz), the character actually reads with devastating force like a psychological self-portrait of the author. Inevitably, the protagonists of Hecht’s key novels were all self-portraits.
This was the true paradox of Hecht: He was an author so brilliant at observing others but so self-absorbed that in writing about them he could only write about himself. Hecht’s “smiling and swaggering savageries” (to quote Dorothy Parker) may have been aimed at friends — to keep them entertained, he said. But in the same way that “his immeasurable vanity made him always determined to dominate any conversation” (to quote Bodenheim), he couldn’t help dominating the protagonists of his novels.Characteristic of them all are probing internal monologues, which Hecht spins for pages on end. He captures the logic of deluded human beings as well as any author I’ve read, offering insights into their motives, frustrations, philosophies, and emotions. But because the intensity of the analysis is unrelieved, monotony can set in — there is rarely any humor — and so the novels are less than completely satisfying. The pleasure I get from them, however, is the feeling that some kind of genius must have written them — a malicious genius who didn’t give a damn. Compared with the tons of novels that don’t have the slightest touch of genius of any kind, that is satisfaction enough.
Has any novella opened with a more prodigious sentence than the one that begins Hecht’s Fantazius Mallare: A Mysterious Oath?
This dark and wayward book is affectionately dedicated to my enemies — to the curious ones who take fanatic pride in disliking me; to the baffling ones who remain enthusiastically ignorant of my existence; to the moral ones upon whom Beauty exercises a lascivious and corrupting influence; to the moral ones who have relentlessly chased God out of their bedrooms . . . who flatten themselves upon prayer rugs, who shut their eyes, stuff their ears, bind, gag and truss themselves and offer their mutilations to the idiot God they have invented (the Devil take them, I grow bored with laughing at them); to the anointed ones who identify their paranoiac symptoms as virtues …
And 10 pages later ends like this:
… to the intellectual ones who play solitaire with platitudes, who drag their classrooms around with them; to these and to many other abominations whom I apologize to for omitting, this inhospitable book … is dedicated in the hope that their righteous eyes may never kindle with secret lusts nor their pious lips water erotically from its reading …
Did Henry Miller, De Sade, Celine, Poe, Evelyn Waugh, Bukowski, Burroughs, or the Comte de Lautréamont ever write a sentence as delicious as that one for mockery?
If Hecht is ignored by the academics, and therefore not in the canon, he’s also off the radar for all but the most curious contemporary readers. With the exception of the autobiography A Child of the Century and the collection of columns 1001 Afternoons in Chicago, his approximately 40 books — including the sometimes fictitious, always charming memoir Gaily, Gaily (1964) — are out of print. Unlike Algren’s work, which has seen a recent groundswell of new editions, Hecht’s is probably not going to be revived.In some cases his fiction is too antiquated. The Florentine Dagger: A Novel for Amateur Detectives is an archaic potboiler. Gargoyles, set between 1900 and the beginning of World War I, is no worse than Babbitt and in many respects better. But it feels timebound despite a masterly evocation of the petty affairs and phony dreams of a Midwestern politician and his middle-class circle of family and friends. In other cases, his fiction is little more than light reading. I Hate Actors!, a screwball comedy about Hollywood in the ’40s, has a farcical murder plot and is deliciously droll. Today, however, it might be more resonant as a witty period piece adapted for the stage. The Sensualists (1959), Hecht’s last novel, has a polished hard-boiled 1950s flavor. The story involves a long-married husband and wife who discover she has a sexual preference for his lesbian mistress. I was entertained, but the book was roundly panned when it appeared, and I’m betting it will remain condemned to dusty shelves forever. A Book of Miracles — which Hecht was especially proud of, according to MacAdams — has the inherent problem of dated content as well. It would make an excellent candidate for a new edition, though, if anyone were interested in reprinting a protean collection of seven novellas about the follies of mankind. Hecht is not showing off for a change. Miracles is written in winning prose with fairytale simplicity. I’d like to think it would have a market. But that’s an unlikely fairy tale too far-fetched even for such an incurable fabulist as Ben Hecht.
These days out-of-print books that have fallen out of copyright are easily put back in circulation, as a handful of Hecht’s early works have been. You can now find them online as free or inexpensive ebooks. Some titles have also been reprinted in easily produced books-on-demand editions.
(This text differs slightly from the version published in CQR. I’ve made several minor editorial improvements and corrected the year that A Book of Miracles was published.)