How American Was Raymond Chandler?

Raymond Chandler had a mixed heritage. He was born in Chicago, but spent most of his formative years (7 – 24) in Britain. He was brought up by an Irish mother, surrounded by Irish family, though they hardly slotted into neat Irish stereotypes being Protestant. Then he went to Public school where Britishness, for better or worse, was drummed into him daily.

In Europe, in 1905 and 1906, Chandler encountered plenty of Americans but later wrote that he felt he had no affinity with them. When he moved to the States in 1912 he dressed like a young aristocrat, complete with cane, sporting a public school accent that was tinged with a hint of American. So when he got off the boat, how did he feel to be back home? Did he feel American, or British, or neither? During World War I he fought for the Canadian army and then joined the RAF so it seems that Chandler took a while to decide himself.

Many years later, when he came to write his first short stories, he found that he adopted an American voice, learning the language of American English like it was foreign to him and it must be that his unique upbringing, with its medley of national influences, gave him particular insight into the power of language and it is this that made him such a great writer.

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2 responses to “How American Was Raymond Chandler?

  1. Apologies for commenting on an old post, but I found my way here through August Riordan’s blog. Being a Brit in the US also obsessed with Chandler, I found this idea pretty interesting when I read the Raymond Chandler Papers.

    It seems like, through learning American English as though it were a foreign language, when it came time to apply it to his characters, Chandler automatically made the language more ‘performative’. It sort of adds to the ‘unreal’ or stylised manner in which he writes and, for better or worse, that made his style one of the most imitated and parodied after the fact.

    Anyhow, that might not be well expressed, but good luck in the UCLA archives, and I shall keep an eye on the blog!

    DLR

    • chandlerbiography

      @dleray Thank you so much for reading my blog and for posting. It doesn’t matter which sections you find at all.

      Chandler’s style is fascinating and, to be honest, I change my mind about it sometimes. I agree with you that they way he deploys his language makes it feel, to modern ears, ‘unreal’ and I think that is why Frank McShane, in his biography of Chandler, tries to argue that Raymond was sometimes writing a parody that almost becomes a burlesque.

      But McShane’s argument doesn’t quite hold water – I’ve don’t believe Chandler every wrote with the intention of parodying himself or his hardboiled colleagues. He made a lot of effort with the language – his notebook is full of demotic slang he picked up and which he liked to use and I suspect that a lot of it is accurate. I wonder how many of the phrases that appear in the novels were actually accurate and that, over time, have dropped out of use or, more importantly here, have found themselves associated so much with a certain genre that they have tipped into a self-parody so that, when we read them now, they feel artificial?

      This is a question rather than a statement and one that I would like to try and answer. But more research is required. I would love to hear more of your thoughts though.

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