World news – How Much Do We Owe Ernest Hemingway?


The idea of ​​a Ken Burns documentary about Ernest Hemingway seems both obvious and somewhat absurd. Burns ‘long project of celebrating the most father-friendly pillars of American culture and history – Civil War, baseball, jazz – makes Hemingway (after Mark Twain, covered by Burns’ in 2002) almost inevitable. Hemingway’s life was full of exciting adventures, and it is no coincidence that he is certainly the most photographed writer of the 20th century. So there is a lot of visual material to draw from. But after decades of dominating ideas about how a writer should live and work, Hemingway today feels increasingly irrelevant, his influence waning to a vanishing point, his reputation corroded by a dated personal myth. According to the Chicago Tribune, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is selling all of Hemingway’s work together in Hemingway’s hometown of Oak Park, Illinois, and the Hemingway Foundation had to launch a GoFundMe campaign to keep the museum open at his birthplace. </ Hemingway promises to freshen up the author's image by exposing "the man behind the myth" as if the two could ever be separated in this relentlessly self-mythologizing figure. Even for the casual Hemingway devotee, there are few revelations in the PBS documentary, which premieres on Monday. Although much is made of the fact that the author had an erotic interest in swapping gender roles with his female partners, it came out with the posthumous publication of The Garden of Eden in the 1980s. I learned exactly two things from Hemingway's very leisurely six hours. One was the plethora of serious head injuries the author had suffered throughout his life, particularly in the years before his suicide death at the age of 61. The other was that even in his prime, Hemingway embraced the punitive ideal of masculinity, and raised the eyebrows of critics and acquaintances alike. The idea that his machismo was sentimental and exaggerated, that it damaged his work and was actually quite ridiculous – that criticism was made from the start.

What can Hemingway tell us about what American writers owe Hemingway? Whatever these debts are, it is a lot, according to the various writers and literary scholars who appear as talking heads in the documentary, but they (Edna O’Brien, Tobias Wolff, Mario Vargas Llosa) are quite long and few young novelists would now claim him as a star. In comparison, the influence of William Faulkner, transformed in the melting pot of Toni Morrison’s genius and legacy, can be seen everywhere.

The documentary that Burns co-directed with Lynn Novick puts Hemingway in an excellent historical context. This is possibly the best way to appreciate what he has accomplished. * His thrifty style, an adaptation of his early work as a newspaper reporter, registered as sensational in the 1920s when everyone had spent their lives reading novels associated with the elaborate conventions and arrogant narrators of 19th century British fiction were brought. Like all early modernists, Hemingway sought to depict how the massive, meaningless slaughter of World War I (in which he served as an ambulance driver and was wounded) had fundamentally changed their lives. Hemingway is strongest when it comes to instilling in the writer a desire to hack out of an old way of writing about the world, a rhetoric that seemed bankrupt. Jeff Daniels reads Hemingway’s own works and letters with penetrating calm, including this beautiful passage from A Farewell to Arms:

I hadn’t seen anything sacred, and the things that were glorious had no fame and the sacrifices were like the stockyards in Chicago when nothing was done to the meat except to bury it. There were many words that couldn’t be heard and, after all, only the names of the places had dignity. Certain numbers were the same path and certain dates, and those with the names of the places were all that could be said and meant everything.

Other modernists – James Joyce, Virginia Woolf – burst from the authoritative voice of the novel 19th century by turning inward, trying to capture the fluid, fragmentary nature of personal experience. Hemingway was obsessed with producing « real » work that had the objective, relentless quality of the material world. For the most part, he avoided describing the subjective emotional states of his characters and encouraged his reader to infer what they were feeling from their behavior. One of the authors interviewed at Hemingway, Amanda Vaill, compares the contrast between the bold, multi-character novels of the previous era and the modernist innovations in the transition from panorama to « close-up, » and in Hemingway’s case the choice of metaphor is more important than metaphor itself. Part of what made his fiction seem modern and American is not just its resemblance to journalism, but the way its attention to the outside world resembled movies.

