“Hemingway will be the best known of you all,” the Parisian bookseller Adrienne Monnier told a gathering of mostly Anglophone writers and literary people in Paris in the early 1920s. This crowd all knew Hemingway from the Dome and other Latin Quarter cafés. He was working on the stories that would form his first collection, In Our Time. A few of his stories had appeared in magazines, but to most readers his name was unfamiliar.
Monnier’s prophecy about Hemingway is recalled by the British novelist Bryher in her memoir The Heart to Artemis (1962). Bryher respected the literary judgments of Monnier and her better-known partner, Sylvia Beach, founder of the English-language bookstore Shakespeare and Company. Bryher asked Monnier why she felt Hemingway “was better than we were.”
Yes—why? I wondered myself. As I hardly need to say, great crusts of discourse—literary analysis, tabloid gossip, critical praise and dismissal, myth- making and deflation—have formed around Hemingway’s work and life. His books are now starting to come out of copyright, beginning with a first volume from Library of America, and his life is the subject of a recent PBS documentary, Hemingway, by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. But it doesn’t quite feel like he’s due for a revival. Hemingway—smiling over the severed heads of three antelope—seems a figure too much known. Even if he may be decreasingly read, we are still living out the half-life of his enormous fame. Monnier had nailed it. How had she guessed? Ridiculous as it was to hang on the secondhand account of the opinions of one Parisian bookseller, I read in suspense for her response to Bryher.
“‘He cares,’ she said, ‘for his craft.’”
Craft. A dead end. There are many words that you cannot stand to hear in relation to Hemingway, and “craft,” as Monnier could not have anticipated, is probably the one most thoroughly worn out from overuse. Hemingway’s care for his own craft and his high esteem for people who know their work or their sport thoroughly are part of his legend. Peer-reviewed studies show that “craft” is one of the top five terms that free-associating test subjects link to Hemingway, along with “bullfight,” “war wound,” “shotgun,” and “drinking.”
Of course, Monnier was speaking French. Bryher thinks that the word she used was métier. Perhaps Bryher herself, writing her memoir in the early 1960s and choosing “craft” as the nearest English term, was under the influence of the Anglophone association of Hemingway with that word. It’s hard to get outside of what you already know about Hemingway.
Hemingway himself spoke passable French and Spanish and a little Italian. He valued multilingual fluency, even if he didn’t quite achieve it himself. He made the American narrators of his novels proficient speakers of Italian, French, or Spanish, good enough for witty banter with natives. Hemingway’s famously easy, natural dialogue sometimes represents a conversation that is taking place, we are to imagine, in a foreign language. A Romance language, no less, hopelessly full of the Latinate words Hemingway was taught to avoid when he was a cub reporter for The Kansas City Star. “Use short sentences,” the Star style sheet had counseled. “Use vigorous English.”
He did, but he was also clearly drawn to the grammatical structures and idioms of Romance languages. His contact with these languages, and his rendering of them in English, gave him a chance at linguistic play. “I’m going to take a little sleep,” says an Italian major in “A Simple Inquiry.” It can also give Hemingway cover to break his own rules about vernacular, allowing him to wring unexpected emotion from formal turns of phrase. “I cannot resign myself,” says an Italian officer whose wife has just died from pneumonia, while he is recovering from an injury at a military hospital (“In Another Country”). “I am utterly unable to resign myself,” he repeats, crying silently.
I learned about The Kansas City Star’s style sheet from the documentary. Hemingway begins, unfortunately, by wrapping Hemingway in biopic clichés (“behind the public figure was a troubled and conflicted man”) and vague universalist puffery. (His work “is not nationalistic. It’s human,” says Michael Katakis in the first spoken passage of the documentary. “With all of his flaws, with all the difficulties, his personal life, whatever, he seemed to understand human beings.”) The film sidesteps the question “Why Hemingway?” (or “Why Hemingway now?”), instead maintaining an attitude of “Hemingway now and forever, of course.” The confidence seems misplaced, not only because we’re in a period of intense canonical revision, but because, as the film makes clear, Hemingway’s reputation has gone through volatile boom-and-bust cycles.
