What’s so special about Hemingway?

Last week we shared a some of the many authors who’ve been influenced by Ernest Hemingway, whose seminal role in American literature was highlighted in Lynn Novick and Ken Burns’ recent documentary Hemingway. Yet viewers of that show may have noted the intriguing fact that those interviewed often didn’t agree upon which of his works had merit, or why. Edna O’Brien, who defends Hemingway against charges of misogyny, dismisses The Old Man and the Sea as childish, while Mario Vargas Llosa regards it as Hemingway’s masterpiece. Vargas Llosa dissolves into chuckles over the bad writing in For Whom the Bell Tolls, while the late Senator John McCain regards it as “the great American novel,” speaking movingly about the book’s profound effect upon him. After watching hours of the author’s wife-hopping, self-aggrandizement, and mounting alcoholism and paranoia, viewers might be forgiven for wondering just what is the big deal about Ernest Hemingway?

To answer this, we travel back to Hemingway’s startling entry on the literary scene. Paris, 1924. Twenty-something war veteran Hemingway, with his first wife and working on his first moustache, hob-nobbing with Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and other cognoscenti, publishes a small booklet, just thirty pages long, a collection of brief vignettes titled (in self-consciously arty lower-case), in our time300 copies are printed, although 130 of these are spoiled when an illustration of the author on the frontispiece bleeds through the paper.

The remaining 170 copies are sold and sent around to friends and reviewers. On reading it, F. Scott Fitzgerald writes to his editor Max Perkins that “Hemingway has a brilliant future. Ezra Pound has published a collection of his short pieces = its remarkable, and I’d look him up right away. He’s the real thing.” The eminent critic Edmund Wilson greets the appearance of a “strikingly original” young writer who has “invented a form of his own,” adding “I am inclined to think that his little book has more artistic dignity than any other that has been written by an American about the period of the war.”

Hemingway was entering upon a literary world already marked by disarmingly iconoclastic modernist voices. Almost twenty years had passed since Hemingway’s mentor Gertrude Stein had thrown out the narrative rulebook with her stylistically inventive Three Lives. In 1919 James Joyce’s prolix stream-of-consciousness masterpiece Ulysses had taken the literary world by storm, followed in 1922 by first English language translation of Swann’s Way, the opening volume of Marcel Proust’s revolutionary À la recherche du temps perduThe bar for originality was a very high one, and yet Hemingway cleared it with ease, right out of the gate, with a style that Wilson described as “…a limpid shaft into deep waters.” How? The answer lies not in what he put on the page, but in what he left off.

Find out for yourself: take a half an hour, and listen to in our time in its entirety in this week’s episode of our regular Storytime for Grownups podcast, and see what you think. Genius, or overrated? Is less more, or less?

     ~ Posted by David W.

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