British Poetry Seminar I(2019)

Ernest Hemingway


Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) was an American novelist and short-story writer, celebrated for his terse, muscular writing style which would shape the prose of succeeding generations; he was personally famous as the hard-drinking, fighting, shooting, fishing 'Papa' of legend. Hemingway was, among many other things, a Nobel laureate and Pulitzer Prize-winner, a big-game hunter, fisherman, wartime ambulance driver, Communist sympathiser, womaniser and alcoholic. His best work expresses the code of sportsmanship -- of skill, courage, self control and stoical dignity in the face of failure -- that has become synonymous with Hemingway's name; and his style is compressed and vigorous, striving to capture 'the real thing, the sequence of motion and fact which made the emotion' (as he put it in Death in the Afternoon, 1932). Hemingway is much-imitated, but rarely successfully: as Harold Bloom (in Bloom, ed.) points out, his style, based on vignette and understatement, descends in Hemingway's own lesser works to self-parody, and its paratactic simplicity must be supremely well handled to rise above banality.

Ernest Hemingway was born in Oak Park, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, on 21 July 1899. He was one of six children of a doctor specialising in obstetrics, and a piano teacher (and classically trained opera singer). His father's obstetric practice perhaps accounts for Hemingway's convincing portrayals of childbirth difficulties -- and their traumatic effect on male witnesses -- in 'The Indian Camp', one of his best short stories, and in A Farewell to Arms (1929). Both Hemingway's parents were devout Christians, and though their son was erratic in his faith (he converted at least nominally to Catholicism in order to marry Pauline Pfeiffer in 1927), biblical imagery and codes surface in his work, most notably in the fable The Old Man and The Sea (1952), in which an aged fisherman's battle with a giant marlin is described in Christ-like terms (the old man shoulders his boat's mast like Christ's cross, for example), while his very name, Santiago (Spanish for St James) recalls Jesus's fisherman disciple. Hemingway attended Oak Park and River Forest High School, graduating in 1917. He had been involved in the school newspaper, and his first job was as a reporter for the Kansas City Star, whose style-sheet recommending the use of concise, vigorous language must have shaped the young correspondent's style. During the First World War Hemingway served in Italy in 1918 with the Red Cross Ambulance Corps, being badly wounded after only a few weeks at the front; he had to have over two hundred pieces of shrapnel removed from his leg. Whilst recuperating, he fell in love with Agnes Kurowsky, a Red Cross Nurse, whom he hoped would follow him to America. She did not, and Hemingway's first marriage, in 1921, was to Elizabeth Hadley Richardson. Having worked for the Toronto Star for a period, he moved, with Hadley, to Paris in 1921, a move suggested by Sherwood Anderson . Though Hemingway cruelly parodied Anderson 's style in The Torrents of Spring (1926), the established writer encouraged his early efforts and Anderson 's influence may be discerned in the earliest short stories. In Paris, Hemingway met literary figures including Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein , his dealings with whom are recorded in the memoirs, A Moveable Feast (1964), published after Hemingway's death.

In 1923 Hemingway attended his first bullfight, initiating a lifelong passion for the sport, expressed not only in his weighty non-fiction celebration Death in the Afternoon but in fictions including The Sun Also Rises (1926, where the unconventional Lady Brett Ashley falls for a young bullfighter) and the short story 'The Undefeated', in which an aging bullfighter returns to the ring and is gored and jeered by the crowd but maintains his dignity. Bullfighting embodied Hemingway's sporting code, as well as his belief in the pleasure of 'killing cleanly and in a way which gives you aesthetic pleasure' ( Death in the Afternoon ), also manifested in his accounts of big-game hunting. The Dangerous Summer (published in book form, 1985, based on a series of articles in Life magazine, in 1960) is a rather slack and over-long non-fiction revisiting of the bullring. Distasteful as his attitudes might seem to many readers, Hemingway's 'explanation and exaltation of the pristine savagery of the corida' (Josephs, in Donaldson, ed.) illuminates the code that underlies his fiction, and manifests Hemingway's deep and abiding love of Spain, vital to the understanding of his version of the Spanish Civil War in For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940) and The Sun Also Rises, in which rootless, decadent expatriates play out their amours and vendettas against a backdrop of traditional Spanish mores.

