Digging Deeper into Hemingway

From Publishers Weekly:

Battles over books are being waged from all sides of the political spectrum. Booksellers, teachers, and students worry that books potentially alienate or harm readers because they contain racial epithets or demeaning depictions. Politicians seek to ban books from curricula out of fear that certain books offend the sensibilities of children, distort the historical record, or present the human experience in ways they don’t like. Although liberals and conservatives often clash in these debates, they attribute great power to the written word.

With tempers high on all sides, it sometimes seems easier to drop some books altogether rather than incite another battle in the polarizing culture wars. But there is a path beyond the apparent impasse of canceling or defending works at odds with today’s sensibilities. It requires recognizing that artistic masterpieces are not defined by perfection but, in Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s useful definition, are “endlessly compelling [works] speaking to the human condition beyond time and place.” Canonical works reframe essential questions rather than settle debates; by definition they do not comfort but confound. Such works touch on universal issues in terms partly handed down by tradition and partly invented anew. Honoring the canon does not mean reflexive reverence but putting works to the test of time.

An honest appraisal of Ernest Hemingway’s landmark 1926 novel, The Sun Also Rises, illustrates how to engage with a work partly at odds with today’s sensibilities. A staple in high school English classes, Hemingway’s first novel introduced countless readers to the post–World War I “lost generation’s” search for a livable code of conduct while drinking, flirting, and watching the bullfights in Spain. But in the space of little more than a single page, consistently overlooked by most critics, Hemingway uses the n-word 16 times. I have been teaching literature to college students for 26 years and know that in a 21st-century classroom, awkward silence or evasive apologies about this conspicuous use of a racial epithet by such an intentional author will not cut it. Failing to analyze this scene is not only a missed opportunity that can easily lead to the book being dropped from the curriculum altogether, it is also an injustice to Hemingway as the progenitor of modern American fiction. Ignoring Hemingway’s obsessive use of the n-word shortchanges his art and fails to grasp that a work becomes canonical not because of shimmering perfection but because successive readings reveal additional significance.

Instead of making apologies for The Sun Also Rises or “canceling” the book, students can be shown how to hold Hemingway accountable to his self-defined standard of writing “the truest sentence” possible. Hemingway’s unsparing use of the n-word serves a complicated function in his book. It acknowledges the pivotal role played by race in the project of establishing American identity without authentically representing the African American characters. In this respect Hemingway’s use of the n-word betrays his own credo of writing the “truest sentence” possible.

In a seminal study of the role of race in American fiction, Playing in the Dark, Toni Morrison shows that Hemingway needs African American characters for his project of authentic writing, but also that his use of verbal stereotypes reveals problems in his art. Today’s readers know that race is integral rather than peripheral to the project of collective self-understanding to which Hemingway gave such a resonant voice.

New generations bring new questions, which, in Morrison’s words, “give the text a deeper, richer, more complex life than the sanitized one commonly presented to us.” The question is not whether Edgar Allan Poe, Mark Twain, Hemingway, or Willa Cather offend or confirm our sensibilities. Today’s question is whether these classics remain sufficiently rewarding once we notice their often maladroit handling of racial identity. Avoiding the issue is no longer an option.

By examining how such moments shape great works in both content and form, Morrison emphasized, we gain a deeper understanding of the centrality of race in creating an American identity. A clear-eyed analysis of Hemingway’s use of the n-word in The Sun Also Rises shows how to read works that are culturally significant yet out of sync with today’s sensibilities.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

One of the first things students learn (or formerly learned) in any semantics course is “The word is not the thing.”

A corollary is “The map is not the territory.”

A map of the United States is a much different thing than the United States is. There are millions of places in the United States where you can take a step and not have the slightest idea that you have just moved from one state to another. Before the step, you were subject to one set of state laws and after the step, you are subject to a different set of state laws.

PG regularly reads news items that make him think that people are giving words too much power.

One may certainly find a word distasteful or objectionable or obscene, and prefer to not hear that word under any circumstances, but hearing the word does not, in fact change the person who does not like it. Words can have a personal impact on us only if we permit them to do so.

PG certainly knows a number of words he would never use and would prefer not to hear, but if he’s walking along a street and hears one of those words, he’s not changed by that hearing and hearing the word does not change his preference not to hear it.

PG could meander for a long time down this path, but will stop . . . after saying one more thing: Not reading anything Hemingway wrote would have resulted in a slightly less complete and educated PG. Reading Heming way did not convert PG to Hemingway’s manner of speaking, writing or living, but was still a very valuable experience for PG.

8 thoughts on “Digging Deeper into Hemingway”

  1. “One may certainly find a word distasteful or objectionable or obscene, and prefer to not hear that word under any circumstances, but hearing the word does not, in fact change the person who does not like it. Words can have a personal impact on us only if we permit them to do so.”

    Bravo! I’ve never heard this expressed better. Thanks, PG.

  2. Balderdash, as usual, whenever someone “critiques” an author of the past.

    Hemingway, Twain, etc. certainly did not present an authentic perspective of black people in the times when they were writing – because they were not writing about the perspectives of black people. They were writing about the perspectives of white people of their time.

    In Hemingway’s case, at least in The Sun Also Rises, he was writing an authentic picture of a minority, although not a racial one. The “lost generation” of post-war youth was like the “lost generation” of today, or the one of the Sixties, or the one to be born in the twenty-thirties – a small percentage of the youth (albeit a loud and annoying one).

  3. I tried re-reading Hemingway recently and couldn’t stand it. Nobody has a job, they just live places, somehow, and much of his commentary is snooty judgemental observations. “The fish was very good”, “we had the red wine from the mountains”, “the bull died well”. DNF.

  4. What’s the old saw? “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.”
    Words only have power if we allow them. Yeah, it’s hard to ignore hateful words thrown at you from every side but they’re just words. It’s when hateful words lead to matching action that things get hairy.
    Some future generation may look at our time’s ‘enlightened’ stance and think “boy those guys were idiots, that’s not up to OUR standards”.

    For example, I love reading Lovecraft – was some of his stuff cringeworthy by todays standards? Hell yes, but the tale itself often outweighs the biases of the author. I don’t expect prior art to match modern beliefs.

  5. Hemingway’s books are all about Hemingway.

    You can’t read Hemingway without knowing his history. His books are missing half of the story, it simply is not on the page.

    I read For Whom the Bells Toll when I was a kid, but I knew who Hemingway was, so it made sense. I did not read The Sun Also Rises, because I’d seen the original 1957 film which captured the essence of the story.


    BTW, I have no problem reading a book that uses the “N” word in context, and would not consider “cancelling” it, but then I am not a child raised by the “magical thinking” that words can cause actual physical harm.

    Though, when I read the first sentence of Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice, I shudder at the horror of that novel.

    “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

    The vision of predatory women stalking that guy is terrifying. I’ve been that “prize” women have sought, at least my paycheck was, and it is not fun. Yikes!

Comments are closed.