Poor Papa

In his lifetime, Ernest Hemingway’s early and enormous fame became confused with his writing, and in his own mind as well as in the minds of his critics his fame somehow seemed to make his writing go bad. At the time of his death, in 1961, he was probably the best-known writer in the world, and one of the most popular. But his writing no longer exerted an influence on literature, and serious critics usually disposed of his work as being of minor interest compared to that of writers like Fitzgerald and Faulkner, whom he had once completely overshadowed.

Such questions as may arise about his writing today are only manifestations of the slow and uneven filtering-down of accepted opinion, or of the uneven rates at which the glamor of his settings evaporates in different minds. Nearly everyone agrees now on the order of quality in the canon of his work. The Sun Also Rises and many of his short stories are absolutely first rate, surpassed in scope by other novelists of his time, but unsurpassed by anyone in their perfection. A Farewell to Arms is badly weakened by the sentimental unreality of the love story; To Have and Have Not is coarse in feeling and fragmentary; For Whom the Bell Tolls, with all the careful solidity of its large structure, is embarrasing in its sexual passages, condescending in its presentation of the Spanish, and its cave full of partisans is operatic. Across the River and into the Trees is his worst book, a self-parody, ridiculing both his literary genius and his life. Death in the Afternoon and The Green Hills of Africa have many marvels of exposition and action, but to read them with any assent to their experience one must be able to accept the legend of Hemingway at his own valuation. Some people take The Old Man and the Sea seriously, but it is generally regarded as a kind of Hemingway imitation, a mannered over-refinement of his style and a too-simple repetition of his one basic theme, the search for and inevitable loss of some token of masculine display. In this decline of interest in his writing, his own fears of the result of fame have come true. His public actions and reports of his private life exposed him to ridicule and weakened the attractions of his work. At the same time, critics drawn by his fame learned to expose the themes of his work in psychological terms, and thereby let a lot of air out of his stories. Thus, while he is still recognized clearly enough as an artist of occasional success, his work no longer seems to contain promises for others, and his books are not much regarded by writers any more.

AS A LEGENDARY FIGURE, he might obsess a novelist like Norman Mailer, but this seemed to be because Mailer accepted Hemingway’s own presentation of himself as king of the hill rather than for any intrinsic concern with the man’s work. Whether or…

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