Having lived briefly in Toronto around the time of their son John's birth, the Hemingways returned to Paris in 1924. Hemingway became acquainted with Ford Madox Ford, whose Transatlantic Review printed several early short stories, including 'The Indian Camp'. He met F. Scott Fitzgerald the following year, and critics have speculated that the tangled Riviera love affair depicted in the unfinished (but published in edited form in 1986) novel, The Garden of Eden, owes something to the Fitzgeralds' tumultuous lives. In Our Time, a collection of wartime vignettes, was published in Paris in 1924; Three Stories and Ten Poems had appeared the previous year. However it was the publication in the United States of In Our Time, in which the vignettes were interspersed with impressive short stories, that made Hemingway's name. The collection introduces Hemingway's alter ego protagonist, Nick Adams, and contains five stories charting Adams's growth to maturity (sharing such details with Hemingway's youth as a doctor father and fishing trips on Michigan lakes), and several about his post-war adult life. The collection also includes several stories satirising expatriate life in Europe, including 'Mr and Mrs Elliott' (he is a deluded third-rate writer, she spurns him in favour of a girlfriend but, the story concludes, lambasting their embrace of futility, 'they were all quite happy') and 'Out of Season', in which a drunken Italian fishing guide's life intersects with those of a young and warring American couple. The latter story had appeared in Three Stories and Ten Poems and is regarded as one of the best of Hemingway's early tales, oblique but emotionally convincing. Hemingway is regarded as a celebrator of machismo, but many of his male characters, like Mr Elliott and the young man here, are spineless and ineffectual. Another study of male weakness (as well as strength, in the capable doctor figure) is 'Indian Camp', in which Nick Adams as a boy accompanies his father to assist in an American Indian woman's difficult childbirth, witnessing a grisly impromptu Caesarean carried out with a fishing knife, while the woman's husband, incapacitated by a foot injury, watches helplessly. The husband later slits his own throat -- for ambiguous reasons which have exercised generations of critics, perhaps to do with the white man's violation of his wife -- and young Nick is initiated into the mysteries of both life and death in one day. Other notable stories in In Our Time are 'Big Two-hearted River' and 'Cross-Country Snow'; the former's vision of natural harmony and regeneration is analysed by Strychacz (in Donaldson, ed.) in terms of the Emersonian Transcendentalist view of Nature. Bloom has referred to Hemingway as being a late and dark 'negative theologian' of Emersonian self-reliance, and in this story we see the adult Nick Adams returning to his pre-war fishing grounds to find the surroundings burnt and destroyed, and coming to terms with war memories and the need to redefine himself. Hemingway's painterly talent for evoking place without extraneous detail, powerfully deployed here, is also apparent in the forest visited by Jake Barnes and Bill Gorton in The Sun Also Rises :
We walked on the road between the thick trunks of the old beeches and the sunlight came through the leaves in light patches on the grass. The trees were big and the foliage was thick but it was not gloomy. There was no undergrowth, only the smooth grass, very green and fresh, and the big gray trees were well spaced as though it were a park.
The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway's first novel, has sometimes been claimed as his best, especially by critics of the Vietnam generation, who preferred its vision of anomie to the heroic codes of For Whom the Bell Tolls and A Farewell to Arms (1929). The novel's central relationship is that between impotent war veteran Jake Barnes and short-haired hard-drinking divorcee Lady Brett Ashley (based on Lady Duff Twysden, with whom Hemingway was fascinated at the time). Other characters who converge on Pamplona for the annual bull-running and fiesta include Mike Campbell, Brett's fiancé (another war veteran) and Robert Cohn (a gentlemanly, old fashioned Jew who is infatuated with Brett and scorned by the other characters for his uncynical view of life). Brett has had an affair with Cohn, and he and Campbell thus loathe each other, but insofar as she is capable of love, loves Jake, who has been left impotent by war injuries, making a sexual affair impossible. He loves Brett but must witness her promiscuous flitting between other men, culminating in her infatuation with Pedro Romero, a nineteen-year-old bullfighter who epitomises the Hemingway code (autonomy, dignity, mastery of a craft), and is something of a hero to the rootless Jake; his affair with Brett thus not only rouses Jake's sexual jealousy but topples an ethical idol. When the affair ends (Romero was sexually attracted to Brett's freedom, but now wants her to adhere to Spanish norms), she calls again on Jake for comfort, and whilst the novel's narrative perspective (retrospective, and all from Jake's point of view) leaves no doubt that he is aware of her flaws, he cannot abandon her, especially after her realisation (an expression of the Hemingway 'code') that 'it makes one feel rather good deciding not to be a bitch'. The novel ends on an ambiguous note that exposes the messy refusal of real life to provide neat outcomes, when Brett tells Jake she feels they could have had a wonderful life together, and he replies that it is 'pretty to think so'. In this novel, Hemingway powerfully evoked the aimless, alcohol-fuelled, jaded view of the ex-pat 'Lost Generation' in Paris and Spain, and its bleak view of the human condition without any code of values upon which to build (something that Jake at least implicitly recognises) has been held by some (Hays, for example) to be proto-Existentialist.

