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Books by Edward Anderson
Anderson was one of the writers of the 1930s who found inspiration and literary success in the travails of the Great Depression. His two novels, published within a couple of years of each other, remain among the small body of work that appears to have truly captured the feelings of the American underclass in those dark days: the aimlessness, resentment, and desperation that left many wandering the country as hoboes, and some turning to a life of crime.
Born in Weatherford, Texas, Anderson grew up in various towns in that state and in Oklahoma. He began working for newspapers as a teenager, and by the time he was 25 he had held jobs on about two dozen papers around the Southwest. For a time he settled down at his parents’ house in Abilene, Texas, where a neighbor and friend, John Knox, a busy pulp writer, gave him pointers on writing and peddling stories. He sold his first piece of fiction, a prizefight story called “The Little Spic,” to one of the sports pulps. Anderson then hit the road, spending a year as a hobo, riding the rails, begging for handouts, eating in soup kitchens, dodging the police. His experiences resulted in a huge stack of notes that slowly became a novel called Hungry Men, the picaresque adventures of Acel Stecker, an out-of-work musician— his aimless hoboing on freight trains, his odd jobs, his love affair with an unemployed New York typist. Anderson’s flat, hard-boiled style perfectly captured the coarsening effects of hard times, as in the couple’s blunt courtship:
“You had much experience, honey?”
“I mean, you know the kind of experience I mean.”
“I mean sex experience.”
While waiting to sell Hungry Men to a developer, Anderson settled in New Orleans and began producing “true crime” stories. The true crime magazines, like True Detective, Master Detective, and a dozen or so others that thrived in the ’30s and ’40s, were a nonfiction alternative to the mystery and detective pulps. They featured the same sort of lurid, oil-painted covers of voluptuous women in distress, but inside the stories were held to be strictly factual, narrative retellings of actual crimes, mostly murders, with real and staged photographs as illustrations. With his wife helping him as researcher, Anderson banged out dozens of the grisly tales, including “Twin Trunk Murders,” “The Mystery of the Man with the Cardboard Box,” and “Uncovering the Vice Cesspool in New Orleans.” He would meet many interesting and unusual persons in the course of his true-detective work, including Louisiana’s official hangman, who had trained for his job by hanging his own pet dog.
Anderson’s idea for a second novel grew, like the first one, out of the desperate climate of the depression. It was a story about bank robbers, the kind of young people like Bonnie and Clyde and Pretty Boy Floyd, who had turned to crime because there seemed to be no other way to survive, and whose exploits made them folk heroes among the poor and dispossessed. In Hungry Men, Anderson had already expressed the sort of sentiment the second topic would address: “The difference between a bank president and a bank bandit is that the robbery of the banker is legal. The bandit has more guts.”
Anderson already knew quite a bit about crime from his journalism, but to give the story the kind of intimate, firsthand detail of his first topic, he turned to a cousin in Texas who was doing time for armed robbery and who generously shared the secrets of his unlawful experience. Anderson wrote of a gang of bandits—Bowie, Chicamaw and T-Dub—roaming the Texas-Oklahoma byways, small-time criminals who dream of robbing enough for a small grubstake and money to pay for their burial. The novel was titled Thieves Like Us (referring to the robbers’ philosophical belief that policemen and bankers are essentially crooks, too), and would turn out to be a memorable piece of unconventional Americana, a synthesis of the proletarian novel and the hard-boiled crime story, with wonderful tough-but-tender dialogue and a lyrical evocation of a dusty, wasted Southwest. At first, however, the author had trouble finding a developer for it, and considered rewriting it for the true-detective magazines.
Awaiting the novel’s publication (in 1937 by Frederick A. Stokes) Anderson managed to secure a screenwriting job in Hollywood. He passed some time in the movie capital, working for Paramount and Warner Bros., but did not make the grade and was soon back looking for work. He returned to newspapering while trying to find the material, and the energy, to write another topic, but he was on a downhill slide. In the ’40s Anderson’s philosophical leanings seemed to take a turn away from the pro-prole stance of his ’30s fiction. He alienated employers and acquaintances with his sympathies for Germany’s Nazi leader, Adolf Hitler, and later espoused virulently anti-Semitic views, before joining the cult religious movement known as Sweden-borgianism. His alcoholism and sometimes bizarre behavior made him increasingly unemployable even on the small-town papers where he looked for work. A well-received film adaptation of Thieves Like Us, directed by Nicholas Ray and released in 1949 under the title of They Live By Night, and subsequent paperback reprintings of the novel, did little to resurrect his name. He died in obscurity, working at a Texas border town paper.