The Man Behind the Hemingway Myth

From The Wall Street Journal:

Early next month, timed to the sixtieth anniversary of Ernest Hemingway’s death, PBS will air Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s long-awaited three-part, six-hour look at this most iconic of iconic American writers. In a culture where screens have beat out paper and ink as the medium for gathering information and in so doing have turned us into scanners with atrophied attention spans, it’s something of an irony that it would take the visual experience of a documentary—full of stunning archival photos and deft commentary by the likes of Edna O’Brien and Tobias Wolff—to inspire a return to the page to experience the work of the writer who, as Mr. Wolff puts it, “changed all the furniture in the room.”

Some writers write; others alter the course of literature by the importance of the ideas they express or by the style of that expression. Hemingway did both, creating an original voice that remains one of the most influential in the English language. While still in his early 20s, as a newly married veteran of the Great War living in Paris among a group of expatriate American writers who would become known as the “Lost Generation,” he codified how to write what he called a “true” sentence—a grammatically simple shard of flint that, like the stories he told with them, distilled a potent essence.

His tone was designed as a match for the awful things he’d witnessed and that test human character—war, broken loyalty, death—and for the magnificent things that restore our souls and courage: a fine painting, true love, a winning ticket at the horse races, the smell of orange rinds in a fire. First with his short stories about growing up in the woods of northern Michigan and later with novels based on his life in Europe—“The Sun Also Rises,” “A Farewell to Arms” and “For Whom the Bell Tolls”—he became an international literary celebrity. In 1954, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature.

By then, he’d played the bearded macho-man armed with a gun and a typewriter—spoiling for danger, tough women and a stiff drink—for so long that the caricature stuck. The masculine stereotype continues to complicate our ability to see the person lost inside the testosterone legend, much less to extricate the writing from the writer. So numerous are the photographs of Hemingway on safari, at the corrida, charming his next wife, hooking a big one, behind the typewriter—almost always shirtless—that the visual lore has become intermingled with scenes from his novels and journalism in a way that makes it hard to recall what’s fact or fiction.

. . . .

But all you have to do to get past the legend is to read a little of his work. “If it is all beautiful you can’t believe in it,” Hemingway once wrote. “Things aren’t that way. It is only by showing both sides—three dimensions and if possible four—that you can write the way I want to.” In terms of complexity, he was essentially describing himself and his unusually eventful life.

Hemingway, a country boy from outside Chicago, was born in 1899, astride two centuries that were divided in custom and convention not by a year but an eon. In the pages of Life, Time, Look and Esquire, he took on as a reporter many of the same subjects he had already treated in fiction, inviting readers to wonder if the first-person narrator of his novels was the self-same journalist on assignment. If his characters were his alter-egos, you can imagine him thinking, why couldn’t he be an alter-ego of his characters?

Trying to figure out what’s not being said and why; slipping into the internal dialogue of a broken mind; asking who the I in the I really is—these are just a few of the techniques Hemingway developed that changed the boundaries of fiction and how it was written. Stripping his prose of all ornament, he wrote like a member of the Bauhaus following the dictum that “form follows function.” The material he took up—rape, abortion, impotence, cowardice, suicide, adultery—were unprettified realities that literature would no longer be able to skirt. Above all, as he codified in his “iceberg theory,” he recognized that what was omitted from a story outweighed in power what was left in.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

5 thoughts on “The Man Behind the Hemingway Myth”

  1. Hemingway, a country boy from outside Chicago, was born in 1899, astride two centuries that were divided in custom and convention not by a year but an eon.

    Country boy? He was born and raised in Oak Park, Illinois, a Chicago suburb. Oak Park is immediately west of the city, straight west from the Chicago Loop. It’s farther east than some parts of Chicago. Chicago is on the east side of Austin Blvd, and Oak park starts on the west side.

    • When you mentioned that I checked to see if Oak Park was “out in the country” at the time of Hemingway’s birth but Chicago simply caught up to it later.

      Nope; Oak Park residents were commuting to work in Chicago by the early 1890s. Makes you wonder what else the author got wrong.

    • Agreed. The “country boy” description presented a mental speed bump for me as well.

      Oak Park is an upscale place now and, to the best of my knowledge, has been an upscale place for quite a while. It’s only about ten miles from downtown Chicago.

      Frank Lloyd Wright and his wife moved there before Hemingway was born. Oak Park was where Wright developed his “Prairie Style” of architecture. In addition to destroying the central business district, the Chicago Fire of 1871 drove a lot of city residents out the suburbs. Oak Park was a beneficiary of that movement.

  2. That’s the whole point of Hemingway, the self created narrative that flows through his life and fiction.

    If you take a Hemingway short story, strip off his name, and put it in a writing contest, you have a mediocre story, because half of the story is not on the page.

    I learned as a kid that you need to know Hemingway’s life story as you read his fiction to understand what he is writing.

    That level of mixing fantasy with reality is why he ultimately killed himself, when he was no longer able to live up to his own fantasy.

    The Woody Allen movie, Midnight in Paris, captures the fictional essence of Hemingway.

    Midnight in Paris (2011) Scene: “What are you writing?”/’Hemingway’.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3wM06z5lA74

    Midnight in Paris (2011) Scene: “You ever hunted?”
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XWg2714oVhQ

    Midnight in Paris – “You’ll never write well if you fear dying.”
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4hJiVqSP4qM

    The Importance of Being Ernest Hemingway | The New York Times
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L2BY-DVPYs0

  3. I went back and tried to re-read some Hemingway awhile ago and it may sound odd but I stalled out because I kept wondering “how is he supporting himself here?” His narratives are people who are not connected to any work-day world. They have “money”, one assumes, and “taste” – because there are an enormous amount of judgmental statements. “The wine was good.” “The paintings were bad”. “The only good pizza was in Napoli.” (JK about the last one, but you get the idea.) A whole book of this becomes elitist and tiresome. He did not age well for me.

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