What Hemingway Means in the 21st Century

From The Literary Hub:

In the playwright Simon Gray’s literary diary The Last Cigarette, there’s a moment where he struggles to recall the name of a particular figure. Gray keeps returning to the image of a strutting, bare-chested, big-bellied man on a boat, holding up a huge dead fish. He has “a grey beard, a square bullish face, something stupid about it, and aggressive.” Who is it, Gray asks himself, who is this obnoxious, swaggering figure? “Hemingway!,” he finally remembers.

For many writers, talking about Ernest Hemingway is like talking about an embarrassing ancestor. Hemingway comes burdened with baggage, lots of it; pugilistic metaphors and hard-drinking aphorisms, an obsession with a pure and “clean” prose, a brittle misogyny and a vainglorious narcissism. And then there are all the dead animals. There they are, heaping up behind the great man’s hulking physique: Key West marlin, and bulls, and elephants, and antelope, and lions.

When I visited the Hemingway collections at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston some years ago, I was shown to a room at the top of the building where I could work on my first day of research. It was a replica of Hemingway’s room in the Finca Vigia in Cuba, complete with lion-skin rug, the lion’s head staring upward in an aspect of roaring animosity. On the side was a drinks cabinet with a row of bottles.

Out of the window, I could look out on the waterfront and the Massachusetts Bay beyond, the sun glancing on the sea, nuggets of gold in the expanse of blue. But on the second day, I had to move downstairs, to a more nondescript space, lit with bright, clinical overhead lights. Here I could begin my research properly, no longer distracted by the gorgeous view and the lion skin.

It struck me at the time as an apt metaphor for the writer’s life and legacy; the collection of images marked in our minds as “Hemingway” were, for want of a better phrase, a kind of showroom. Up there, lion-skins and antelope heads jostled with guns and martinis. The real work was in sifting through the complex and confusing remnants the great writer had left downstairs, in the archives.

. . . .

This year marks the one-hundredth anniversary of Hemingway’s first published work, Three Stories and Ten Poems, printed privately in Paris in 1923. Already, the stories in the collection showed a writer with a recognizable style; two of the three stories, “Out of Season” and “My Old Man” would reappear in In Our Time (1925), the collection that made Hemingway’s literary name.

In the stories, the elements of the Hemingway style were finding their place: an unflinching eye for detail, the ability to stage quiet tragedy in spare, crystalline prose. In “Up in Michigan,” for example, Hemingway’s description of a sexual assault is framed by the simple, direct, descriptive language of place and atmosphere. The story ends with an effective depiction of the “cold mist coming up through the woods from the bay”: Hemingway’s Midwestern spaces take on the violence, despair and hopelessness of the human relationships that exist around and inside them.

Yet the volume, as its title suggests, also contains ten poems with varied subjects—from a verse about Theodore Roosevelt (“all the legends that he started in his life/ Live on and prosper”) to the imagistic “Along with Youth,” which sees Hemingway recollecting childhood through a montage of objects and memories.

As with some of the other poems, “Along with Youth” recalls the early work of T.S. Eliot, where disparate and seemingly unrelated images are juxtaposed: compare the porcupine skins, stuffed owls, and canoes of “Along with Youth” to the street lamps, crabs, and geraniums of “Rhapsody on a Windy Night,” say. But in “Champs d’Honneur,” one of three explicit war poems (Hemingway served on the Italian front in 1918), the young writer sounds like Wilfred Owen at his most viscerally effective, describing the soldiers who “pitch and cough and twitch” in a gas attack.

. . . .

In the early days of reading him, I marveled at the beauty of those sculpted sentences; it seemed at the time as if I was handling fine bone china. Sometimes the prose was so spare it seemed to disappear, and I was left trudging through endless midwestern woods, or dry Spanish plains.

But there were things that were troubling, even in these early days of getting to know Hemingway. The Sun Also Rises seemed to play on anti-Semitic tropes in its portrayal of the character of Robert Cohn (the character is described as having a “hard, Jewish, stubborn streak”). There was often excessive consumption, particularly of booze. It feels as if there is always a chilled bottle of wine open, one Martini rolls into the next one, and the next. Then there are those dead animals. In a 1934 letter to his son Patrick from Kenya, Hemingway wrote that the hunting party had killed four lions and:

35 hyenas. 3 Buffalo bulls. About 8 Thompson gazelles, about Six Grant Gazelles, 3 Topi, 4 Eland, 6 Impalla, 2 Leopards, 5 Cheetah, a lot of Zebra for their hides. 3 Water buck, one cerval cat, 1 bush buck, 1 Roan Antelope, 3 wart hogs, 2 Klipspringers …

That’s not even touching on the problematic gender politics of Hemingway’s writing. As a male reader, I often felt Hemingway was judging me to be inadequate. Why wasn’t I boxing or shooting or watching bullfights or wrestling swordfish?

. . . .

