My New Book!

My New Book!
My New Book!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

October 19, 2011: The Importance of Reading Ernest

[I’ve decided to dedicate this week on the blog to American authors for whom I think our most prominent narratives are especially over-simplified and even inaccurate. This is the third in that series.]

Not to get all Dickensian on you, but: Ernest Hemingway was an asshole. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the blog post I am going to write. If the case of Sylvia Plath about which I wrote on Monday represents one set of potential and potent downsides to an emphasis on author’s identity and biography, the case of Hemingway definitely represents another: an identity and biography that are both so strongly antagonistic to many people (in this case, especially, more or less all women) and seem so closely tied to elements of the writing (in this case, the at best less well-developed and stereotypical and at worst downright misogynistic female characters that populate many of Hemingway’s works) that it feels impossible not to focus on them and can feel equally difficult to make a case for the author’s value (or at least feels as if such a case has to start by noting the indefensible elements). And while I’m about to make the case instead that Hemingway deserves a re-reading free of such biographical biases, the fact remains, just to be as repetitive at the outset as was the narrator of A Christmas Carol, that Hemingway was (as far as I can tell) as asshole-y as a doornail.
We don’t need (and I don’t want) our authors to be saints, though, and whatever Hemingway’s personal flaws, there are at least a couple of (to my mind) indisputable and hugely significant reasons to read him, both in general and in our 21st century moment in particular. For one thing, it’s difficult to overstate how much his style revolutionized the writing of fiction in America; at the same time that his fellow American modernists like Stein and Faulkner were producing some of the most dense and layered fiction ever written, Hemingway went the other way, exemplifying his “iceberg” philosophy (writing about only the tip that protrudes above the water, and forcing the reader to imagine the rest) with a style and stories that are as impressive in what they don’t say as in what they do. No single story better captures that style than “Hills Like White Elephants” (1927), a text in which virtually every element through which a reader might expect to be guided—including even character names or dialogue cues like “he said”—is withheld, resulting (in my experiences, not only as reader but in teaching the story to both first-year writing and American lit students) in a disorienting and uncomfortable but also powerfully active and invested reader response. And despite the story being published in a collection entitled Men Without Women, I would argue that both its style and the largely unmediated voices and perspectives Hemingway constructs for its male and female main characters do not privilege or undermine either gender in any stable, static, or overt way.

Gender relationships and identities are only one significant human theme, though, and the even more meaningful reason to re-read Hemingway is how amazingly well he writes about a whole range of other, equally salient, deeply AmericanStudies such themes: war and violence, sport and leisure, nature and identity, the holds the past can have on us and the ways and moments we can try to break free of it, and many more. For my money Hemingway’s best work is the final short story in his debut collection, In Our Time (1925)—the whole collection is amazingly strong, both in introducing his voice and style and in framing many of those central themes on which his body of work would consistently focus; but while most of the stories do so through a World War I-specific lens, the final story, “Big Two-Hearted River,” follows its veteran protagonist Nick Adams back to the States and out on a fishing and camping trip into the Michigan wilderness. The story doesn’t entirely avoid the kinds of pastoral idealizations of nature about which I blogged here—I once met a Japanese scholar of American literature who was so won over by those elements of the story that one of his greatest goals upon coming to America for the first time was to go fishing in the Virginia mountains—but it balances them with deeply realistic descriptions and moments. And it provides one of the very best illustrations of the potency of the iceberg style—Hemingway in this story writes almost nothing about Nick’s war experiences and wounds (literal and figurative), yet for this reader at least the story unquestionably connects to, amplifies and yet shifts, and ultimately transcends them all the same.
Quite simply, you can’t tell the story of American literature or American identity in the first half of the 20th century without Hemingway. Sure, he might be kind of like that boorish uncle who is guaranteed to piss everybody at the family reunion off before it’s over—but the family picture wouldn’t look complete, nor nearly as good, without him. More re-reading recommendations tomorrow,

PS. Three links to start with:

1)      The full text of “Hills”:

2)      The full text of “Big”:

3)      OPEN: Any authors (or artists in any medium) for whom you think we should get past the bio and get back to the works?

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