"At Lunch With Ernest Hemingway," by Sven Birkerts (July 21, 1999)
The exclusive Atlantic Unbound interview with the author of In Our Time, The Sun Also Rises, and now True at First Light.
So much has already been written about Ernest Hemingway before this, his centennial year, that it has been understandably difficult for critics to say or write anything original about him in recent weeks. Attempts to sum him up (or put him down) begin to sound as familiar as Hemingway's own famous -- and often parodied -- prose style. Unfortunately for critics, publishers have provided fresh fodder for book reviews and retrospective essays. The publication this month of True at First Light -- a "fictional memoir" of an African safari, derived from the last of Hemingway's unfinished manuscripts -- has reinforced the image of the author's dissipated last years, during which the physically and psychologically ailing Hemingway was capable of only short flashes of the old brilliance. It has also stirred up the predictable controversy over the propriety of editing and publishing a writer's unfinished works. (Along with True at First Light, the recent appearance of Juneteenth -- a fragment of Ralph Ellison's legendary, and uncompleted, last novel -- has made 1999 a signal year for posthumous American fiction.) The nearly simultaneous appearance of Hemingway: The Final Years, the last volume of Michael Reynolds's much-admired biography, has enhanced and clarified the image of the grizzled "Papa" in the public's eye.
To mark the occasion of Hemingway's hundredth birthday, on July 21, we decided to look back at what has been written about the author in the pages of The Atlantic and to feature the most interesting articles in their entirety here on the Web. Fittingly, what we found are some penetrating insights by three of this century's most distinguished American literary critics: Edmund Wilson, Malcolm Cowley, and Alfred Kazin. Wilson's incisive essay, published in July of 1939, still stands as one of the most important assessments of Hemingway's groundbreaking early work, and the decline of his writing in the 1930s, and contains the oft-quoted pronouncement that the public Hemingway had become "his own worst-invented character." The Cowley and Kazin articles are especially relevant today for their reactions to Hemingway's first two posthumously published books: A Moveable Feast (reviewed by Kazin in June 1964) and Islands in the Stream (reviewed by Cowley in December 1970). We have also brought back a revealing portrait of Hemingway during his later years in Cuba, written by the former Atlantic editor-in-chief Robert Manning, and James Atlas's critique of Hemingway's four major novels (The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and The Old Man and the Sea), written upon their re-issue in 1983.
|Hemingway's first novel |
What follow are highlights from the articles, along with links to the complete texts. We hope that by reminding us of how Hemingway was read and understood by some of his most insightful contemporaries these articles will add something to our understanding of the writer and his achievement.
From "Ernest Hemingway" (July 1939), by Edmund Wilson:
[We regret that our online rights to make this article available in its entirety have expired.]
On In Our Time (1925):
Out of the colloquial American speech, with its simple declarative sentences and its strings of Nordic monosyllables, he got effects of the utmost subtlety....
On The Sun Also Rises (1926):
Yet it is the European sensibility which has come to Big Two Hearted River, where the Indians are now obsolescent; in those solitudes it feels for the first time the cold current, the hot morning sun, sees the pine stumps, smells the sweet fern. And along with the mottled trout, with its 'clear water-over-gravel color,' the boy from the American Middle West brings up a fat little masterpiece.
In the meantime there had been also Ring Lardner, Sherwood Anderson, Gertrude Stein, using this American language for irony, lyric poetry, psychological insight. Hemingway seems to have learned from them all. But he is now able to charge this naive accent with a new complexity of emotion, a malaise. The wholesale shattering of human beings in which he has taken part has given the boy a touch of panic.
The young American who tells the story is the only character who keeps up standards of conduct, and he is prevented by his disability from dominating and directing the woman, who otherwise, it is intimated, might love him. Here the membrane of the style has been stretched taut to convey the vibrations of these qualms. The dry sunlight and the green summer landscapes have been invested with a sinister quality which must be new in literature. One enjoys the sun and the green as one enjoys suckling pigs and Spanish wine, but the apprehension and uneasiness are undruggable....
On Hemingway's magazine journalism of the 1930s:
This Hemingway of the middle twenties ... expressed the romantic disillusion and set the favorite pose for the period. It was the moment of gallantry in heartbreak, grim and nonchalant banter, and heroic dissipation. The great watchword was 'Have a drink'; and in the bars of New York and Paris the young people were getting to talk like Hemingway.
And now, in proportion as the characters in his stories run out of fortitude and bravado, he passes into a phase where he is occupied with building up his public personality. He has already now become a legend, as Mencken was in the twenties; he is the Hemingway of the handsome photographs with the open neck and the outdoor grin, with the ominous resemblance to Clark Gable, who poses with giant marlin which he has just hauled in off Key West. And unluckily -- but for an American inevitably -- the opportunity soon presents itself to exploit this personality for profit: he is soon turning out regular articles for well-paying and trashy magazines.