The first bust was in the 1930s, when interest in the Lost Generation gave way to the catastrophes of the Depression, and Hemingway’s characters suddenly seemed dated. In the same decade, he published two books of nonfiction that disappointed critics (Death in the Afternoon and Green Hills of Africa), and his writing was disparaged by some on the left for evincing little political consciousness. The artistic achievement of his early work was never in doubt, but from this time on, Hemingway periodically teetered on the edge of obsolescence—an important writer of the past, now washed up.
When Hemingway died, on July 2, 1961, the NBC news anchor Edwin Newman delivered a short obituary on air, a clip of which appears in Hemingway. Allowing that he “probably had more influence on the style of the writing of novels than any other writer in the twentieth century,” Newman sounds a note of uncertainty about the endurance of his work: “Hemingway’s place in literature I think cannot now be fixed. We don’t know which of his books will live.”
The work that has lived is the work that’s widely taught: The Sun Also Rises and, especially, the stories. Burns and Novick are not particularly interested in modes of transmission (a great writer simply will be read). They don’t make much of the fact that Hemingway’s stories were for decades a fixture in graduate creative writing classes, which allowed his work to reach and inform new generations of writers—an extraordinary influence in the world of literature that at this point probably outweighs his direct influence on readers outside the academy. Preposterous to think of Hemingway, with his clarity and narrative grip, his best sellers and personal celebrity, as a writer’s writer. But is it possible that this might be the best description of his status today?
His first book is still his strangest. In Our Time is a collection of sixteen stories (fourteen in the first edition), many of them about the childhood and youth of Nick Adams, a semi-autobiographical midwestern boy who goes off to fight in World War I and then returns. Interspersed with these stories are sixteen very short, italicized vignettes, many only a paragraph long. At first they seem to be scenes from various theaters of the war: an army cook marching with his battery toward the front in northern France (“Everybody was drunk. The whole battery was drunk going along the road in the dark”); the evacuation of civilians from Adrianople in the Gallipoli campaign (“Women and kids were in the carts, crouched with mattresses, mirrors, sewing machines, bundles. There was a woman having a kid with a young girl holding a blanket over her and crying”); a miniature scene from the Battle of Mons (“The first German I saw climbed up over the garden wall. We waited till he got one leg over and then potted him. He had so much equipment on and looked awfully surprised and fell down into the garden”).
But the vignettes unexpectedly move into other realms. In one, six cabinet ministers are about to be executed by a firing squad of soldiers (nationalities unspecified). They are lined up against the wall of a hospital in pouring rain:
One of the ministers was sick with typhoid. Two soldiers carried him downstairs and out into the rain. They tried to hold him up against the wall but he sat down in a puddle of water. The other five stood very quietly against the wall. Finally the officer told the soldiers it was no good trying to make him stand up. When they fired the first volley he was sitting down in the water with his head on his knees.
Other sketches go further afield, away from war entirely. Six of them are bullfighting scenes in which animals and people get gored or stabbed. Another shows a police officer in an unnamed American city unceremoniously shooting two thieves who have robbed a cigar store. “You oughtn’t to have done it,” his partner tells him when he realizes both thieves are dead. “There’s liable to be a hell of a lot of trouble.” To which the officer answers, “They’re crooks, ain’t they?” and “They’re wops, ain’t they? Who the hell is going to make any trouble?”
In another, Hemingway writes about the execution of the Chicago gangster Sam Cardinelli (he spells it Cardinella), during which he refused to walk to the gallows and famously had to be hanged while tied to a chair:
While they were strapping his legs together two guards held him up and the two priests were whispering to him. “Be a man, my son,” said one priest. When they came toward him with a cap to put over his head Sam Cardinella lost control of his sphincter muscle. The guards who had been holding him up both dropped him. They were both disgusted. “How about a chair, Will?” asked one of the guards. “Better get one,” said a man in a derby hat.
