Illustration by Bob AulYou wouldn't know it from the heap of commentary about Hemingway that continues to accumulate, or from Hemingway's literary executors, who keep slapping together and publishing "new" Hemingway books that are cravenly mercenary and utterly disrespectful of the rest of the man's oeuvre, but Hemingway's reputation at the 100-year anniversary of his birth has taken a sharp dip. I first noticed it in the mid-'80s, when a woman I went to grad school with refused to read A Farewell to Arms in a class on 20th-century fiction. She loathed him, and his book offended her in a visceral way, as if opening the front cover meant taking a whiff of rotten meat.
She wasn't alone, I discovered; Hemingway haters are legion, and their bill of grievances is long if unnuanced. He hates women. He craves and fetishizes violence. The macho stance is reprehensible. The famous, endlessly imitated "style" is a con hiding a clutch of insecurities—which is why he appeals to fantasizing boys and older men who fantasize like boys. His politics are adolescent and/or incoherent. The "Hemingway code"—the grace-under-pressure business, the elevation of bravery to a kind of supreme value—helps codify a system of phallocentric hegemony that perpetuates exactly the kind of violence that blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.
Hemingway would have brushed this off as asinine, though not all of it is. More damaging than the academic turn against him, though, is the fact that not many of our emerging writers seem to care much for Papa, and it's writers, not critics, who in the end determine other writers' staying power. Hemingway was the most imitated American writer from the late 1920s till the 1960s, and even afterward, he had a profound effect on writers like Raymond Carver, Jim Harrison, Barry Hannah and Elmore Leonard. But if you look at the new writers out there, it's South Americans like Isabel Allende and Gabriel Garca Mrquez who have influenced them, or Fitzgerald or Toni Morrison or Don DeLillo. Of the 20 young writers recently profiled in a special issue of The New Yorker, only one—William T. Vollmann—seems to be in any way Hemingway-esque, and then it's more for his globe-trotting, journalistic, independent spirit than for his prose.
Hemingway mattered to his contemporary readers as much for the way he changed the image of the American Writer as for what and how he wrote. Though he was hardly the first to make brawn an indispensable part of the writer's equipment, he was the one who finally dislodged American writing from the Jamesian book-lined study and took it into fishing boats, African hunting plains and bullfight arenas.
The notion that a writer went out to confront physical experience at its most elemental in order to write about it appealed wildly to two generations of men who went to war and to the women who admired them, but the 1960s, Vietnam and feminism changed all that, and what used to look like heroic existential derring-do began looking like sweaty desperation at best and a species of fascistic domination at worst.
What should matter now that the Life magazine icon has begun to fade from collective memory, though, is the spare, paratactic, de-dramatized prose style; that will remain Hemingway's distinction. But emerging writers seem as cool to the prose as to his image. If anything unites ambitious writers in their 20s and 30s, it's their (completely understandable) obsession with mass media, with the way it so overpopulates the world with words and images that it seems to make writers superfluous. For a while, Raymond Carver seemed to master that noise with a form of Hemingway-inspired minimalism that re-created a pure space for aesthetic meditation. But once Carver's era passed, writers have mostly said, "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em." Lots of our new writers name their novels after pop songs (just like the movies), zap their sentences with the juice of video and the Internet, and create a hardly perceptible line between an enthusiastic embrace of mass culture and an irony toward the ways it devalues language. What can Hemingway's famous advice to writers—"All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know"—mean when it's only a matter of time until that very sentence will get used in an Apple Computer campaign?
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Not as much as it used to, obviously. But the current way writers deal with New World Order realities will itself inevitably evolve. In a few years, some brilliant new writer will read Mark Leyner's screechy hystericisms, the sparkly attempts at Magical Realism by any number of novelists, or even David Foster Wallace's superb, all-embracing more-is-more maximalism, and say, "These people all talk too much." And the pendulum will swing. And the coffeehouses will be filled with 21st-century twentysomethings who see in Flaubert, Chekhov, Maupassant and Turgenev—Hemingway's big influences—something you can't get over at the cyberbar. And The Sun Also Rises won't be just a dream-stimulant for college kids who fantasize about drinking and making love in Paris entre-deux-guerres but a manual on how to use language to reorder chaos.
This is all probably a dream-stimulant of my own, but maybe not. Ever since Modernism got going, the need for innovation, deconstruction and reconstruction has been constant, and so just as punk made rock new and grunge and rap pumped blood into 1980s pop, writers will always feel the need to get elemental again. The impulse, as T.S. Eliot put it (he got it from Mallarm), "to purify the dialect of the tribe" may be wired into literary history, and when its time comes round again, Hemingway will be there to render some advice. And writers will relearn the terrifying clarity Hemingway found when consciousness unprotected by its illusions seems to hit raw Being. You see it again and again in "Big Two-Hearted River," in two dozen other short stories and in The Sun Also Rises, as well as parts of A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Old Man and the Sea. In those works, Hemingway found ways not just to describe a then-new experience (modern despair, the death of God, the feeling of being utterly unsponsored and free) but also to show how language could be used to confront that new emptiness of being head-on—purposefully and meaningfully. Hemingway used literature as a weapon of defense, finally, because to him life was war, not just against Germans or Spaniards or women or bulls or boxing opponents, but also against the metaphysical maw beneath him that prevented him from ever getting any peace. (Writing was the only clean, well-lit place he had.)
Other writers gave us more agreeable encounters with 20th-century emptiness—less violent or more beautiful or more "correct" —but few have made it so palpable and unyielding. And as long as that emptiness still pulses hard and strong beneath culture's white noise, we can never count Hemingway out.
Hemingway Appreciation Night at Barnes &Noble, 7777 Edinger Ave., Huntington Beach, (714) 897-8781. Thurs., July 22, 7 p.m. Free.