Trouble Was His Business -- Raymond Chandler
March 26, 2009 | 10:00 am
Frank MacShane; Raymond Chandler Biographer
November 27, 1999
By JON THURBER, TIMES STAFF WRITER
After Frank MacShane moved to Berkeley to teach at the University of California, a friend gave him a bit of advice. "If you want to know what California is like," he said, "read Raymond Chandler."
So MacShane read Chandler's hard-boiled novels like "Farewell, My Lovely," "The Big Sleep," "The High Window" and "The Lady in the Lake," with their tough-guy hero Philip Marlowe; he read the poetry that Chandler wrote as a youth in England; and he read Chandler's letters, which the novelist proclaimed were "more penetrating" than any of the other forms of writing he had tried.
MacShane became an expert on the work, and then the biographer of what one observer called an "exceedingly complex and obviously deeply unhappy man."
Chandler would arguably be the most famous author that MacShane would study in his long career as a teacher, scholar and biographer. He wrote well-received biographies of Ford Maddox Ford, James Jones and John O'Hara, writers that MacShane called "the stepchildren of literature."
"Who needs another Hemingway biography?" he once said. "One of my motives in writing literary biographies is to look at a writer whose position is not set and try to place him, give him an evaluation."
But by the time of his death Nov. 15 in Gloucester, Mass., of Alzheimer's disease at the age of 72, MacShane was most closely identified with Chandler.
"The Life of Raymond Chandler," published in 1976, received generally favorable reviews. Larry McMurtry, writing in the Washington Post, called it "virtually a model of what literary biography should be."
Leonard Michaels, writing in the New York Times Book Review, called MacShane an "extremely polite biographer," adding that the work "gives an immensely detailed portrait of Chandler the man."
That portrait, painted largely in his own words from letters and other correspondence, was less than flattering. Chandler was an alcoholic, a hypochondriac, a philanderer, a man given to bouts of nerves and extreme depression. He suffered from painful skin allergies, including one that spread over his chest and neck and could be relieved only by the use of morphine. Other allergies, including one that caused the skin between his fingers to split, made simple tasks like shaking hands extremely painful.
Chandler started writing pulp fiction stories in 1932 at the age of 44.
A year later, his stories began to appear regularly in Black Mask magazine. "The Big Sleep" appeared in 1939, sealing Chandler's success as a writer. He died of bronchial pneumonia at 70 in 1959, the same year that MacShane started working at the University of California.
Chandler seemed to take his letters, which could be biting, funny and often penetrating, most seriously.
Of Graham Greene's work he once wrote: "Am reading 'The Heart of the Matter' . . . which has everything in it that makes literature except verve, wit, gust, must and magic . . . There is more life in the worst chapter Dickens or Thackeray ever wrote, and they wrote some pretty awful chapters."
But he had extreme respect for Dashiell Hammett, writing to an editor at Atlantic Monthly: "I reread the [Maltese] Falcon not long ago . . . by God, if you can show me 20 books written 20 years back that have as much guts and live now, I'll eat them . . . "
In commenting on writing in a letter to Erle Stanley Gardner, Chandler clearly described the qualities that characterized his own literary success. "When a book, any sort of book, reaches a certain intensity of artistic performance it becomes literature. That intensity may be a matter of style, situation, character, emotional tone, or idea. . . . It may also be a perfection of control over the movement of a story similar to the control a great pitcher has over the ball."
MacShane continued to take on difficult issues after Chandler, moving on to Ford, O'Hara and Jones.
MacShane's most difficult time, however, would come in the mid-1990s, when he developed Alzheimer's. He recognized its progression and in conversation would often pause in mid-sentence to grope for words he could not find.
"It's this damned disease, you know," he explained.
MacShane was the son of a journalist who became publisher of the New York Journal American, then the Hearst flagship paper. Born in Pittsburgh, MacShane studied literature at Harvard, Yale and Oxford, where he received his doctorate in 1955. After teaching at Berkeley, MacShane landed at Columbia some years later and founded the graduate Writing Division of the university's school of the arts.
For the always courtly and professorial MacShane, biography was more than a chronicle, and he disagreed with fellow biographer Ted Morgan, who believed that "biography is just journalism."
MacShane dropped projects on Ezra Pound and Edward Dahlberg after developing a hostility toward them, saying, "If I'm going to spend three years on someone, wake up every day with him, make that kind of investment, it better be someone I like."
Note: To mark the 50th anniversary of Raymond Chandler's death, the Daily Mirror is revisiting some of The Times' stories about his life and influence. We invite the Daily Mirror's readers to share their thoughts.