Why do we still care about Ernest Hemingway?

From CNN:

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?

. . . .

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.

. . . .

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.

12 thoughts on “Why do we still care about Ernest Hemingway?”

  1. Honestly since January 20th, this blog’s opinion segments have taken some pretty hard swings to the right.

    • Sorry if it bothers you, Jim.

      I don’t know if modern literary criticism is left or right. It does seem to me to include a lot of wrong-headed concepts when dealing with authors who wrote in a much different era than today. The concept that decent people, living during a much different time, might have held opinions that were perfectly acceptable for the era in which they lived appears to be not-acceptable to some today.

      For me, such criticisms seem to imply that today’s norms, discoveries and attitudes are the only ones that should have ever been regarded as correct, even if it would have been quite difficult to locate anyone who held those beliefs during an earlier era in which acceptable behavior was governed by a different social influences.

      Such criticisms also seem to assume that today’s standards are at their absolute pinnacle of development, finally perfected due to a variety of information and understanding that supersedes any prior information and understanding according to an absolute standard of virtue.

      While I believe there are a number of eternal rights and wrongs, I don’t believe that today’s popular culture embodies those. In fact, in my observation, significant portions of today’s Western society seem to me to have become degraded over the last several years.

      I’m speaking only about the United States. While I suspect what I observe in my country may be mirrored to a greater or lesser extent in others, I’m not in a position to comment on those societies.

      As far as the larger world, I suspect more than a few Chinese, including those in Hong Kong, don’t see the present standards of understanding and behavior there to have improved since the ascension of Xi Jinping.

      The arc of history and social development does not always move in a direction that provides more freedom and enlightenment for humankind in general and the population of any nation or group of nations in particular.

      • You keep doing you, PG. Given how hard 99% of literary blogs have swung so “pretty hard” to the left that they’ve shoved the Overton Window into softcore Marxism, even a centrist approach is going to look “right” to unawake people.

        Your sanity is appreciated.

    • Disagree fully and respectfully, Jim.

      PG is one of the few fair-minded individuals writing about the publishing business today. This blog is a refreshing change of pace from the nastiness that infests most other discourse. I hope PG continues to run his blog as he sees fit because it is an eminently enjoyable experience.

      • Most importantly the blog encourages questioning and debating “accepted truths” instead of axiomatically accepting the “wisdom” of the day and nodding blind acceptance we’re allowed, even expected, to compare notes and outlooks.

        Anybody who disagrees, step up, speak and make your case.
        Nobody will stop you. Some might even agree.

  2. As they say in Texas of folks like Jim, “Bless his heart.” Odd how any fair, equitable discussion/comparison these days is automatically assumed to be a “hard swing to the right.” But then, that’s the primary trick of the magic show: any “argument” that doesn’t toe the line of current rhetoric is automatically labeled “hard right.” Someday the pendulum will swing back, cancel culture and those who would shame others into silence will get less coverage, and all points of view will again be welcome.

  3. I wouldn’t mind seeing a reasoned discussion of why Hemingway no longer matters…as long as it’s grounded in the literary culture of the 20th and his impact on those that followed. But that’s not what current literary critics do, it seems.

    Rather like judging Alexander of Macedon by Mahatma Gandhi rules.
    Not exactly a productive exercise.

  4. I would really like to know by what standard Flannery O’Conner is judged as racist; if it’s by “well, she said unkind things about black people,” O’Conner had unkind things to say about everyone–the woman was well-nigh misanthropic.

    And as a side note, PG, the blog has not moved rightwards; you seem to have maintained the same positions you always have.

  5. I agree that writers should be judged by their era, not by ours.

    But I find the work of all of the writers on the OP’s list boring, including Hemingway. Of course, the only one I’ve reread recently was F. Scott Fitzgerald; “The Great Gatsby” put me to sleep. I’m not inclined to torture myself (again) with the others.

    Mind you, if the OP had included Agatha Christie and some of the SF/F “pulp” writers I would have a different reaction. 😉

    • ERB would probably cause seizures among todays critics if any dared read him.

      On the one hand his few westerns (mostly mystery/comedy) include “dime store indians” as typical of the pulps while two of his best novels (a single story, really) present natives as abused, oppressed, and rational at a time it wasn’t fashionable. But since he actually *lived* the millieu while serving in the army he knew a thing or two about the matter.

      Even worse in literati eyes, he was a storyteller first and foremost, perfectly willing to write to market, and worst of all wrote in the vernacular of his time. And his popularity is greater now than any if the “literary lions” of his era. Mind you, that was also true in his time. 😀

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