American Culture

Hemingway: the writer and “the writer…”

Ernest Hemingway: Courtesy Wikimedia

It’s almost impossible to write about Ernest Hemingway. He was such a caricature – a caricature of his own creation, mind you, both as the writer and as “The Writer” – that trying to write about his work or his writing style in any sort of rational, coherent way is, to quote Martin Mull, like “dancing about architecture.” Nothing one can say could be fair – and nothing one could say could be unfair.

Like the rock stars who first appeared near the end of his life and who proliferated in the decade immediately following his how-to for Kurt Cobain on ending life on one’s own terms, Papa, as he was called in the second half of his reign over American letters, was as authentically and in-authentically “The Man” as any guy who secretly wants to be a great artist while publicly scorning being a great artist could ever hope to be.

And, like Cobain, he didn’t count on the vultures who’d feed on the corpse of his work left behind. Or maybe he didn’t care.

Hemingway left behind a number of manuscripts (I use the term somewhat loosely) that have since been “shaped into books” by his descendants, editors at his old publisher Scribners, and scholars dedicated to that always pleasing to the masses pastime, textual criticism. As part of my now infamous reading list for 2013, I chose one of these posthumous texts, what is (please God let this be true but I know better, after all I am an English professor and this is how people in my field earn their bread, dissecting/re-sectioning and “re-considering” works) Hemingway’s “last major work,” the “fictional memoir” True at First Light.

(First, a sidebar: with the exception of A Moveable Feast and, maybe – still not sure I’ve made up my mind yet – this last book, feel free to ignore the posthumous publications. Both Islands in the Stream and The Garden of Eden are – how shall I say this delicately – ah, let me use the German – scheisse. Remember, Thoreau reminded us that we should spend what time we have for reading on only great books.)

The scholar Carlos Baker, he who supposedly called Hemingway “our greatest 17 year old novelist,” believed, as do others that Hemingway started brilliantly (The Sun Also Rises is nearly unanimously considered his best work) and slowly, gradually declined. If one wants to argue that he “got it back” with For Whom the Bell Tolls, feel free – but it’s too damned long and presages all the self-conscious flaws of Hemingway “the writer” in his posthumous work. And The Old Man and the Sea is Hemingway parodying Hemingway: if you want to read a great piece of Hemingway writing on fishing, go read “Big Two-Hearted River.” The pleasure, fear, and courage in the latter feels less contrived and more the product of the character’s experience and not the author’s pen.

True at First Light is a strange book. If one has read a lot of Hemingway (as I have) and sees him as something of a writing style guru (as I do), some of the passages feel like someone parodying the great Ernest:

“When you stop doing things for fun you might as well be dead.” True at First Light

That, to paraphrase the man himself, is not the truest sentence he could have written. Compare it to this:

“Life isn’t hard to manage when you’ve nothing to lose.” – A Farewell to Arms

But maybe he couldn’t do it anymore and knew it. By the time he wrote this stuff, in 1954-55 or thereabouts, he was a Nobel Prize winner. He’d had severe head injuries in one of his plane crashes (that probably played a role in his mental deterioration and eventual suicide) – so he blathers on a lot about how he feels at home with the Kamba tribespeople he works with and name checks both other famous writers (Fitzgerald, Orwell, and D.H. Lawrence among others) and celebrities (like Marlene Dietrich, with whom he had an interesting correspondence).

But always, with great writers, even at their worst, there are those moments when they make us remember why we admire, study and imitate them:

“In Africa a thing is true at first light and a lie by noon and you have no more respect for it than for the lovely, perfect wood-fringed lake you see across the sun-baked salt plain. You have walked across that plain in the morning and you know that no such lake is there. But now it is there absolutely true, beautiful and believable.” – True at First Light

To continue the previous comparison:

“In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains.  In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees.” – A Farewell to Arms

“The writer” was still the writer. Maybe his celebrity, his injuries, his drinking had made him a lie by noon.

But he was always true at first light.

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4 replies »

  1. Your opinion of Death in the Afternoon?

    (For what it’s worth, I just made a related argument elsewhere–that no one has written a great book about Africa, not even Hemingway.)

    • Two parter – “Death on the Afternoon” – guy who loves bull fighting writes book about bull fighting. Result: Fan fic about bull fighting…but high level fan fic about bull fighting, I admit…

      Great book about Africa? Well, Chinua Acebe has written several…but maybe you mean by a non-African…”Out of Africa” is better than either of the Hemingway books…but that bar is set pretty low, so Dinesen beating Papa there is no biggie….

  2. Understand I am terribly late on a comment to this post but I have been thinking about it for a few days. Rereading it now my comments will follow along two lines — Hemingway and novels about Africa.

    I like the “our greatest 17 year old novelist”. I had him peaking about 22 but will yield to the quote. The farther he got away from the world and closer he got to celebrity the more he became a caricature of himself. The Big Two-Hearted River was very good but I have always been fond of The Three Day Blow. He had talent and the selected quotes you provide give hints at “what could have been”.


    I sat on the balcony where Graham Greene wrote “Heart of the Matter” (or at least that is what the story told). And I remember talking to people, expatriates, who had read the book and took the stance that it wasn’t realistic. So there I sat,sitting where Greene sat, looking out over what Greene looked at and wondering, “How can it not be realistic?” It was that experience that changed the way I looked at writing. Greene was a good, if not great, writer and was sitting there describing what he saw. It occurred to me that the job of a reader was to try and see what the writer saw — not what I was seeing 50 or 100 years later. I just heard the argument that that story could have been set anywhere — fair enough — but it wasn’t; it was set in Africa and, so lamely paraphrase Papa, “it was truly told”.

    I don’t like any of Hemingway’s Africa novels and I am not as well read as most of the contributors to this blog but I think “African Queen” is a wonderful book about Africa”. The part where he describes the rain — it rains 200 inches a year but it rains an inch an hour when it rains so it only rains 200 hours a year. You had to be there. Absolutely true and wonderfully amazing.

    I also think that books about Africa suffer from lack of context. There is a tremendous paucity of writing about Africa. Let’s not talk about why that is. But you read a book about America — say “Cannery Row” and you know to put it into context because there is a tremendous context to put it into. You don’t go to Chicago and then say “Cannery Row” was nonsense because it wasn’t like Chicago is. But you read Heart of the Matter and go to Nairobi and say, Greene was full of shit. With America and/or Europe you always have a context but Aftica is alway like the six blind men and the elephant. A writer writes about the trunk and you only see the ear and you think he has totally missed the mark.

    Something of Value was a very good book about Africa and,personally,I like Ruark’s books about Africa. He spent a lot of time there. Did he think like an African — clearly no. But he was there for a significant amount of time and experienced tremendous tumult. But he only saw part of it. He was on the other part of the continent than I was but much of what he wrote about rang true thousands of miles and decades apart from where he was.

    Greene, Forester, Ruark — and, okay, maybe Hemingway, wrote about what they saw. It was realistic — try and see what they saw.