Tuesday, February 25, 2014
February 25, 2014: Short Shorts: Ernest Hemingway
[To commemorate the end of our shortest month—my younger son recently asked me, “Why does February only get 28 days?!”—a series on five great American stories that are as short as they are powerful. Add your favorites in comments!]
On the story that captures the varieties and vicissitudes of identity, community, and life as well as any I know.
I’ve made the case for reading Ernest Hemingway before in this space, and won’t repeat all of those points here. Instead, I’ll put it more simply: if one of literature and art’s most enduring goals is to portray (and thus help us better understand) humanity in all its forms, I think Hemingway was, at his best, as good at producing complex and compelling such portrayals as any American author. Of course he had his weaknesses and flaws; but at his best, again, he economically and yet so potently peered into the depths of our identities and perspectives, relationships and communities, worlds and souls. At or near the top of that list, in his career and in American fiction and literature period, I would locate his short story “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” (1933). Again, check it out, and come back and share your thoughts if you would!
Welcome back! “Clean” of course includes many of Hemingway’s trademark elements: that sparse, dialogue-driven style; the use of two of his favorite settings (a European city and a culinary establishment); a tonal and thematic mixture of cynicism and hope, the former more dominant but the latter finding its way through, somehow, nonetheless. But what I find most impressive about “Clean” is how, through its three characters and their distinct but also overlapping perspectives and situations, Hemingway manages to include so many different kinds of life experiences and stages, as well as a sense of how they interconnect with each other, with those of other people around us, with the places we inhabit and visit, with the darkest and brightest parts of our shared worlds. I can’t imagine anyone for whom some part of the story won’t hit home and hit hard, and that’s a pretty good indication of a successful short short story if you ask me.
So now I’m asking you: what do you think? This paragraph for rent!
Next short short tomorrow,
PS. Thoughts on this story, or others you’d share?