McCann´s treatment of Black Mask hard-boiled detective stories shows how an interesting methodological issue arises when the object of literary study shifts from canonized Literary Works to popular literature that has not been endowed with the same prestige—to what extent do we view these works as products of an individual authorial intelligence vs. products of systemic economic and ideological formations? I think there is a tension in these two views at work in McCann´s treatment of Dashiell Hammett, who, if he has not ascended to the ranks of the Great Modernists, has at least progressed much farther in certain canons than Daly has. McCann´s clear bias toward Hammett reiterates this canonical status: he is “a far more perceptive writer” than Daly (62) and his novel Red Harvest is lavished with praise. As a result, it seems to me that, in the Hammett sections, a desire to defend the author´s status emerges alongside (and potentially in tension with) the larger project of linking a particular cultural form to its economic and cultural context.
This defensiveness is particularly evident in the claim that “in order to fully appreciate Hammett´s ingenuity and his novel´s account of violence run amok, we need to recognise that Red Harvest is not only a deconstruction of the detective story but the logical conclusion of the critique of Klannish fantasy that hard-boiled fiction began in ´Knights of the Open Palm´¨(78). The ideological work done in Red Harvest is put down to Hammett´s own “ingenuity,” his own agency as a thinker and an author (it is interesting to note as well that this ingenuity is linked to a skeptical engagement with genre). This perhaps explains a small problem I have with this article. With Daly, McCann is perfectly willing to admit that Klannish nativism is merely one form of the will toward community-constituting social fantasy that the hard-boiled detective sides against—Race Williams finds himself opposing labor unions and liberal senators peddling class-based fantasies of solidarity as well. With Hammett, however, McCann at times presses Klannish nativism into service to stand for any such fantasy. Perhaps a practical philosophy of amoral individualism is a lot more redeemable as an authorial position if it is opposed to atavistic nativism. Perhaps viewing Red Harvest as the “logical conclusion” of work begun in “Knights of the Open Palm” is a move at least somewhat rooted in a desire to defend Hammett as a thinking author. But is the goal of criticism to defend or to objectively explain? And is the independence of thought we allow to some writers and not others a result of the complexity of their work or merely our preexisting assumptions about them?
Frow´s conception of genre particularly excites me for the possibilities it opens up for historically informed reading. One question that often bothers me in literary interpretation is how to close the gap between our own experience of a text and the experiences of its initial readers, in order to better understand how texts can be said to “function” in their original historical environments. Frow´s description of genre as “a historically specific pattern of organization of semiotic material” and his emphasis on genre´s relationship to social setting provides interesting ways of approaching this problem (80). If genre “mediate[s] between a social situation and the text which realises certain features of this situation, or which responds strategically to its demands,” then genre also provides a way of theoretically linking texts to their historical contexts (14-15). Given the historical mutability of genre, a good deal of the extra-textual information activated by older genres has probably been lost, changing the ways we read older texts. If we can find ways of recovering this extra-textual information, perhaps by reading contemporaneous texts of the same genres or by giving due attention to a text´s physical setting, like the Graham´s Magazine issue, we can reconstruct the social situations to which these texts respond and perhaps come to a better understanding of the “work” these texts do in these lost situations.
“The Murders in the Rue Morgue” provides an interesting example of this; persistently anthologized as “the first detective story,” it is very difficult to read or think about without bringing in our own assumptions of what a detective story is and does. This may be useful to a certain extent as a way of understanding how this still-popular story functions in today´s cultural environment, but if we want to understand the text historically, following Frow, we wouldn´t consider it a detective story at all, since there would have been no generic framework or “schema” of implied knowledge associated with that genre on which the story´s initial readers could draw when interpreting it. Instead, we would read it against the genre of the Graham´s Magazine story, whatever contemporaneous sensational genres might be activated by the story´s provocative title, etc. We would also be able to reconstruct in some measure the readerships of these genres, the demands these readerships make upon them, their general rhetorical stances toward these readers, etc.–in other words, their “social settings” as I think Frow would understand them. Through its engagement with these non-detective genres, we could come to a better understanding of how the story responds to this immediate social setting. I wonder how much our understanding of the story would change.