Sunday, April 2, 2017

Reflections on Ernest Hemingway

Yousuf Karsh's iconic portrait of Ernest Hemingway, 1957.

In January I saw the play Mr. Hemingway by Kevin Kautzman as part of the History Theatre’s Raw Stages series. Raw Stages presents staged readings of plays that the History Theatre might present in future seasons. Mr. Hemingway was a fascinating look at the last months of Ernest Hemingway’s life. Hemingway spent some of those final months at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, where he underwent electroshock therapy treatments. 

Seeing Mr. Hemingway caused me to reflect on my thoughts and feelings about Ernest Hemingway, and his life and work. When I was a teenager I went through a Hemingway phase, during which I read many of his short stories, The Old Man and the Sea, The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, and For Whom the Bell Tolls. I also read A.E. Hotchner’s 1966 biography Papa Hemingway. As a 16-year-old who had dreams of becoming a famous writer, I was fascinated by Ernest Hemingway’s life and his fiction.

After I went through my Hemingway phase, I came to the conclusion, as a wise 17-year-old, that Hemingway was overrated. I still admired some of his writings, but I didn’t think he fully deserved his place at the top of the literary pantheon. I remember reading his short story “Hills Like White Elephants” in college for American Literature. I had read the story before, so I knew what it was about. (Spoiler alert: a man and woman are discussing her having an abortion.) In class, I asked my classmates, “Who figured out what this story is about?” I can’t remember if anyone raised their hand or not, but the point I was trying to make is that Hemingway’s style is so opaque as to be nearly indecipherable. Sure, it’s the “iceberg theory,” the idea that everything is under the surface, but if you don’t even tell me there’s an iceberg, how do I know what the story is about? 

I don’t know if I would still call Hemingway overrated or not. I’m not sure what his place in the pantheon of American writers is in 2017. Something I’m coming to terms with as I gracefully enter my mid 30’s is that all of these mid-century artists who I just completely venerated as a young man are year by year falling into obscurity. You mean the kids these days aren’t reading Truman Capote? What about John O’Hara and Irwin Shaw? They must know Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal, right? So I don’t really know how Hemingway stacks up against contemporaries like F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Steinbeck. I would suspect that Fitzgerald and Steinbeck are more hip right now than Hemingway, because of Fitzgerald’s beautiful lyricism, and Steinbeck’s commitment to social justice. Fitzgerald is still widely read, in part because nearly every high school student in the United States reads The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald’s themes of love and class might seem more timeless than Hemingway’s obsessions with war and masculinity. As a writer, Fitzgerald is almost the opposite of Hemingway. Where Hemingway goes for the short, staccato rhythm of a telegram, Fitzgerald spreads out his sentences like a beautiful quilt for the reader to lie down on and enjoy. He’s lyrical in a way that Hemingway was not, and for me, that makes Fitzgerald more of a pleasure to read. 

For me, Hemingway’s style is better suited to short stories. His style works in small doses, but I think it’s very difficult to sustain over a long novel. Plowing my way through all 470 pages of For Whom the Bell Tolls was when I started to become irritated with Hemingway’s style. Here’s an example:

“Robert Jordan put his hand to his mouth, and the gypsy looked startled. He slid over behind the rocks to where Robert Jordan was crouched beside the brush-shielded automatic rifle. He crouched down and laid the hairs in the snow. Robert Jordan looked up at him.” (p.274)

470 pages of “Robert Jordan did this. Robert Jordan did that.” He never calls him “Robert” or “Jordan.” Always “Robert Jordan.” It drove me nuts. 

I think Hemingway’s fame got in the way of his work, and has continued to affect his reputation long after his death. I think fame was part of the reason that he found it so hard to finish anything he wrote after For Whom the Bell Tolls in 1940. Hemingway lived another 21 years after For Whom the Bell Tolls was published, and yet he only published two more books during his lifetime. I think his fame and his reputation became a distraction. They took his focus off the work, which was the important thing. Alcohol and depression may also have played significant parts in his inability to successfully complete books as well. 

John Updike warned of the dangers of fame for an author in his 1989 memoir Self-Consciousness

“Celebrity is a mask that eats into the face. As soon as one is aware of being ‘somebody,’ to be watched and listened to with extra interest, input ceases, and the performer goes blind and deaf in his overanimation. One can either see or be seen. Most of the best fiction is written out of early impressions, taken in before the writer became conscious of himself as a writer.” (Self-Consciousness, p.266) 

I think Updike makes a great point, and certainly Hemingway’s career follows the trajectory of brilliant early work followed by a long decline. 

The author John O’Hara, a friend and contemporary of Hemingway’s, had some perceptive comments about him. In a letter written to his daughter Wylie less than two weeks after Hemingway’s suicide he wrote:

The Old Man and the Sea was a minor work of art, but no more, and it was a safe work of art. It was lavishly overpraised and unreasonably overdefended by Hemingway himself, and he knew that if that was all he had to show for so many years of being respected and applauded, he was cheating, capitalizing on his legend, and he drove himself crazy with his fear of work.” (The Life of John O’Hara, by Frank MacShane, p.198) 

O’Hara’s quote intrigues me, especially what he calls Hemingway’s “fear of work.” One could say that O’Hara’s career followed the same trajectory as Hemingway’s, youthful brilliance followed by lackluster middle and late work, but unlike the “fear of work” that plagued Hemingway later in life, O’Hara became more prolific the older he got. In the last fifteen years of his life, from 1955 to 1970, O’Hara turned out an astonishing 18 books. What plagued Hemingway those last two decades of his life? Fame? Fear of work? Alcoholism? Depression? Some combination of those things? 

There’s so much macho bullshit that comes along with Hemingway. It comes off as so much posturing, like he always has to prove how big his dick is. O’Hara was also very perceptive about the machismo of Hemingway’s writing. In a 1960 letter to New Yorker editor William Maxwell, O’Hara critiqued Hemingway’s series of articles about bullfighters for Life magazine, posthumously published in book form in 1985 as The Dangerous Summer: 

“And all the while there is this cheap, vulgar thing I spoke of: the heartiness, the rough play, the feats of strength, the explicit hint of sex orgies, the boy-did-we-raise-hell stuff, did-we-give-it-to-that-cunt, that reminds me of John Ford and John Wayne and Ward Bond on location.” (MacShane, p.198-9) 

Hemingway’s machismo is one of the most unappealing things about him. Real tough guys don’t have to keep reminding you of how tough they are. 

I also wonder if Hemingway had a death wish. I remember as a teenager reading his preface to The First Forty-Nine Stories. It begins: “The first four stories are the last ones I have written.” What? The last ones? You’re not writing any more short stories, ever? Did you retire? No, he just means “latest.” Hemingway closes the preface with, “I would like to live long enough to write three more novels and twenty-five more stories. I know some pretty good ones.” And you think, holy crap, is this guy sick, does he have some disease that might shorten his life? And then you look over at the date underneath the preface, which reads “1938.” And you figure out, holy crap, he was only 39 years old and he was seriously worried that he might not live another ten years? Yikes, that’s some serious fatalism. 

For all of my criticisms of Hemingway, I would still argue that he wrote some great things. Read The First Forty-Nine Stories, read The Sun Also Rises. There’s beauty and greatness in those books, and much to admire. If you’re interested in American fiction of the 20th century, he’s a writer you simply have to read.

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