Yet this reading of Hemingway is, of course, partial and incomplete. The obsessive masculinism of Hemingway’s fiction is undercut, not just by Hemingway’s readers, but by the writer himself. His heroes are broken, wounded. Jake Barnes, for example, the protagonist of The Sun Also Rises, has sustained an unspecified genital injury in the First World War.

On the one hand, Jake is a typical Hemingway man, obsessed with bullfighting and hard-drinking. On the other, his gender and sexuality are consistently portrayed as ambiguous; as the critic Ira Elliott has argued, his groin injury leads him to identify with the marginal homosexual characters in the novel. Like them, he cannot perform the heteronormative roles society foists on him.

If Hemingway’s earlier work is, at the least, ambiguous on the issues of gender and sex, his posthumously published novel The Garden of Eden (1986) raised more questions. As Hemingway expert Debra Moddelmog puts it, the book was a “startling and sudden intensification” of these themes: gender fluidity, homosexuality, taboo sex. David and Catherine, the protagonists of that novel, cut their hair so that they look alike, and play at performing the opposite gender, Catherine as boy, David as girl.

. . . .

There is also a growing number of critics looking at Hemingway through an environmentalist lens. At first, it’s difficult to discern anything ecologically sensitive about Hemingway: isn’t the guy all about killing animals? Yet Hemingway’s interest in hunting and fishing went along with a sensitivity to the environment. Writing to his father in 1925 from Spain, he wrote that the “wonderful stream” he had previously visited was now devastated by logging: it made him “feel sick.”

And there is the ruined, “burned out” midwestern landscape of “Big Two-Hearted River” in In Our Time, with its grasshoppers “all black” from the impact of some ecological trauma. Even those dead, hunted animals are not as straightforward as they might seem; the critic Nina Baym’s influential essay “Actually, I felt sorry for the lion” argues for the importance of the lion’s point of view in “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.” When Brett Ashley sees the bull in The Sun Also Rises she exclaims: “My God, isn’t he beautiful?”; Hemingway’s bulls and lions are less antagonists than tragic protagonists in a ritual dance from which they cannot escape.

If Hemingway’s influence has been difficult for the literary world to live with, our changing readings of him have drawn attention to the protean, fluid quality of his work. Hemingway is a writer of paradox; a macho, masculine writer who questioned masculinity, a hunter who could run with the hunted, a naturalist who mourned the destruction of the very habitats he plundered for big game. He is a teacher who will teach you how to write until you can’t stand him anymore, and then, all the things you thought you knew about him will fall apart.

Link to the rest at The Literary Hub

PG says it’s dumb to judge the styles of writing that no longer exist from authors who lived in an entirely different age by today’s standards. A hundred years from now, a class of educated and sophisticated citizens of the world will regard today’s world and its authors with scorn and disdain.

Ernest Hemingway was born on July 21, 1899. To spare you the math, that was 124 years ago. The world was a massively different place. America was still recovering from the Civil war. The South, particularly, was included an economic dead zone in many places. Oklahoma, New Mexico and Arizona were not yet states, only American territories. The Philippines, Puerto Rico and Guam were also American territories.

The Spanish-American War took place in 1898. Spain’s colonial empire was 300 years old and stretched from Mexico through Central America and encompassed large portions of South America, with the exception of the Portuguese colony of Brazil. Far more soldiers fighting on both sides of the Spanish-American War war were killed by yellow fever and typhoid instead of dying in battle.

What are today considered stereotypes were regarded as established facts during Hemingway’s lifetime. Men were expected to have a slate of characteristics and women were expected to have a different slate of characteristics. There was some overlap of accepted traits of the two genders (yes, there were only two), but, among the most and least sophisticated of Americans, there was no question that men and women had inherent differences.

The part of the OP that PG excerpted ends, speaking of Hemingway, with, “All the things you thought you knew about him will fall apart.”

If anyone expects Hemingway and his writing of being anything other than the work of an individual who came to his maturity in the early twentieth century, they’re an idiot. As to “habitats being destroyed”, there have been habitats irrevocably changed by humans throughout human history.

Most of London has been destroyed and rebuilt much differently several times during its long recorded history. After each change, undoubtedly some mourned the old “habitats” that had been destroyed.

If PG were king of California for a day, he would destroy much of greater Los Angeles that was built in the 1940’s and 50’s in the name of improving it greatly.

15 thoughts on “What Hemingway Means in the 21st Century”

  1. How terrible it must be to feel so inadequate. It is easy to take shots at a man who can no longer defend himself, but Ernest Hemingway was a better writer on his worst day than the author of this bit of hackneyed prose will ever be.

  2. For many writers, talking about Ernest Hemingway is like talking about an embarrassing ancestor.

    If I had the choice, I’d have a beer with Hemingway while those other writers are popping a Bud Light with Dylan Mulvaney.

