Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Inevitable Ernest Hemingway Post

The Sun Also RisesThis was inevitable. No weblog that represents itself to address classic English-language literature of interest to men would be complete without an extended discussion of Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway’s carefully-crafted public image was the consummate man’s man. He was (or at least presented himself to be) the ultimate sport-fishing, big game-hunting, womanizing, hard-drinking, expatriate war correspondent of his generation. And perhaps he was all these things, though there seems to be little doubt that his tremendous talent for crafting prose was equally matched by his talents for self-promotion and social climbing.

A Farewell To ArmsPutting the image of Hemingway-as-self-publicist to one side for a moment, no one is considered to have exerted more of an influence on American literature during the twentieth century than Ernest Hemingway. His terse prose and penchant for writing straightforward, convincing dialogue often reveals as much by silence or omission as by the words on the page. One of my favorite Hemingway shorts, “Hills Like White Elephants,” is comprised almost entirely of dialogue between a man and a girl at a cafĂ© outside a train station in Spain. Though the subject is never stated, it is clear that the two are discussing a prospective abortion. While the man favors the procedure, the girl has serious reservations, recognizing the tremendous loss that she (and they) will feel if she decides to go forward. What makes the story powerful is the careful dance between the two around a difficult subject and the hidden (but universally understood) meaning behind the literal words that are exchanged between them. Whatever one might think of Hemingway as a person, writing like this leave no doubt of his tremendous talent.

We have not read the entire bibliography of Ernest Hemingway, but we have read most of his novels and a smattering of collections and non-fiction, as well as several books about the author himself. The following is a list of the works that we have read and a note of reaction to each.

The Sun Also Rises(1926): A masterful depiction of sexual tension between male friends set against the Festival of San Fermin (and the Running of the Bulls) in Pamplona. The novel was based on actual events wherein, not surprisingly, Hemingway sought the attentions of a woman other than his wife. Incredibly, the manuscript took Hemingway only six weeks to write.

For Whom the Bell Tolls (Scribner Classics)A Farewell to Arms (1926): Based upon Hemingway’s own experience as an ambulance driver on the Italian front in World War I, this novel treats a soldier’s love for a woman against the backdrop of the political treachery that was experienced by men in uniform as power see-sawed between the Italians and the Austro-German troops.

To Have and Have Not (1929): Hemingway’s only novel set on American soil, this book treats the depression-era difficulties of a charter boat captain, who plies the waters between Cuba and Key West. Not generally considered Hemingway’s best work, it is interesting for the Steinbeck-like social commentary that it contains. The Literate Man reviewed this book several months ago, which review you can find here.

The Old Man and The SeaFor Whom the Bell Tolls (1940): The story of an American demolitions expert fighting with the Republicans against the fascist forces of Franco during the Spanish Civil War, this is our favorite of all the Hemingway novels. The desperation and hard resilience of the Republican forces, who are certain of defeat and see the death of a great socialist cause, leaps off the page, as does the more general topic of the individual horrors and atrocities of civil war.

Islands in the Stream : A NovelThe Old Man and the Sea (1952): More of a novella than a novel, this book won Hemingway the Pulitzer Prize in 1952 (though it was officially awarded for his body of work). The work treats the story of Santiago, a Cuban fisherman who engages in an epic multi-day battle with a giant marlin far out in the Caribbean Sea. Many consider the story to symbolize Hemingway’s own battle against his critics, though Hemingway himself never admitted to the connection.

Death in the AfternoonIslands in the Stream (1970): The first posthumous work published from among Hemingway’s numerous manuscripts, the book looks at three stages in the life of Thomas Hudson, American painter. The first is with his sons on the island of Bimini, the second as a reconnaissance official tracking German submarines through the islands of the Caribbean during World War II, and the last is the ambiguous end of the protagonist as he comes to grips with the death of his son by war.

