Monday, August 25, 2008

Why Hemingway Is Still the Man

Recently, while browsing though the stacks in a major bookstore in the heart of Buenos Aires, I overheard one man talking to another as they made their way out of the store. Both were office types, dressed in suits that had the look of being their daily uniform, both wearing the latest fashion in “power ties”, both flashing the latest model cell phones, both apparently up to the minute on what was “in” and what was “out” and both with an evidently irrepressible urge to share their views on the subject of “inness” and “outness” as a means of establishing their own very “in” nature.

I was already in a foul mood, because in the couple of years since I had last been in this store, it had gone from being a traditional, old-time, culture-oriented emporium of literary wealth to being, well, for lack of a better term, “a sign of the times”. When I was first a working journalist on the streets of Buenos Aires back in the 1970s, this enormous bookstore had specialized in both Spanish-language and English-language literature, with the two top floors — one of which was a sort of half-floor to which you gained access via a staircase/escalator in the middle of the ground floor — were generously stocked floor to ceiling with classic, modern and contemporary authors from all over Spain and Latin America, with special attention being given to Argentine writers, and with the basement being given over entirely to English-language writers from Shakespeare to Philip Roth and everybody in between. There my wife and I had acquired an eclectic collection of writers that included such unlikely bedfellows as Virginia Woolf and Erica Jong, Henry David Thoreau and Norman Mailer, Katherine Mansfield and Henry Miller, Margaret Drabble and Scott Momaday, Louise Erdrich and Paul Theroux, John Updike and Carlos Castaneda, Ray Bradbury and Truman Capote, Doris Lessing and Charlotte Bronte, etc., etc. Now, however, I found that the basement had been taken over by international books on computer technology and bestsellers translated into Spanish, while upstairs, the Spanish-language literature, what was left of it, had all been crammed into the front third of the store to make room at the back for a coffee shop a la Starbuck’s and the half-floor up the middle staircase was now the cashier’s counter and a section devoted entirely to music and movies on CDs and DVDs. When I asked what had become of the English books a clerk said, “Oh, they moved them over there,” pointing to the opposite wall of the ground floor, where after much searching I finally found a bookcase about two feet wide and five feet tall containing a handful of bestsellers of the type and approximate quantity that you might find displayed next to the cash register in an airport drugstore cum newsstand.

So anyway, as I say, my mood was already less than receptive when I heard one man turn to the other on their way out the door and say, “You know what writer I really don’t like?”

“No, who?”


“Oh? Why?”

“I don’t know. I just don’t like the guy. I just don’t think he’s very good.”

And I thought to myself, “I wonder what keeps me from walking over there and kicking the bejesus out of you?” And then I laughed to myself, thinking that this probably would have been precisely Hemingway’s own reaction. It wasn’t a matter of whether or not a person had a right to like or not like a writer’s work. It was about the cavalier way the guy dismissed as “not very good” one of the most influential writers of the 20th century.

Why Does He Matter?

What makes Hemingway matter from a literary standpoint is what has always made major artists matter. Namely, his originality. His influence on contemporary writing has been so all-pervasive that it would be hard for the casual 20th-21st-century reader to imagine contemporary pre-Hemingway prose, and therefore, it may be hard for such a reader to imagine why Hemingway is so important, since, if he or she didn’t know what came before, they wouldn’t know the difference.

The fact is that Hemingway was the first to actually achieve what a lot of writers were dabbling in at the time: true literary economy. Economy of words is much talked about and little understood. It doesn’t mean simply being laconic. It is not about skimping or being miserly. Nor is it a question of being abstract. It is all about choosing words accurately. It is about writing without beating around the bush. But in the hands of Hemingway, this essential tool of contemporary prose mutated into a unique style, one that permitted him to attain a kind of stark, masculine beauty in his descriptions – something akin to a well-built boat, a sturdy yet elegant Amish farmhouse or a piece of austere Shaker furniture, something of such clean, simple lines that it dazzles the reader with its “plainness”. And when this starkness is applied to the violence – both latent and overt - that often plays a part in Hemingway’s stories and novels, it becomes the basis for a singularly disturbing image, one that delivers the violent act stripped of emotion, cold-blooded, like a glimpse at the split-second between life and death that offers no choice, only fate.

Among Hemingway's most virulent detractors was another of the most extraordinary writers of the 20th century, Truman Capote. Openly, even demonstratively gay, Capote once referred to Hemingway as being “closet everything” and “a hypocrite”. But there is a certain sense that his very evident, almost boisterous dislike for the other famous writer was born of hurt feelings. After a truly bitter childhood, in which his genius shone through against all odds, Capote reached renown at a very young age and was the darling of the New York cocktail circuit when he was still in his twenties. He went in a few short years from being a failed copy-boy at The New Yorker to being one of the iconic magazine’s most famed writers ever. He was used to being the whiz kid and probably would have liked nothing better than to have the legendary Hemingway, who was a quarter-century Capote’s senior, praise his work from the outset.