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Hemingway also solved a longstanding American discomfort with writing fiction. American writers, like all colonial masters, initially felt dominated and overshadowed by British and European culture. Moreover, what was seen as defining « American character » – his active, optimistic nature, the chewing gum required to build a nation out of what appeared to be a wilderness, etc. – seemed inconsistent with sitting in a room to be scribbling all day. Writing, especially fiction writing, was negligible compared to laying railroad tracks across the prairie, inventing cotton gin, and starting a family fortune on steel foundries. Also, writing novels meant caring for women, then (as now) the main readership of the form.

The « myth » of Hemingway that Burns and Novick’s documentary purports to dismantle has widened that circle by adding the argument promotes that a true writer must go out into the world for adventure, rough companions, tragic love affairs, and close ties with death in order to produce work of lasting value. This work must of course have such experiences on the subject, the most important of which is war. This myth, which apparently excludes many writers from the pantheon of so-called greatness, dominated much of the 20th century, reinterpreting novel writing as a heroic activity suitable for brave, manly men.

The personal ones The motives behind Hemingway’s devotion to this ideal are not necessarily clear. He was particularly lacking in self-esteem when it came to his own fears of masculinity, and like so many of his characters, the only way to speculate about the turmoil inside him is by observing his actions, which were often unfortunate. He abused the people around him, got into countless stupid fights and participated in the torture and slaughter of hundreds of impeccable animals, from the bullfights he watched in Spain to the great game he hunted in Africa. None of this did him any good, of course, and until Hemingway’s last lesson it is impossible to consider him pity for anything else, for all the damage he has done.

But we go again and focus on Hemingway’s character and his glamorous, misshapen life and the four women and the quaint tropical mansions and the drinking and gun that ended it all in Idaho instead of his contribution to American letters. The urge to cut our prose to the bone has proven to be sustained, albeit at times. In the late 1970s, legendary editor Gordon Lish helped make Raymond Carver a literary star by insisting on telling his stories through excess adjectives, clauses and sentences, and thus the dominant literary trend of the 1980s, the Minimalism to get going. All of these writers (including Frederick Barthelme, Ann Beattie, and Wolff) were Hemingway’s heirs, and Lish, whether he admits it or not, was a priest at Hemingway’s temple. This minimalism of the past few days often shared some of Hemingway’s significant flaws, such as lack of humor or gameplay. But gloom is not compulsory, and in a world full of new media that constantly floods us with poorly chosen words, the grace of a well-executed verbal economy can indeed be very welcome. In this regard, Hemingway’s influence was harmless.

In the end, however, it is impossible to separate content from style, and while Hemingway wrote many passages of paramount power, his work always tended to tend towards sentimentality and self-pity. We are to let our hearts tear apart not only from the sufferings of its stoic heroes, but also from stoicism itself. Hemingway’s ethos demands quiet perseverance from men and then asks us to pity their inability to express their pain. He cannot make any plausible arguments in favor of practices such as bullfighting – which, of course, cannot be justified – by making a lot of nonsense about the fact that it is a « tragedy » which « symbolizes the fight between humans and animals ». The tragedy, he claims, lies in the « death of the bull, » but like the deaths of so many soldiers in the world war he condemned, it is unnecessary. The pleasure Hemingway took in bullfighting seemed masochistic rather than sadistic, but what does it matter why a man fetishizes the technical misery of others? It is this lack of imagination, Hemingway’s inability to see beyond the solipsism of his own needs, that has resulted in his writing falling more and more by the wayside, for all its strengths over the decades. In contrast to The Great Gatsby, which has proven to be a remarkably flexible reflection of American endeavors, Hemingway’s novels feel stuck in their own time, a rebellion against a long-dead literary order and the formulation of an outdated masculinity code that no one misses. He changed American literature, as Hemingway rightly proclaimed, but it continued to change and left him behind.

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