Tuesday, April 12, 2011


Sam Spade recently attended church, though if he weren't immortal, he'd probably be spinning in his grave over it.  (On the other hand, a lot of people might think it's high time.) What happened was, I gave a talk on THE MALTESE FALCON at a library and one kind attendee decided to try the book out on her church reading group.

Can you imagine the scope? I don't know if they approached it in a churchly way, but, really, the moral ambiguity! There's sure plenty to talk about. What I'm pretty sure about (from her subsequent letter) is that they approached it in ways that were different from the way a writer might. This writer anyhow. I'm hardly ever one to analyze what a writer was thinking (like that green light in Gatsby. Unless Fitzgerald actually said what he meant it to mean--and maybe he did, I don't know--I'm just not crazy to second-guess him.)

I learned to be leery about this when Eudora Welty came to speak to my college writing class and some kid asked her about symbolism.  In that gorgeous lilting southern accent she said innocently, "Symbolism? Why, I don't use symbolism in my books."  She drew out the "I" to about three syllables.
"Uh...Miss Welty, hello? Phoenix?" the kid said. "As a character's name?"  "Oh, Phoenix," she said, "I've always thought that was such a LOVELY name."

Well, no doubt she was having fun with him, but still, a writer looks at things differently. If I'm analyzing why a writer did something, I'm much more inclined to look at a mechanical reason--he needed a vehicle to make X happen, for instance--than a fancy metaphorical reason. This is because the writer's focused on telling the story rather than obscuring it, I think. But the brain is what it is, it  tells stories differently and it loves symbols; so they end up in a work of art whether they're intended or not. It makes connections that the simple and hapless writer might not have even suspected. And so I pass on to you the questions that my correspondent asked me after taking Sam to church:

"1.  What was the purpose of the Flitcraft Story -- I found it fascinating -- but no one was really able to understand its role in the novel.

2.  What was the role/purpose of The Fat Man's daughter in the novel?"

I could  pretend I know my asterisk from my apostrophe and walk all over those with big clumsy writer shoes, but the hard-boiled truth is, I'm just not qualified. Isn't there a scholar out there with a better grasp of this sort of thing? Come on now, it's not every day Sam Space goes to church!

1 comment:

  1. See the _Clues_ theme issue (23.2, 2005) on Hammett in honor of the 75th anniversary of _The Maltese Falcon_, which features a lot of discussion of the Flitcraft story.