The widespread yet varying attention drawn by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s “Hemingway” documentary series — which ran its course on PBS last week — proves, if nothing else, that its subject still lingers in the world’s collective consciousness almost a century after his first books were first published.
While Ernest Hemingway may no longer dominate the literary scene as he had by the middle of the 20th century, the mystique of his public and private lives resonates into the 21st.
The most mysterious question to me is: Why do we still care about him?
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If one had to name American writers from the previous century with whom younger generations of readers are most fascinated today, the list wouldn’t start with Hemingway, but (at least off the top of my head) with James Baldwin, Joan Didion and Toni Morrison. Even Flannery O’Connor, also the subject of a recently aired PBS documentary, has come under greater scrutiny in recent years, if only to assess some of the racist sentiments found in both her letters and in her vivid, acerbically comic depictions of Southern life.
If there’s anything upon which literary critics and general readers can agree when it comes to Hemingway, it is this: his use of language is what endures and influences more than any other attribute of his work. The Hemingway style — clipped, allusive, laconic and hard-boiled — helped give American writing its rhythm and tone as much as blues and jazz helped give American music its global identity. Hemingway’s style, in language and in life, reads like a metaphor for what it means to be an American, for better and for worse. Our inability to let him go speaks less to what we encounter on the page and more to what lurks behind it — about Hemingway, and about us — that we alternate between reveling in and wanting to unsee.
Hemingway’s novels, notably “The Sun Also Rises” (1926) and “A Farewell to Arms” (1929), are still taught in schools, as are his short stories — many of which, like “The Killers,” “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” and “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” — are considered even greater in retrospect than his novels. Yet even those two classics haven’t been as durably read and analyzed in our own time as has, for example, “The Great Gatsby,” published in 1925 by F. Scott Fitzgerald, once Hemingway’s good friend and, later, bitter rival.
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Though a best-seller in its time, “For Whom the Bell Tolls” now comes across as overly melodramatic and, somewhat surprising for a Hemingway novel, tin-eared and anachronistic in its dialogue, leaning heavily on “thee” and “thine” in its exchanges.
There is also the matter of Hemingway’s personal life, which some believe was his most audacious and eternally absorbing creation: His full engagement with what his hero Theodore Roosevelt called “the strenuous life” of hunting, fishing and physical risk enhanced the fame he’d first achieved as a writer. His public and private peccadillos were as much fodder for tabloids as any movie star of the early-to-mid-20th century as was his mercurial temperament.
The critic Wilfrid Sheed put it best when he wrote that Hemingway “was capable of kindness like several million others, and of cruelty at which he was a little special.” The PBS series is unsparing when it comes to depicting both the kindness and cruelty Hemingway directed toward his wives, lovers, children and friends.
Link to the rest at CNN
PG asks the question – Is the worth of an author’s books determined by how well the author fits into the contemporary standards of a critic at the time when the critic is writing a review or a story about the author?
PG contends that Hemingway’s world was a far different world than the one we inhabit in 2021. His first book was published in 1926, nearly 100 years ago. His blockbuster novels, The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, To Have and Have Not and For Whom the Bell Tolls, were all written over 80 years ago. He died 60 years ago.
Do we judge Agatha Christie or Edith Wharton or P.G. Wodehouse or Edna Ferber or EM Forster by 21st century norms?
Forester, Ferber, Wodehouse, Wharton and Christie have each been branded a racist by today’s standards. So have John Steinbeck, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Pearl Buck, Daphne du Maurier and Somerset Maugham. If you conduct a Google search with the name of prominent 20th century author with the word, racism, you’ll find a long list of accused.
PG suggests that virtually all contemporary authors will write something that seems stupid and insensitive to those reading their books 100 years from now.