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Hemingway: Four Favorites

As I have written elsewhere, there is perhaps no writer whose influence on 20th-century prose—hell, on 20th-century consciousness—is more pronounced than Ernest Hemingway. Starting with his 1920s short stories, Hemingway transmuted his traumatic experiences experiences in World War I into something that, as David Bromwich notes in the New York Review of Books, “nothing in English had prepared his readers for.”

What was this something, exactly, this mysteriously “Hemingwayesque” quality of style? It is unique to him, certainly—we can tell Hemingway apart from authors he admired, from modernist forebears such as Joyce, Pound, and Stein to populist faves including Kipling, Fielding, Thoreau, Mark Twain…

Partially it is an idiom, a form, a tendency. What I call the Hemingwayesque is unmistakable in numerous authors who came after, some of them surprising. John Steinbeck obviously emulated him, but a figure as seemingly far afield as George Orwell shared Hemingway’s zeal for the truth. As Joan Didion has pointed out, in Homage to Catalonia (1938), Orwell writes: “the hills opposite us were grey and wrinkled like the skins of elephants.” Compare to Hemingway, in 1927: “the hills across the valley of the Ebro were long and white.” From, of course, “Hills like White Elephants.” Did Hemingway inspire the young Orwell to rush off to Spain and join up with the anti-Franco forces?

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In 1946’s “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell writes: “a mass of Latin words fall upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outlines and covering up all the details.” Again, compare Hemingway: “I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain. There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity” (A Farewell to Arms, 1929). Like Hemingway, Orwell desired to see the world clearly, unadorned, naked in its beauty as well as its obscenity.

And his influence doesn’t stop there. Didion notes Hemingway’s liturgical cadences, the “mysterious, thrilling” rhythms of his punctuation. Raymond Carver (or was it Gordon Lish?) and the entire Iowa school picked up on Hemingway’s minimalism: his uncanny ability to enlarge emotion through reduction, as if the silences between the words somehow grow larger, more freighted, through their being less of them.

You can also trace Hemingway’s influence on American dramatic realism in other media such as theater and film. Of course he looms large in film noir and the doomed romances of Bogey and Bacall (not just in To Have and Have Not). I can hear him also in O’Neill, Miller, and Williams, in the Marlon Brando of A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront, in De Niro, Hoffman, Pacino and the rest of the New Hollywood cinema of the 1970s, all of them stoically Hemingwayesque in their combination of repressed emotion and action-hero dynamism.

Simply put, we write the way we write because of Hemingway.

And maybe we also feel the way we feel because of him too. Hemingway’s writing fuses form and content. His tough, terse prose, his confident and controversial style, his short, declarative sentences provide us with a way of seeing the world, of working from the outside in: just grazing the surface of big and sublime emotions. As Bromwich writes, Hemingway employed “a method of description that becomes a record of repressed emotion. The force of absent things and feelings is made more powerful by a minimal rendering of present details.”

In an oft-cited letter to his father in 1925, the year he was writing The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway himself would come close to laying out his manifesto:

You see I’m trying in all my stories to get the feeling of the actual life across—not to just depict life—or criticize it—but to actually make it alive. So that when you have read something by me you actually experience the thing. You can’t do this without putting in the bad and the ugly as well as what is beautiful. Because if it is all beautiful you can’t believe in it. Things aren’t that way…. So when you see anything of mine that you don’t like remember that I’m sincere in doing it and that I’m working toward something. If I write an ugly story that might be hateful to you or to Mother the next one might be one that you would like exceedingly.

Years later, in Death in the Afternoon, he would hint further at his method: “the dignity of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.” Hemingway taught us that we only need to show the tips of the iceberg, in order to hint at the titanic depths beneath.

Last night (January 27), the Shakespeare Theatre Company teamed up with Hill Center and PEN/Faulkner Foundation to read selections of Hemingway’s works, in anticipation of STC’s upcoming presentation of The Select (The Sun Also Rises) by Elevator Repair Service, a decorated New York experimental ensemble that has also mounted adaptations of Gatz (Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby) and The Sound and the Fury ( the “Benji chapter” of the Faulkner novel).

I thought it would be fun to provide some “Cliff’s Notes” on the selections and readers, with some thoughts on what makes them so distinctively, that’s right, Hemingwayesque.

“The Capital of the World” (read by Craig Wallace)

Hemingway treats bullfighting in the Pamplona episode of The Sun Also Rises, but it was a subject he would return to over the course of his career. Originally published in Esquire as “The Horns of the Bull” in 1936, “The Capital of the World” is a miniature masterpiece, moving with maximum economy and grace through one night, like any other, in a Madrid café. Except it’s not like any other, it’s a night in which dreams are clung to and drown in alcohol, in which the Catholic church and antifascist protests glimmer faintly, in which the bright lights of life suddenly wear the shroud of death. It’s an epic tragedy, told with unusual sympathy and clarity.

“The Battler” (read by Tope Folarin)

One of the short stories published in 1925’s In Our Time, for which Hemingway was known in Paris circles. Like others, this one features Nick Adams as a Hemingway stand-in, and the story at first seems like low-wattage Huck Finn, a yarn with purposefully small stakes: Nick is caught stowing aboard a train and thrown off, and comes across a man stoking a fire in the nearby forest. In the ensuing dialogue, Hemingway demonstrates his growing genius for oblique character portraiture, painting an indelible portrait of Ad Francis, a former boxer, and of Nick himself, who is revealed slowly, word by word. It’s a strategy he would use to unify The Sun Also Rises, which develops a complex portrait of Jake Barnes, its Nick Adams-like authorial surrogate, through a series of conversations with other men.

“Hills Like White Elephants” (read by Louis Bayard)

Published in 1927 in Men Without Women, his second short-story collection, and perhaps his most masterful piece of writing. Told almost entirely in dialogue, Hemingway develops a seemingly insignificant exchange between an older American man and a younger Spanish woman into something far larger, in fact, filled with tension. Pushing the authorial voice so far into the distance it almost recedes, Hemingway forces the reader to make crucial interpretive choices. As we realize what they are actually discussing, every detail of the story becomes loaded with magnitude.

A Farewell to Arms (read by Craig Wallace)

The opening paragraph is a good illustration of the liturgical cadence, lifted direct from the King James Bible and applied to contemporary events, endowing them with the archetypal weight and wonder of myth. Just look at all those monosyllables, the rhythmic placement of commas in the second and fourth sentences, the gentle use of the word “and” to suggest the passing of seasons, the rolling of hills, the troops marching along the road. Through Hemingway’s grammatical radicalism, we’ve been somehow shifted into a hieratic landscape. As with Shakespeare, I suspect, people ignore the churchy aspects of Hemingway’s style, even as it works on them at an unconscious level. There are clues everywhere, just look at his titles. The Sun Also Rises comes from Ecclesiastes, In Our Time from the Book of Common Prayer, To Have and Have Not from the Gospel of Matthew. On some level, he wanted us to engage with his stories on this deeper, spiritual level, even if his prose style seems laconic on the surface.

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