You might look at In Our Time and wonder, What is this? What is the relationship between the vignettes and the stories, or among the vignettes themselves? When Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry was first published in the US in the late 1920s, critics compared him to Hemingway to help American readers assimilate the Russian writer. But Babel’s geometries are easier to understand than those of In Our Time. Red Cavalry covers the action—in the broadest sense—unfolding between Zhitomir and Zamosc in the Polish-Soviet War: the front lines, the terrorization of civilians, the relations among soldiers and villagers. A wartime landscape is filled in piece by piece.
Hemingway’s sketches don’t end up forming a landscape of war. They are more like items in an unseemly scrapbook, a collection of disparate scenes of violence and death whose variety becomes unsettling. There is, I think, the barest suggestion of a mismatch between the narrator’s affect and the violence described, the barest suggestion of an inappropriate enthusiasm for the details. It’s a weirder expression of shell-shock than the pained reserve Hemingway’s characters are famous for, and these tonalities disappear from his work as he becomes the novelist of stylish understatement and biblical cadences.
Hemingway places a subtle emphasis on the humiliations of violent death, and the leveling effects of these humiliations: the German soldier looking surprised, the mob kingpin losing bowel control, the cabinet minister too ill to stand up for his execution—all unmanned in acts of violence that, placed together, seem to trouble the distinctions commonly made between states of war and peace, between extrajudicial killing by a rogue cop and legal execution by the state.
Hemingway referred to his vignettes simply as scenes of violent death, but they are more specifically deaths carried out through organized violence—military, sporting, police. The vignettes about the gangster and the policemen are drawn from Hemingway’s brief stint at The Kansas City Star. He covered local crime as part of his beat, but the two sketches he made from this material share something that separates them from the usual stabbings and shootings he reported: they are committed by state authorities. His characters’ violence is impersonal, bureaucratic, and rule-bound (or pointedly in excess of their license, as in the case of the cop).
Bureaucracy, governments, institutions, states: these terms are not widely associated with Hemingway. Yet here in his earliest writing is evidence of an attunement to something like systems of violence, though he wouldn’t have put it that way. Such systems are less an interest of his than a set of obstacles he can’t avoid bumping into as he pursues his subject: soldiers and other men who have a warrant and a mandate to commit violence.
I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain. We had heard them, sometimes standing in the rain almost out of earshot, so that only the shouted words came through, and had read them on proclamations that were slapped up by billposters over other proclamations, now for a long time, and I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it. There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity. Certain numbers were the same way and certain dates and these with the names of the places were all you could say and have them mean anything. Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.
Out of context, this famous passage from A Farewell to Arms is probably the most powerful Hemingway wrote. Voiced by Frederic Henry, an American ambulance driver with the Italian army who will eventually desert, it’s a perfect distillation of the antiwar sentiment of the time, gathering common metaphors and tropes (soldiers are herd animals; the war is a tremendous waste of life) into an indictment of militaristic cant and a reclamation of the soldier’s integrity on new terms. There is, finally, dignity for the soldier; a proposition that seemed doubtful for the characters of In Our Time has been rewritten in the affirmative.
You would think someone comparing the death of soldiers to the useless slaughter of animals was a fervent opponent of the war, if not of war generally. Yet Hemingway has a way of offering the metaphor as a passing thought of Frederic’s. It doesn’t necessarily commit Frederic to any further political opinions yet doesn’t preclude them either. “Hemingway is a master at not drawing implications,” wrote the critic Malcolm Cowley in 1932.
The movement of Hemingway’s thought in that passage, from slaughter-bound cattle to dignity, doesn’t follow logically or associatively. He makes it seem true simply by saying it, or by saying it simply; he doesn’t have to resolve the contradiction logically because he has resolved it emotionally. He has articulated the worst possible view of the war, that it was a pointless waste of life. Having said the worst, he stays with it for a few beats, and then allows consolation to come rolling in.
