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? Continue reading “What’s so special about Hemingway?”

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. Continue reading “Writers in the Hemingway Tradition”