In 1927 Hemingway and Hadley divorced, and he married Pauline Pfeiffer later that year: the title of the same year's collection of stories, Men without Women , did not apply to its author for long. Men without Women includes the stories 'Hills like White Elephants', 'The Killers' (in which Nick Adams finds himself involved with a boxer fleeing two hitmen) and 'The Undefeated', mentioned earlier. 'Hills like White Elephants' concerns a couple's conversation at a railway station about an un-named operation that is presumably an abortion: the young man urges the girl to go ahead, assuming that this will keep things as they are; it is obvious, though, that, whatever she decides, life will never be the same again for the girl. The story has been praised for its sensitive portrayal of female feelings and its unflinching depiction of male selfishness. The collection's title highlights a tendency that Hemingway shared with Kipling (to whom Meyers and others argue he is indebted) of presenting all-male groups, or sometimes groups of men surrounding a lone female. In 1928 Hemingway and Pauline moved to Key West, a location that would become strongly identified with the 'Papa' myth of a larger-than-life, boozing, fishing, womanising Hemingway. His father committed suicide the same year, and his son Patrick was born (followed by Gregory in 1931).

A Farewell to Arms was published, to considerable acclaim, in 1929. The story of a young American ambulance driver injured in Italy, and falling in love with a nurse (and to that extent autobiographically based), the novel's title refers to both the arms of war -- Frederic Henry deserts the army on the point of Italy's capitulation to Germany and flees with Catherine to Switzerland -- and the embraces of love -- Catherine later dies in childbirth. As Penn Warren (in Bloom , ed.) notes, the book gains power from showing its 'lovers silhouetted against the flame-streaked blackness of war, of a collapsing world, of nada'. Bloom regards the novel as less successful than the best of Hemingway's short stories because a longer story 'cannot sustain itself upon the rhetoric of vignette', and Wilson (in Bloom , ed.) suggests that the stories are more successful because there it is not out of place to leave character undeveloped. Others, though, have thought it a remarkable feat of characterisation to make the reader come to sympathise with Frederic Henry, who begins the novel by treating Catherine with selfish disregard ('I knew I did not love Catherine Barkley nor had any idea of loving her. This was a game') but in its course heroically rows the length of Lake Maggiore to safety, and by its end is confronted with the tragedy of Catherine's death. A pessimistic variation of the heroic code is articulated in the observation that 'The world breaks every one [. . .] But those that will not break it kills', and towards the novel's end Fred's thoughts on learning that his baby is dead implicitly link war and life:
Now Catherine would die. That was what you did. You died. You did not know what it was about. You never had time to learn. They threw you in and told you the rules and the first time they caught you off base they killed you.