Hemingway’s distillations remind me of a passage from an essay of D.W. Winnicott’s, quoted by Adam Phillips in his biography of the psychoanalyst. Winnicott records an experience with a patient of his,
an intelligent girl of twelve who had become nervous at school and enuretic at night. No one seemed to have realized that she was struggling with her grief at her favourite brother’s death…. Events had taken place in such a way that she never experienced acute grief, and yet grief was there, waiting for acknowledgement. I caught her with an unexpected “You were very fond of him, weren’t you?” which produced loss of control, and floods of tears. The result of this was a return to normal at school, and a cessation of the enuresis at night.
It takes a simple statement—and it must be simple—to get to the bottom of the emotional truth of a situation. You can speak of Hemingway’s verbal economy in relation to modernism, or realism, or personal style. But at their most powerful, his brevity and simplicity are in service of emotional release. Hemingway’s work consoles us, if it does console us, according to the verbal principles of a good psychotherapeutic interlocutor.
The consolation in the passage above is, however, limited to the situation of the soldier or fighter. The dignity of terrorized noncombatants is outside the scope of its concern, and not recoupable on Hemingway’s terms. “Solemnity” is more the word we would attach to those place-names that correspond to the massacre of unarmed people; it wouldn’t be quite right to say that the name “Babi Yar,” for instance, has dignity.
And then the idea that suffering that stems from organized violence can be encapsulated by a name and a date is a war-centered view. “There are many jungle places better than all your Lynchburgs in the States,” says Lafala, the main character of Claude McKay’s Romance in Marseille, which he began writing around the same time that A Farewell to Arms came out. Lafala is telling a Black American friend why he would rather go back to his native West Africa than live in the US or Europe. No single place-name or date can adequately stand for a widespread and longstanding system of brutality, except as a bleak pun on those towns in Virginia and Tennessee: call them all Lynchburgs—the actual list of places and dates of atrocity would be long and necessarily incomplete.
When you read the dignity passage of A Farewell to Arms in the context of the novel, it’s oddly placed. An affable young Italian named Gino is showing Frederic the Italian lines on the Bainsizza plateau, where he is about to start work as an ambulance driver after having recovered from a knee injury. They talk in a friendly way about battle strategy and food shortages. When Frederic observes that food supply won’t win a war but it can lose one, Gino replies, “We won’t talk about losing. There is enough talk about losing. What has been done this summer cannot have been done in vain.”
Gino is saying that he can’t bear the thought of losing after all the efforts his people have made here—an understandable sentiment and not obviously a provocative one. It makes a weak pretext for Frederic to wind up and deliver the most famous antimilitaristic soliloquy that came out of the Great War, which might have been more plausibly motivated by the words of a general or politician or superior officer—a powerful person who uses “glorious,” “sacrifice,” or “in vain” cynically or complacently, to rationalize sending soldiers into battles they’re unlikely to survive. As it is, Frederic’s passage seems ready to float free of its context, a brilliant nut graf on Great War disillusionment.
“The very grammar of a Hemingway sentence dictated, or was dictated by, a certain way of looking at the world, a way of looking but not joining, a way of moving through but not attaching, a kind of romantic individualism distinctly adapted to its time and source,” Joan Didion wrote in an essay in The New Yorker in 1998, citing A Farewell to Arms. Of course, Hemingway’s characters do join—they’re soldiers. With time, the quality Didion describes seems like a limitation, a fixed attitude that obscures rather than reveals the workings of political belief and disenchantment. Well before he has deserted, Frederic already seems a skeptic of the war. It’s hard to picture in what spirit he enlisted to begin with, so much does he sound like a temperamental nonjoiner, a man unlikely ever to have been stirred by the idea of patriotic adventure and who seems a bit too old in any case to have rushed into the war as a schoolboy high on Horace.
