This 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.
Putting 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 café 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.
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 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.
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
(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.
So, 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?