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  • The Big Empty:Chandler's Transatlantic Modernism
  • Will Norman (bio)

We begin with the great paradox of Raymond Chandler's career, which is often noted in passing but rarely examined closely. The most famous practitioner of that typically American art form, hardboiled detective fiction, thought of himself as a British exile. "Incidentally, I still regard myself as an exile, and want to come back," he told his British publisher Hamish Hamilton in 1945, while he later described himself as "half British" to his friend James Sandoe.1 Although born in Chicago, Chandler spent the years 1895-1912, between the ages of seven and twenty-four, living in South London, first as a schoolboy, then a civil servant, and finally as an execrable poet, essayist, and reviewer on the fringes of the late Edwardian and early Georgian literary scene. As he often reminded his friends and correspondents, he was also a product of the British public-school system, having attended Dulwich College: "one of the larger public schools," he explained to his publisher Blanche Knopf in 1940, although "not ranking with Eton, Harrow, Charterhouse or Marlborough" (SL, 15). Chandler's England, never fully dissociated from his public-school days, was a nation of cultural and educational tradition, ethical virtue, and refined taste. He dreamed of returning there from at least 1932, when he wrote a romantic poem eulogizing "the England I picture in the night hours / of this bright and dismal land / of my exile and dismay."2 only after the death of his wife in 1955 was he able to fulfill this desire, and he spent much of his remaining life once again in London, albeit often disillusioned with the cultural decline he discovered there.

How are we to reconcile Chandler's Anglophilia with his legacy in American popular culture and literary history? Understood as [End Page 747] one of the key figures in the development of the hardboiled detective school, Chandler's legacy rests largely upon his reputation as a prose stylist working within the U.S. vernacular idiom.3 He made no secret of his apprenticeship as a pulp writer in the early to mid-1930s, inspired by the vernacular styles of Ernest Hemingway and Dashiell Hammett (his surviving notebooks contain exercises in imitation of Hemingway, "the greatest living American novelist").4 "My fiction was learned in a rough school," he told Knopf, in marked contrast to his English public-school education.5 Hardboiled crime fiction, like the dime-novel Westerns from which it evolved, is popularly supposed to be a native genre growing organically "like topsy" from the American literary and cultural environment.6 For some literary historians hardboiled fiction, along with the films noirs that adapted its aesthetic for the screen, constitutes America's own "pulp modernism" to rival that of the European canon, emerging out of the period's two characteristic mass phenomena: unemployment and the culture industry.7 Sean McCann has demonstrated how a genre that began as a marginal and subversive art form became, in the 1930s, an expression of "one of the exemplary faces of American popular identity."8 However, scholars of hardboiled fiction have sometimes tended to extend such claims into a kind of exceptionalist rhetoric. As Andrew Pepper writes, "There is no point in denying that the hardboiled is a predominantly American form or that it is best understood as a response to the particular social, economic and political conditions in the United States from the 1920s onwards."9 While it is undeniably desirable that hardboiled fiction is read in its historical contexts, we must also acknowledge that some of those contexts reach beyond the borders of the United States. It is true that Chandler once claimed that "Marlowe is the American mind," but the quintessential hardboiled detective was created by someone who repeatedly affirmed his distance from that American mind (NB, 56). The critical challenge that faces us, then, is to make sense of the writer's odd dialectic, which apparently combines two equally implausible but powerful national mythologies, the individualist popularism of the pulps and rarefied gentility of English high culture.

My aim in this article is to resituate Raymond Chandler as a transatlantic modernist whose characteristic hardboiled...


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