It might once have been obvious: the World War I veteran was the preeminent figure of disillusionment in the 1920s and for decades after—you hardly needed to explain why someone joined the war or how they subsequently lost faith in the cause, so general and culturally accessible was the experience. “Say, Signor Tenente, what did you get into this war for, anyway,” an Italian soldier asks a shell-shocked American officer in the story “Now I Lay Me.” “I don’t know, John,” he answers, “I wanted to, then.” The answer is perfectly sufficient to the scope of the story. At the length of a novel about heroic desertion, some evocation of “then” becomes more pressing. It’s one thing to write about the war’s aftermath, as in The Sun Also Rises, but another to set the novel in the field of battle and task it with showing transformation under pressure. A hundred years out from the historical circumstances, Hemingway’s antiwar novel seems not only adapted to his time, but dependent on it.*
His style was better suited to conveying disillusion than commitment. Frederic’s aversion to talk of glorious sacrifice aligns well with the author’s literary objections to the same words: high-flown rhetoric is bad for soldiers and bad for one’s writing as well. Political commitment, or even a passing wave of patriotic enthusiasm, involves a certain amount of abstract thought and generalization. How do you write about it if you’ve made a point of avoiding these very elements?
He tried to figure it out. He took his left-wing critics seriously, even if he didn’t admit it in public. In To Have and Have Not, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and his play The Fifth Column, he gave his characters greater scope for political thought and sentiment. The more ambitious Hemingway’s work became in this regard, the more we see his struggle to find ways to convey intellection: to get down in writing the sound of a person thinking or having an internal debate or what you might call a political feeling.
In For Whom the Bell Tolls, his novel of the Spanish Civil War, Hemingway goes further than he ever had in representing the panoply of war: guerrillas fighting in the mountains, cynical Soviet officers holed up in luxury hotels in Madrid directing loyalist forces. We learn about the American fighter Robert Jordan’s past—his long-standing love of Spain, his work as a university Spanish teacher in Montana, and his reasons for fighting alongside the loyalists. He describes the exaltation of joining—yes, joining—a left-wing cause:
You felt, in spite of all bureaucracy and inefficiency and party strife something that was like the feeling you expected to have and did not have when you made your first communion. It was a feeling of consecration to a duty toward all of the oppressed of the world which would be as difficult and embarrassing to speak about as religious experience and yet it was as authentic as the feeling you had when you heard Bach, or stood in Chartres Cathedral or the Cathedral at León and saw the light coming through the great windows.
But the novel wobbles; sometimes the sound of Robert talking to himself—here weighing the morality of killing enemy soldiers in an odd mixture of first and second person—goes like this:
I believe in the people and their right to govern themselves as they wish. But you mustn’t believe in killing, he told himself. You must do it as a necessity but you must not believe in it. If you believe in it the whole thing is wrong.
But how many do you suppose you have killed? I don’t know because I won’t keep track. But do you know? Yes. How many? You can’t be sure how many.
Hemingway, whose earlier fiction was so important to the Existentialists, falters in his own attempts to dramatize moral reasoning on the page. There’s a fine line between soliloquy and apparent lunacy, and he sometimes unwittingly sends Jordan across it. He was trying to write about war and politics differently, taking a risk with a new approach. The results were inconsistent. He was unable to dispel the murmurs that his best work was behind him.
Hemingway went to Paris expecting to become a famous writer and did. But from then on, he feared decline. The taste of failure, when he could get it into his fiction, enriches his work. The condition of being less than first-rate, of lacking some final measure of grace or outliving your talent, is his true subject, though he takes it up in only a handful of stories.
In his best stories, the ones collected in Men Without Women and others written later in the 1930s, Hemingway moves away from the prescribed ambiguities of the modernist story. The characters’ actions are not necessarily enigmatic or surprising; gestures and details don’t loom unpredictably. With enlarged freedom he shows—tells us, even, the old gossip—who his characters are, and there is great pleasure in the quick, full unfolding of their personalities.
His best characters are middle-aged—old matadors who’ve lost their touch, writers whose writing days are behind them. He finds such interest and texture in their unhappiness, gives such generous authorial attention to the has-beens and the never-panned-outs that it makes you look forward to being one.
The influence of Hemingway’s writing on the American short story, through writers like Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie, and Amy Hempel, is well traced. His influence on American novels is more diffuse. One place it can be felt is in those books called coming-of-age novels, either written expressly for young adults or especially loved by readers in their teens and early twenties. We know that his work inspired Salinger (the two corresponded, expressed mutual admiration) and, both directly and through Salinger, a subsequent generation of young writers. I think of Hemingway in a certain gesture at the end of such books, a particular way that the authors have of sending their young narrators (it’s always a first-person narrator) into new pastures. The narrator steps out into the rest of his life—the steps not just figurative but literal, the motion of walking conveying a sense of progress into (or a return to) the stream of worldly life, as in the last line of A Farewell to Arms: “After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain.”