A Moveable Feast: The Restored EditionDeath in the Afternoon (1932): Hemingway’s first work of non-fiction, Death in the Afternoon treats the Spanish sport of bullfighting, including extensive technical analysis of the proper style of the matador. Hemingway’s admiration for the “sport” shines through on every page. For myself, well-written though it is, this book convinced me that there is no reasonable justification for the continued sport-slaughter of bulls in Spain or anywhere else for that matter.

A Moveable Feast (1964): This is probably Hemingway’s best known work of non-fiction. A memoir of his time in Paris in the 1920’s, the book features mention of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, Ford Madox Ford, John Dos Passos, James Joyce, and Gertrude Stein. An homage to Paris before the war years, it is also a nostalgic look at those years when Hemingway was poor and happy with his first wife, Hadley, and their son.

The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway: The Finca Vigia EditionThe Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway (1987): The Nick Adams stories aside, Hemingway’s shorts are some of the leanest, meanest, most poignant, and most memorable works in all of American fiction. This is a great book to pick up periodically as a filler between novels.

Ernest Hemingway on Writing (1999): A series of snippets about the craft of writing picked up from various and sundry sources. The quotes are interesting, but often vague and sometimes contradictory. As Hemingway once famously quipped, talking about writing “takes off whatever butterflies have on their wings.” And yet, they managed to make a book out of his numerous observations.

Ernest Hemingway on WritingSo, let’s get to the heart of the matter. Hemingway: literary genius or degenerate or both? My personal opinion is that Hemingway deserves all the accolades, and I will continue to read him until my dying day for the genius that he was, though my opinion of Hemingway the man will always taint my enjoyment. What is your opinion of Hemingway? What are your favorite works and why? Can you respect his body of work while recognizing him as an unrepentant braggart, drunk, and philanderer?


  1. Having only read A Farewell to Arms, which I loved, and The Sun Also Rises, which I loathed, I am fair to middlin' about Hemingway. I'll have to read The Old Man and The Sea, I believe, for my blog at some point, so maybe that will put me more solidly in the love camp. Or not? :)

  2. If any of his works will put you solidly in the love camp, I've got to believe that it's The Old Man and the Sea. What a wonderful piece of literature. It's one of those that leaves you feeling hollow after you finish. And it takes about an afternoon to get through. Let me know what you think.

  3. I like Hemingway because so many (well, 2, that I know of) of his novel titles end up as heavy metal songs: For Whom The Bell Tolls, Metallica; and A Farewell to Arms, Machine Head. Sorry, that's probably not the kind of comment you were like for.

    I also really liked Hills Like Elephants, and A Farewell to Arms is one of my favorite "classics." Ernie be 'da man!

  4. Have you checked out Hemingway's _Garden of Eden_? Disturbing, but totally engaging. It left me with more emotions of all sorts than almost anything I've read.

  5. @Greg - that's too funny. The official music man of my high school basketball team loved Metallica. You really took me back with your comment and now I'm going to be singing For Whom the Bell Tolls all day.

    @LifetimeReader - I've never read Garden of Eden, but I've always been curious. That's a posthumous book, right? As I remember it came out after Islands in the Stream (which I enjoyed, though some don't like it at all). You've encouraged me to pick it up. Thanks for that.

  6. The Sun Also Rises became one of my favorite books after a second reading. I was too young to appreciate it the first time. I followed that with A Moveable Feast, also excellent. i still have to read his other novels.

  7. Hemingway's writing shimmers like the sun in a half-forgotten childhood landscape. It is beyond immediacy and as a body of work is an outstanding achievement. Hemingway wanted the reader to live the writing. When you live the writing, you don't get the luxury of wanting to love the characters. They just are. You have to cope with it as best you can. I wanted to throw To Have and Have Not into the sea when Harry Morgan shot the boy. But that's how it was. You read Hemingway for the writing. What happens happens.

    Or else read escapism. But Hemingway's writing is so good it works for me like escapism works for others, and that is not a value judgment.