    • “Beer” and “Bud Light” are not comparable. There are only four ingredients in beer (barley, water, yeast, and hops), and that’s been the law for hundreds of years. Bud Light doesn’t qualify.

    • “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.”

      And here we are in another century, also divided in custom and convention, looking at a petty, closed mind unable to accept that other people in other times lived differently and thought differently, is offended that a long dead smart man is still remembered for writing stories that reflected his era and his reality.

      Understandable to the extent that a melanin deprived, y-chromosome bearing, country spawn looming over his lionized (but now forgotten) urban literary contemporaries offends the sensibilities of many just for having existed and having left footprints that will be remembered well into the next century and beyond.

      If anything, the attempts to tear him down echoes the attempts to “prove” Shakespeare couldn’t possibly have written Shakespeare. (Windmill tilting, modern style.)

      To which one might be tempted to paraphrase Galileo and point out that despite whatever arguments might be wielded against him, he existed, he succeeded, and he left a legacy that won’t be erased. Deal with it.

      • It sort of amuses (and mostly bemuses) me that right now in the arts community, the big arguments are about whether to cancel Picasso, but in any objective sense Hemingway was worse. (Hemingway wasn’t a dirty foreigner with commie sympathies, though.)

        • Nope.
          He was a “man’s man”.
          He hunted. He fished. He liked guns.
          And he sure as heck didn’t do light beer. 😉

          On the other hand he definitely wrote what he knew, and lived.

          My own amusement about the snowballs is how they went Lincoln but not Teddy Roosevelt. Hunter, fisherman, warmonger…
          Of course, he was an early proponent of Progressivism (aka, statism), the label they coopted and hide behind.

          • …and Hemingway definitely disdained (or worse) everyone missing a Y chromosome in his life — the incidents his granddaughters have hinted at and even directly stated over the years are worse than anything that’s public regarding Picasso. There were also rumors that Hemingway’s racial attitudes were, umm, “of his time” on his good and sober days (not many of those over his last two decades); <sarcasm> surely rumor is enough basis to destroy a man forever! </sarcasm>. That’s where my bemusement is coming from.

            There’s a very old Saturday Night Live sketch (not available easily online) with Belushi and Aykroyd in charge of the pirate ship The Raging Queen — “manly men doing manly things with other manly men” was their catchphrase/motto. When I first saw that sketch, the first thing I thought about was “I wonder if that explains a bit about Hemingway’s defensiveness?” (Hey, it was the 70s.)

            • He’s hardly the only great writer with a less than admirable private life. As a rule I tend to judge the works separate from the writer.

              Otherwise there’d barely be anything worth reading.

              • Oh, yeah. Eric Blair (George Orwell) and Aldous Huxley were notorious womanizers… and they’re probably among the less eyebrow-raising writers of 20th-century political novels. You really, really don’t want to delve too deeply into the biographies of all too many of them if you have any illusions remaining about there being a connection between “writer of fiction concerning itself with moral and political values” and “person who lives by those moral and political values.” One might well wonder if The Picture of Dorian Grey is really about author photos… and it’s worse in music and film and theatre.

                • Right now Disney and WB both are wrestling with “personnel problems” over betting hundreds of millions on very good actors who are turning out to have…odd/distasteful/embarrassing extracurriculars. Of the mugshot variety.

                  Over in MLB, the LA Dodgers bet over $100M on a very good pitcher with a taste for s&m. The worldly legal authorities looked at the claims and moved on but the lords of the game (with their own secrets, no doubt) paid off most of the contract and cut him lose. 30 teams, 20 without a single pitcher of his athletic ability, all refused to even meet. Last seen in Japan on a minor league team.

                  In the olden days those proclivities and more were usually swept away by general agreement that money came first. Not today. Today the absolutists are out in force cancelling not just some of the unsavory but also select non-conformists, but instead of money it is ideology and politics that shields select “walking bags of rotted organics”. Total destruction for some, crickets chirping for others.

                  “Plus ça change, plus la même.”

                • Worth noting here is that, as far as I know, Orwell didn’t ever sing the praises of chastity or celibacy in his work, so in that regard at least he was not inconsistent.

  3. Yet Hemingway’s interest in hunting and fishing went along with a sensitivity to the environment.

    Seeing this as some sort of paradox betrays a particular ignorance on the subject of conservation and the history of environmentalism. Most of the early conservationists were hunters, because they were the ones out in nature and thus the ones who noticed there was a potential issue. But I would think that, even if you didn’t know that history, you’d realize outdoorsmen would be conservationists out of self-interest if nothing else: of course a fisherman would be upset that a beautiful stream was ruined because that’s one less place he can fish.

    I’m not sure if it’s the modern mentality that there are “good guys,” who have a sentimental love for nature, vs. “bad guys” who just want to destroy all animals by any means necessary, but suggesting there was some kind of contradiction between Hemingway’s love of hunting and his not wanting to see natural areas destroyed is some Fox Butterfield-esque logic.

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