On Green Hills of Africa (1935):
This department of Hemingway's writing there is no point in discussing in detail. The most favorable thing one can say about it is that he made an extremely bad job of it, where a less authentic artist would probably have done somewhat better. The ordinary writer, when he projects himself, usually produces something which, though unlikely, is sympathetic; but Hemingway has created a Hemingway who is not only incredible but obnoxious. He is certainly his own worst-invented character.
As soon as Hemingway begins speaking in the first person, he seems to lose his bearings, not merely as a critic of life, but even as a craftsman....
On The Fifth Column and the First Forty-nine Stories (1938):
Almost the only thing we learn about the animals is that Hemingway wants to kill them. And as for the natives, though there is one fine description of a tribe of marvelously trained runners, the principal impression we get of them is that they were simple and inferior people who enormously admired Hemingway.
The emotion which principally comes through in 'Francis Macomber' and 'The Snows of Kilimanjaro' -- as it figures also in The Fifth Column -- is a growing antagonism to women. Looking back, one can see at this point that the tendency has been there all along....
On Hemingway as "gauge of morale":
And now this instinct to get the women down presents itself frankly as a fear that the women will get the men down.
Going back over Hemingway's books to-day, we can see clearly what an error of the politicos it was to accuse him of an indifference to society. His whole work is a criticism of society: he has responded to every pressure of the moral atmosphere of the time, as it is felt at the roots of human relations, with a sensitiveness almost unrivaled....
* * *
Hemingway has expressed with genius the terrors of the modern man at the danger of losing control of his world, and he has also, within his scope, provided his own kind of antidote. This antidote, paradoxically, is almost entirely moral. Despite his preoccupation with physical contests, his heroes are almost always defeated physically, nervously, practically: their victories are moral ones. He himself, when he trained himself stubbornly in his unconventional, unmarketable art in a Paris which had other fashions, gave the prime example of such a victory; and if he has sometimes, under the menace of the general panic, seemed on the point of going to pieces as an artist, he has always pulled himself together the next moment. The principle of the Bourdon gauge, which is used to measure the pressure of liquids, is that a tube which has been curved into a coil will tend to straighten out in proportion as the liquid inside it is subjected to an increasing pressure.
From "Hemingway as His Own Fable" (June 1964) -- a review of A Moveable Feast, Hemingway's posthumously published memoir of his early years in Paris -- by Alfred Kazin:
Ernest Hemingway constantly used real people and situations in his fiction. He also liked to write "personal" books about bullfighting in Spain and hunting in Africa, as he liked to write about wars he had seen and to make pronouncements about other writers. He was a legend, and he liked to write about himself, wryly but not self-deprecatingly, against the background of the legend. He was one of the most famous people in the world, he was literary material to people who had seen him once in a restaurant, and he was always conscious of himself as he was, as he had been, as he still wanted to be. He read everything written about himself and suffered over it. He was a secretly vulnerable man....
* * *
A Moveable Feast is a fable, not because the material in it is untrue, but because it has been so lovingly cherished and retraced by the author himself. The uneasy Hemingway at sixty-one fondly draws his portrait at twenty-two: strong, modest, loving, learning to write, steeling himself to write even though he does not sell.... See him now in his café with his sweatshirt under his shirt, his blue-backed notebook to write in, his two pencils, and his little pencil sharpener -- he is so hungry that his characters talk about food all the time, he is interrupted by effeminate poseurs and would-be writers, but the quiet old waiters wounded in the war smile on him, and all Paris waits after work to be walked in, to be enjoyed like a woman. He is making history.... You think this is less of an American fable than Huck Finn on a raft, Ben Franklin waiting for his kite to be hit by lightning?...
All his writing life Hemingway labored after that "true sentence." He sought, I think, the sentence that would have the primacy of experience, that would relive a single unit of experience. Hemingway had often been close to death, he always felt death to be near, and his prose, like the poetry of the seventeenth-century metaphysicals, sought to make the ultimate experience come close. Death might yet be recorded in the sentient flesh -- as intimate a sensation as eating, drinking, and lovemaking. But the "true sentence" could be recognized only if it had the right cadence and the tease of subtlety in some culminating word. Hemingway wanted to unsettle the reader just enough to make him sit up and notice a different way of saying things....
In time Hemingway became as fond of his sentences as a matador of his veronicas, and the "true sentences" were too often a run of sentences chic and marvelously phrased, displays of his technique. Long after Hemingway had shown that he had trained himself well, that his labors had paid off, that he was well and truly the best writer of his weight, he kept trying to put the competition down. He was very shrewd in sizing up and putting writers down.... The suggestion of Gertrude Stein's abnormality is malicious in Hemingway's most disingenuous manner; equally so is the account of Scott Fitzgerald's sexual anxieties and marital troubles.
From "Hemingway in Cuba" (August 1965), by Robert Manning:
In a telephone conversation between San Francisco de Paula and New York, Hemingway had agreed to be interviewed on the occasion of his Nobel award, but he resisted at first because one of the magazines I worked with had recently published a penetrating article on William Faulkner. "You guys cut him to pieces, to pieces," Hemingway said. "No, it was a good piece," I said, "and it would have been even better if Faulkner had seen the writer."