Frederic, in the closing scene, is of course suffering fresh grief, and it may seem strange to hear notes of possibility in his abrupt departure from the hospital room where the bodies of his wife and newborn son lie. But that is, I think, what other writers have extracted from it. (You could also argue that because the love story is unconvincing, there is an unintended feeling of jettisoned weight as Frederic steps out the door.)
You can hear Hemingway at the end of “Goodbye, Columbus” (from the early part of Roth’s career, before he broke away from decorous understatement), when Neil is leaving Radcliffe and Brenda for good:
Instead of grabbing a cab immediately, I walked down the street and out towards the Harvard Yard which I had never seen before. I entered one of the gates and then headed out along a path, under the tired autumn foliage and the dark sky. I wanted to be alone, in the dark; not because I wanted to think about anything, but rather because, just for a while, I wanted to think about nothing.
And in The Bell Jar, in more expressionistic form, when Esther Greenwood walks in for her exit interview with the staff of the psychiatric hospital: “The eyes and the faces all turned themselves toward me, and guiding myself by them, as by a magical thread, I stepped into the room.” A stylized, snappier variation is the last line of S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders (which recapitulates the novel’s first line): “When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home.” And there’s the optimistic swell at the beginning of the last movement of Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City: “The first light of the morning outlines the towers of the World Trade Center at the tip of the Island. You turn in the other direction and start uptown.”
Hemingway, at the end of his life, was losing young readers, mostly to their bootleg copies of Henry Miller. The summer that Hemingway killed himself, in 1961, Grove Press printed the first US edition of Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, which had been published in France in 1934 but prohibited in the US. It was a best seller, making Miller, by then in his seventies, a new American celebrity writer around whom formed a cult of admirers. Miller was eight years older than Hemingway. He had been forty-one years old when he wrote his breakthrough book. He had paid up front with his failure and could be serene in his belated success. The voice of Tropic of Cancer sounds youthful, while the voice of The Sun Also Rises is world-weary. Miller made voluble criticisms of American imperialism and capitalism, though he had neither served in the military nor participated in political action—he did not lend his body to a cause, and truly never joined. You wouldn’t find in Miller’s fiction the grit of self-castigation: his narrator’s failure is behind him—before, things were bad with writing; now he is going with his own flow.
“The adjective has come back, after its ten years’ exile,” wrote Orwell in 1940 in praise of Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. “English is treated as a spoken language, but spoken without fear, i.e., without fear of rhetoric or of the unusual or poetical word.” Of course, Miller doesn’t need to fear: he has a limited emotional range and limited emotional effects. He isn’t going to apply his poetic speech to feelings—at least not with a straight face—and therefore doesn’t risk falling into a sopping well of sentiment, a danger that Hemingway has to watch for.
Edwin Newman’s obituary summed up Hemingway’s style as “terse, often flat, sardonic” and “almost painfully masculine.” Without feelings, Hemingway is a big-game hunter who’s a bit dumb about politics, a man of few words. His emotional authority often gets left out of the nutshell version of his legacy. Not coincidentally, it’s a part of his writing that’s mysterious. It’s difficult to emulate and even harder to explain.
September 23, 2021
Conceiving the Future
The Well-Blown Mind
It may also have aged badly because of the tinny love story between Frederic and a British nurse named Catherine, who ultimately dies in childbirth along with his newborn son, that occupies long stretches of the book. Hemingway is far better on hating one’s wife than on loving her. His depictions of amorous couples are numerous—they feature in A Farewell to Arms, To Have and Have Not, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and the posthumously published Garden of Eden—with results mostly ranging from insipid to wretched. An alternate key to understanding which of Hemingway’s works have endured might be: only the ones with unhappy couples or unrequited lovers. ↩