Capote once acrimoniously admitted that he had never met Hemingway “but I hated him”, saying that he couldn’t understand why this famous writer of 50 “was always kicking me in the teeth” when Capote was barely in his 20s. True, when Nelson Algren published his raw novel called The Man with the Golden Arm, about a heroin-hooked poker-dealer and ex-con trying to go straight, Hemingway came out in praise of the work saying that “all of you Truman Capote readers” had better “grab your coats and hats and leave the room” because “here comes a true writer”.

However, to be fair, Hemingway had high praise for Capote’s bittersweet Breakfast at Tiffany’s and said publicly that he had enjoyed reading it. But by that time Capote was so down on Hemingway that he rejected the praise as just “more of his hypocrisy”. It is probably fair to assume that Hemingway would also have applauded In Cold Blood, had he not already blown his brains out by the time it was written. Hemingway could be witheringly direct in his criticism, even of people he liked, but he had such high regard for truth that he was seldom unfair and there can be no doubt in the mind of anyone who knows anything about writing that In Cold Blood is not only shockingly original but also an astoundingly well-written book.

Be that as it may, just as Norman Mailer would probably never have been willing to admit that his The Executioner’s Song owes much to Capote and In Cold Blood – Mailer bitchily scorned the book as “journalism”, not literature, and then turned around and used the reportage-as-novel genre perfected by Capote in his own novelesque book on convicted killer Gary Gilmore – it is unlikely that Capote ever would have recognized his own debt to Hemingway, revealed in the powerfully naked prose he applied in writing that book and his later short work, Hand-Carved Coffins.

‘Papa’ and Friends

In point of fact, Hemingway clearly had a history, even among his friends, such as Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, Irwin Shaw and Sherwood Anderson, among others, of being, at times, outspoken and even downright cruel in his commentaries on both their work and their private lifestyles and, at others, effusive in his praise of them as people and artists. But there can be little doubt of his influence, particularly in American literature, on nearly all who came after him, and even on many of his contemporaries.

A case in point is the elusive and reclusive J.D. Salinger. Seldom, if ever, has there been a more original and meticulous storyteller in American literature. And yet, Salinger apparently had no problem in admitting the debt he owed to “Papa” Hemingway (a moniker Hemingway hung on himself from the time he was barely middle-aged). It is a little-known fact that Salinger met Hemingway during World War II and is understood to have corresponded for a time with him. Salinger was in his twenties during the war, while Hemingway was well over forty and quite famous.

Hemingway had more or less been goaded into signing on as a war correspondent with Collier’s magazine after his journalist wife, Martha Gellhorn, basically let it be known that he could sit on his duff in the warmth of the tropics if he wanted to but that she was going to Europe to report on the war. Actually, Hemingway wasn’t inactive in the war effort. A man of action as well as intellect, he had converted his yacht, the Pilar, into a well-armed patrol boat and he and his crew were commissioned to scour the waters around Florida and Cuba for enemy subs that might attack U.S. shipping. It has been suggested that they were probably doing more drinking, fishing and playing with weapons than patrolling, but the quasi-naval task was a real one. Anyway, his male pride willed out and he took the contract with Collier's so as to compete directly with Martha, making this his third war (and third wife), following his involvement in World War I and the Spanish Civil War.

Salinger was attached to Army Intelligence, where his proficiency in both French and German made him useful to the Army as an interpreter for the interrogation of prisoners of war. He was also among the first troops to enter the liberated Nazi concentration camps. He obviously lived one of the darkest sides of the world conflict and was deeply scarred by it, having received treatment for what now is called “combat stress condition” but what back then was known as battle fatigue. And there can be little doubt that his brilliant, longish short story, For Esmé with Love and Squalor about a stressed-out World War II NCO who is profoundly moved by the tender intelligence of a young girl, is largely autobiographical. At any rate, his meeting and establishing a relationship of sorts with Hemingway must have been one of the high points of his years as a soldier. As a matter of fact, in a letter that he sent to Hemingway in July 1946, the year after the war ended, Salinger would say that their talks together were among the few positive memories he retained from the war years.

Nor was that meeting by chance. Salinger is said to have arranged to meet Hemingway on finding out that the writer would be accompanying the Normandy invasion. By the way, that turned out to be a traumatic experience for Hemingway: not the combat, which, by all accounts, he veritably thrived on, but the fact that he was forced to watch the whole thing from a landing craft, because the authorities wouldn’t permit him to land with the troops. What made this twice as traumatic was that Martha Gellhorn was on the shore covering the story, having disguised herself as a nurse to get past the ruling about correspondents having to watch the action from a “duck”.