Hemingway's next fiction publication (some of whose stories had appeared in Scribner's and Cosmopolitan ) was Winner Take Nothing (1933), which contains fewer exceptional stories than earlier collections, though the meditation on aging and existential despair, 'A Clean, Well-Lighted Place', is greatly admired. 'Fathers and Sons' shows Nick Adams in conversation with his son, nostalgically recollecting his father, but striving for greater intimacy with his son than he himself ever experienced. In 1933 Hemingway undertook his first African safari, writing about the experience in The Green Hills of Africa (1935), which reviewers generally castigated for is irrelevance to an America deep in economic Depression. To Have and Have Not (1937), a novel based on Hemingway's anger at the US government's treatment of Great War veterans, strives for greater relevance, with its noble poor men and decadent rich, but suffers from flaccid dialogue and flat characters. During 1937 Hemingway was covering the Spanish Civil War for the American press and contributing funds to the Loyalist cause. His play The Fifth Column , about a pressman in Madrid who gives up a love affair in order to turn Loyalist fighter, is based on this time. It is not a successful play, being, as Hays observes, 'talky' and lacking in action, with a love interest so unattractive in character that it seems little sacrifice to leave her and fight. It was published as part of The Fifth Column and the First Forty Nine Stories in 1938, alongside such powerful stories as the early 'Up in Michigan', about a romantic young girl's disillusioning deflowering on a 'hard and splintery and cold' lakeside dock; and the celebrated 'The Snows of Kilimanjaro', about the slow death from gangrene of a writer who has wasted his talent by putting off writing about things until some illusory perfect wisdom had been attained: the stories he might have told are presented as compressed stream of consciousness reminiscence, ranging from Greece to Africa. The story, like increasingly little of Hemingway's output in middle age, proved that it could not be said of its author, as Harry says of himself, that 'he had destroyed his talent by not using it'.

For Whom the Bell Tolls, published in 1940, the year that Hemingway divorced Pauline and married war correspondent Martha Gellhorn (buying an estate in Cuba to celebrate), further proved the point. The novel tells of three days in the Spanish Civil War experienced by American Loyalist fighter Robert Jordan. He is sent to blow up a bridge, becomes involved with a gang of renegade fighters, falls in love with one of their band, Maria, and is eventually fatally wounded. The novel is notable for Hemingway's creative ways of rendering the texture of Spanish speech, using not-quite-right English, such as the phrase 'with your permission', as a general polite noise; and a mixture of untranslated Spanish oaths and phrases like 'I obscenity in the milk of thy tiredness'. Its attempts to evoke linguistically the rhythm of sexual intercourse are also celebrated. The central love plot has been deemed implausible -- Maria has been raped by nationalist soldiers yet falls quickly and physically in love with Jordan -- but this is a novel whose characters and their genders often have symbolic significance. Maria and Pilar, the redoubtable earthy figure who commands the renegades in the face of her man Pablo's collapse into fear and alcoholism, between them seem to represent the essence of Spain itself. More than A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls is a tirade against war, against the wasting of life for causes often forgotten amid bureaucracy and one-upmanship (the Left is not immune from criticism here). As its title, taken from Donne , suggests, humans are interdependent, and the tolling of the bell for any man is a little bit of death for everyone. Looking through the personal effects of a young Nationalist he has killed, Jordan feels sympathy and muses, 'You never kill anyone that you want to kill in a war': this, for all its upholding of the Loyalist cause, is the central message of Hemingway's last great novel.

