The Sweet Style of Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway
Ernest Hemingway; drawing by David Levine

It is an exaggeration to say that the language determines the metaphysics of the tribe and what people can think—the so-called “Whorfian hypothesis.” Language is checked by unverbalized experience. Language itself is plastic and says new things when necessary. People do manage to communicate across the barrier of language and culture, e.g., I get something out of Homer, Genesis, and Confucius. And in the problems of philosophy, we can usually think away the language of previous thinkers and still find a real problem for ourselves.

But we can put Whorf’s thesis in a more modest form that is more rewarding: a style of speech is a hypothesis about how the world is. When speakers adopt a style, they are already saying something substantive. A good style, colloquial and literary, is one that is adequate to cope with, that “saves,” a wide range of experience, omitting nothing indispensable. It proves itself as a way of being, it does not break down, it is believable.

This view is similar to the newer philosophy of linguistic analysis that has developed out of linguistic positivism. Instead of treating popular metaphysics as nonsense in which people are stuck, and to which prophylaxis must be applied, linguistic analysis takes common speech as a repository of vast empirical experience of curious matters by the community, just as the common law is the embodied wisdom of the Anglo-Saxon people (such as it is). The philosophical problem is to decipher exactly what is being said; in colloquial sentences, what do people mean when they say “mind,” “cause,” “responsibility,” “good,” “bad,” and so forth?

Literary style is a convenient object for this kind of analysis. It is usually less subtle than excellent colloquial speech, but it is recorded and it provides large coherent wholes to examine. Let us look briefly at a famous modern style, Hemingway’s, and single out one of its dominant hypotheses.

It is a passive style. The characters, including the narrator, are held off in such a way—“alienated,” as Brecht puts it—that they influence nothing; events happen to them. The actions that they initiate—the story consists entirely of actions that they initiate—do not add up to actualizing them; it is one thing after another. Yet neither do the actions betray and doom them, as in ancient stories of Fate, for that would impart a meaning, a tragic meaning, to the world. Rather, the events turn out to be happenings.

Needless to say, the passivity of people in contemporary society, with its high technology and centralized organization, has been the prevailing theme of naturalistic fiction for over a century. But Hemingway takes the theme at a deeper level. His stories are located in nonindustrial scenes, often in fairly primitive places, and they are about activities that are even spectacularly individualistic and active, dangerous sports, smuggling, soldiers on the loose. The characters come on with a heavy preponderance of active…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.