It was during the post-Normandy-landing push into Germany that Salinger was able to conjure up the meeting with Hemingway. And, indeed, they seemed to hit it off from the outset. Salinger must have impressed Hemingway as “a good kid” because the young and aspiring writer appears to have seen “Papa’s” best side. He would later indicate that he had been impressed by Hemingway’s friendliness and modesty (not traits he was always best known for) and that he had found him a much gentler person than the image of the gruff, belligerent hard case that he was always portrayed – much to his pleasure – as being. Salinger even managed to get Hemingway to read some of the stuff he was working on at the time, and Hemingway was quoted as saying that the young New York writer had “a helluva talent”. One of the things Hemingway saw was “a play about a character called Holden Caulfield”, which Salinger was then calling Slight Rebellion Off Madison. He was hoping to see it produced eventually, he indicated, and to star in it as Holden. What Hemingway was holding in his hands there, deep in the combat zone in the most decisive battles of the war in Europe, was the seed of one of the most influential and controversial pieces of literature of the Post-War Era: namely, Salinger’s coming-of-age novel, The Catcher in the Rye.

Broad Influence

But Hemingway’s influence was certainly much broader. James Joyce praised Hemingway’s A Clean, Well-Lighted Place as “one of the best stories ever written”. A number of “beat generation” writers of the ‘50s and early ‘60s were very obviously influenced by the Hemingway legacy to contemporary literature, most notably, beat icons like Jack Kerouac (On the Road) and William S. Burroughs (Naked Lunch). His impact on post-war pulp fiction and crime novels is also apparent, with popular author Elmore Leonard being just one self-confessed example.

Other writers who have admitted or been pointed to as Hemingway-esque include Charles Bukowski (sometimes known as the Poet Laureate of Skid Row), Chuck Palahniuk (author of the award-winning Fight Club), Hunter S. Thompson (author of The Rum Diary, who so modeled himself on Hemingway that he even ended up committing suicide by shooting himself in the head) and Robert Ruark (sometimes referred to as “the poor man’s Hemingway”), among many more. But it would be challenging to find any late-20th-century writer (especially male writer) who has not been directly or indirectly influenced by the rules of word-economy set down by Hemingway.

I recall in my earliest experiences as a professional writer, when I was an apprentice newsman, my then boss and mentor saying that when he was starting out, nearly 20 years before, “We all wanted to write like Hemingway: ‘He sat by the window. The light streamed in.’ Clean, clear sentences like that. And it still makes sense.” And he was right. He still is.

Hemingway himself once said that the best lessons he learned about writing, he learned as a cub reporter by having his copy tossed back to him by savvy deskmen who had marked out all of the extraneous crap with a soft pencil. In a public argument with the rather wordier William Faulkner, Hemingway made this point again. Faulkner apparently made a crack about Hemingway’s not knowing any words of more than two syllables and Hemingway came back to say that he knew all of the words but that it was no use using a twenty-dollar word where a five-dollar word would do. Still, when both were sober and in less belligerent moods, Hemingway was heard to say that Faulkner was “the best of the best” and Faulkner to admit Hemingway’s extraordinary contribution to literature.

Economy without Loss

People have frequently mistaken economy of words as espoused by Hemingway as tantamount to often “leaving out the good stuff”. But that, at least as written by Hemingway, has never been the case. To copy Hemingway well, if anybody ever could, would be to achieve a potent extract, an undiluted form, a way of saying everything in the most concise, exact and full-bodied way possible.

And as if that were not enough, Hemingway is as much remembered as an American icon as he is as an outstandingly unique writer. He was bigger than life, a true adventurer who lusted after every earthly activity and excelled at it all. A man who was in his element in the midst of danger, perhaps the most un-vicarious writer to ever touch pen to page, a man who could write about most of the human dramas that have ever inspired a story from first-hand experience. And this, as well as his writing, has made him one of the most unforgettable and deservedly admired literary figures of the last century.

In the last lines of his non-fiction book about bullfighting entitled Death in the Afternoon, Ernest Hemingway writes: “There are some things which cannot be learned quickly, and time, which is all we have, must be paid heavily for their acquiring. They are the very simplest things and because it takes a man's life to know them the little new that each man gets from life is very costly in the only heritage he has to leave.”

These are two relatively wordy sentences by Hemingway’s austere writing standards. And yet, they say more than many other well-known writers could have expressed in pages of copy. They also reveal an understanding of the essence of life and its fundamental rules that many well-known writers have never managed to achieve. This, then, is precisely the essential legacy that Hemingway has left us, both as a writer and as an American icon. And it is why Hemingway is still The Man.

  • Photo caption: Hemingway in a 1939 picture taken at a lodge in Sun Valley, Idaho. (public domain).