In the early 1940s Hemingway acted as a war correspondent in Europe, edited a collection of war stories for soldiers, accompanied Martha to report on the Eastern War (1941) and, in 1945, went through his third divorce, marrying Mary Welsh in 1946. Having already been seriously injured in a car crash (1930), Hemingway had a second bad accident in 1944. This was followed by a near fatal plane crash in 1950, and two in a matter of days in Africa in 1954. His last decade was marred by depression, diabetes, and kidney and liver disease, so it is unremarkable that, as Moddelmog puts it (in Bloom , ed.) Hemingway has been mythologised as a 'body in pain'. Trial by pain is at the heart of The Old Man of the Sea, Hemingway's great fable of hubris (Santiago wishes to catch a fish of unheard of size) and defeat, but also of the co-dependency of man and Nature. Santiago struggles to the utmost to prevent sharks from stripping the flesh from his prized marlin ('He hit [the shark] with his blood-mushed hands'), fighting until he can fight no more, exemplifying with his resolution the fable's dictum that 'A man can be destroyed but not defeated'. However, though Santiago battles the marlin to the death, and later the sharks, this is no story of man's dominance over Nature; he expresses fellow-feeling for birds and turtles, and respects the marlin in its death throes:
You are killing me, fish, the old man thought. But you have a right to. Never have I seen a greater, or more beautiful, or a calmer, or more noble thing than you, brother.
As Hays puts it, both man and fish 'show how one should act under duress'. Recently, Beegel (in Bloom , ed.) has noted that sea is consistently gendered as feminine in this work, undermining the traditional critical contention that it represents a closed male world (Santiago, the fish, his young friend Manolin). The Old Man and the Sea was intended to be a part of a never completed air, land and sea novel which Hemingway worked on from 1950; Islands in the Stream , published posthumously (and not complete) in 1970 represents the sea part of this scheme, and The Old Man and the Sea was designed as this novel's conclusion. Luckily for its reputation, Hemingway decided to publish it separately in 1952, gaining that year's Pulitzer Prize, while Hemingway was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954. Islands in the Stream is a fragmented study of the lives of two artists, the idealist painter Thomas Hudson and the more fallible writer Roger Davis, and of their relationships with each other and with Thomas Hudson's sons. Though there are some good episodes in the novel (notably the fishing scenes in its opening section, entitled 'Bimini'), much of it is, to quote Hays, 'windy conversation'. The flashbacks to Hudson's several marriages and war experiences are confusing and characterisation is weak, so that we do not ultimately care about Hudson's loss of inspiration and probable death. Episodes such as pursuing German submarines off Cuba are autobiographically based.

Hemingway's own inspiration waned in his last decade, and, The Old Man and the Sea aside, the later books are not greatly admired. Across the River and into the Trees (1950), a novel about an old soldier's infatuation with a young girl, set in Venice, does not gain the tightness of For Whom the Bell Tolls from its similarly limited time-frame, and characterisation is again undeveloped. The Dangerous Summer, which grew from a ten-thousand-word essay commissioned by Life to 120,000 rambling words which Hemingway seemed incapable of cutting, is an extreme example of the loss of tautness in his later works. Hemingway shot himself in Ketchum, Idaho on 2 July 1961, after several years of illness and depression. Numerous works have been published posthumously, including poems (ill-advisedly), letters, a collected edition of the Nick Adams stories, and the longer works previously mentioned. The latter have often been heavily edited by Hemingway's literary executors: The Garden of Eden was originally intended to contain a double love-triangle, but what was published in 1986 concentrated on the relations of author David, his wife Catherine, and the lover they share, Marita.

Before his death Hemingway the man was lionised and reviled in equal measure, regarded as vital, sporting, heroic, drunken, bullying and boastful; and his works were inevitably viewed through these lenses, and approved or not depending on the critic's attitude to the Hemingway 'code'. More recently psychoanalytic and gender-based criticism has opened new avenues in Hemingway studies, conducted by those who would not necessarily be attracted to his surface machismo. Studies of Hemingway's work have proliferated since the 1980s, and his biography is continually recycled and reinflected. Some useful works among the legions available include Jeffrey Meyers's Hemingway: A Biography (1986), and his collection of essays, Hemingway: Life into Art (2000); Carlos Baker's Hemingway (1969); Peter Hays's life and works introduction, Ernest Hemingway (1992); The Cambridge Companion to Hemingway (1996), edited by Scott Donaldson; and Harold Bloom 's Modern Critical Views volume, Ernest Hemingway (2005).

SJ , 2010 




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