Writers in the Hemingway Tradition

If you’re watching Lynn Novick and Ken Burns’ documentary Hemingway this week on PBS, you’ve heard a lot of writers and commentators talking about what a profound influence Ernest Hemingway has had on American literature. As the writer Tobias Wolff puts it, “It’s hard to imagine a writer today who hasn’t been in some way influenced by him. It’s like he changed all the furniture in the room, right? And we all  have to sit in it. We can kind of sit on the armchair, or on the arm…” No matter how you may feel about the man (or mansplainer, philanderer and self-mythologizer), there’s no denying that Hemingway the writer originated an oblique, minimalist style that has cast a long shadow over our literary landscape.

Among his near contemporaries, many authors in the genres of hardboiled crime and noir adopted a similar colloquial, hardbitten style. Try reading James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice and see if you don’t fine a spiced up version of Hemingway’s understated prose from the very first line: “They threw me off the hay truck about noon.” Other classic noir writers of the 1930s and 1940s, such as Cornell Woolrich or William Lindsay Gresham, reveal a similarly uncompromising, clipped style that is still found in many hardboiled writers – such as Elmore Leonard – today.

Perhaps no writer epitomize’s Hemingway’s “iceberg theory” of writing – the idea that the writer can omit anything, and that omitted part will strengthen the story – as Raymond Carver. Pick up pretty much any of Raymond Carver’s short stories about struggling and often inarticulate Americans, and see if you aren’t struck by what Carver chooses to leave out. At their best, both Hemingway and Carver manage to create profound and ringing silences around their words. The title of Carver’s first published story collection – Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?  – feels almost like an homage to a line of dialogue from the great Hemingway short story Hills Like White Elephants: “Would you please please please please please please please stop talking?”

Although not coming from American tradition, sometimes the terse, plainspoken writing of Swedish author Per Petterson can be very reminiscent of the Hemingway tradition. Listen to this passage from Out Stealing Horses: “I could suddenly get a longing to be in a place where there was only silence. Years might go by and I did not think about it, but that does not mean that I did not long to be there. And now I am here, and it is almost exactly as I had imagined it.” Petterson seems to follow Hemingway’s rule to “cut the scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence I had written.”

A number of Northwest writers have crafted similarly terse novels of gritty reality, such as Shann Ray’s story collection American Masculine,  parts of David Guterson’s The Country Ahead of Us, The Country Behind, or Larry Watson’s As Good As Gone. One not to miss is the powerful contemporary tragedian Willy Vlautin, whose ruthlessly honest stories of the struggles and losses of American dreamers are pitch perfect snapshots of contemporary life, stunning in their authenticity and restraint. Check out Vlautin’s latest, The Night Always Comes.

Here are some other authors and titles that harken back in various ways to Hemingway’s pared-down, oblique style.

     ~ Posted by David W.

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