* * *
"Give me a better excuse," Hemingway said, and then thought of one himself. He saw the arrival of a visitor as an opportunity to fish on the Pilar after many weeks of enforced idleness. "Bring a heavy sweater, and we'll go out on the boat," he said. "I'll explain to Mary that you're coming down to cut me up and feed me to William Faulkner." ...
Hemingway sipped and said, "Now, if you find me talking in monosyllables or without any verbs, you tell me, because I never really talk that way. She [he meant Lillian Ross] told me she wanted to write a piece of homage to Hemingway. That's what she told me when I agreed to see her up in New York." He laughed. "I knew her for a long time. Helped her with her first big piece, on Sidney Franklin."
"I don't mind talking tonight," Hemingway said, "because I never work at night. There's a lot of difference between night thinking and day thinking. Night thoughts are usually nothing. The work you do at night you always will have to do over again in the daytime anyhow. So let's talk. When I talk, incidentally, it's just talk. But when I write I mean it for good."
From "A Double Life, Half Told" (December 1970) -- a review of Hemingway's posthumously published novel Islands in the Stream -- by Malcolm Cowley:
The weakness of [Islands in the Stream] might be that here, as in other works of his later period, Hemingway was unable to make effective use of his subconscious mind. He had always depended on it and often said that a good half of his work was done in the subconscious: "Things have to happen there before they happen on paper." In his early period that use of the subconscious enabled him to produce apparently simple works that have an amazing resonance. He descended to a level of feeling, call it primitive or prehistoric, at which natural objects become symbols without ceasing to be solidly real, and events become archetypes of human experience. As for the Hemingway hero, whether his name was Frederic Henry or Jake Barnes or Robert Jordan, he became the hero of ancient myths. That is, he was marked for admiration and envy, he was cast out by his people (in A Farewell to Arms), he wandered impotent through the wasteland (in The Sun Also Rises), he found guides and precursors, then finally he rejoined his people (in For Whom the Bell Tolls) and died after leading them in a brilliant exploit.
* * *
But what would Hemingway do after the hero was dead? How would he resurrect him and present his latest career, once again in a mythical pattern? Those were questions that puzzled me for many years, and only once did they receive a satisfying answer. Of course that was in The Old Man and the Sea.... Santiago, it seemed to me, was a new archetype, the hero as a hapless but unbroken old man....
[Islands in the Stream] gives one a new respect for the efforts of his later years. Handicapped as he was by injuries and admirers, he continued almost to the end a double life, playing the great man in public -- and playing the part superbly -- then standing alone at his worktable, humble and persistent, while he tried to summon back his early powers. At the very end he found that he had been too deeply wounded to write even a single sentence after standing there all day. Nevertheless, that private, disciplined, puzzled, and finally despairing self of his now seems more appealing than his brilliant persona. It has a different sort of greatness, in some ways resembling that of his own Santiago.
From "Papa Lives" (October 1983), by James Atlas:
It's always a gamble to reread the books one loved in youth.... Scribner has recently reissued in hardcover Ernest Hemingway's four major works -- The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and The Old Man and the Sea -- and I made my way through them again, mesmerized by Hemingway's genius as a storyteller and alarmed by the vicissitudes of his prose. The discrepancy between eloquence and maudlin self-indulgence was often visible on a single page; I never knew when he would soar and when he would lapse into the fabled macho pose that has proved so irresistible to parody.... But there is something moving about this uneven achievement; Hemingway's tremendous vulnerability and his dogged efforts to master it, to push on at whatever cost, gave his life and work a terrible pathos....
Why do so many American writers have disastrous final years? I suspect the public attention devoted to their careers has something to do with it. Hemingway claimed to have nothing but contempt for the journalistic creation known as "Papa," but the safari-suited, marlin-hunting tough whose exploits filled the pages of Life magazine was a persona he created himself. The vow of unworldliness demanded as a condition of belonging to the order of artists wasn't for him, and he made sure everyone knew it.... Maybe if he'd found some other way to live his life, some role that honored his achievement without demanding that he exceed it, he wouldn't have felt compelled to keep on writing when he had nothing more to say.
Even so, he managed to produce -- since we must keep score -- three novels and an imposing opus of stories that have lasted, as he knew they would. For all his bluster, his conspicuous roistering in far-off lands, his stubborn production of bad books, he was an obsessive craftsman who created through sheer hard work one of the most distinctive prose styles in the English language.
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Photograph of Ernest Hemingway courtesy of the Ernest Hemingway Collection, John F. Kennedy Library, Boston, Massachusetts. Unidentified photographer / Gelatin silver print.
Book cover image courtesy of the Archibald S. Alexander '28 Collection of Hemingway, Rare Books Division, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library, New Jersey.
Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company.
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