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.

Everything and the Kitchen Sink: Social Realism in post-war Britain

The rain falls hard on a humdrum town
This town has dragged you down
And everybody’s got to live their life
And God knows I’ve got to live mine…

Find The Smiths' "Louder than Bombs" in the Seattle Public Library catalog.So goes the opening verse of The Smiths‘ classic song, “William, It Was Really Nothing,” a brilliant pastiche of British post-war, kitchen sink dramas. The Manchester group’s lyricist and singer, Morrissey, was famously enamored of the genre and its proud Northern roots, even featuring one of its more colorful figures, Shelagh Delaney, on the cover of their double album, Louder Than Bombs.

The term “kitchen sink realism” was coined in the mid-fifties to describe the cultural trend in British painting, literature, and film toward bleak working class themes, often set in or by artists from the industrial north of England, and featuring domestic dramas with troubled working-class anti-heroes. Perhaps one of its most prototypical and well-known examples was Nottingham writer Allan Sillitoe’s novella, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, about a young delinquent, Colin, who has been sent to a “borstal” (the English equivalent of juvenile detention). Colin is a gifted runner, and the school authorities offer him early release if he can win a race against a prestigious public school. His skill brings an opportunity to boost the borstal’s image, and for him to escape its daily drudgery by being allowed to train outside its confines. But in a confounding final act, Colin defies the authorities and both cements and destroys his personal freedom. The theme of young, socially alienated protagonists straining against and yet trapped by the poverty and frustration of provincial life is central to the kitchen sink genre.

The kitchen sink writers also shared many common threads and were often conflated with a group of writers known as the “Angry Young Men,” whose work was exemplified by John Osborne’s play Look Back in Anger (1956), but also included the likes of Kingsley Amis (Lucky Jim, 1954), John Braine (Room at the Top, 1957), and Colin Wilson (The Outsider, 1956).

Find "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner" in the Seattle Public Library catalog.Literary kitchen sink realism deeply influenced early sixties British film. Notable adaptations include Keith Waterhouse’s Billy Liar, John Braine’s Room at the Top, and Alan Sillitoes’ Sunday Night and Sunday Morning (starring a young Albert Finney). Television was impacted as well with series such as The Eastenders, and the long-lived Coronation Street, which began in 1963 and is still in production. And its influence has even extended to popular music such as, most obviously, The Smiths, but also other quintessentially English bands such as The Jam, Squeeze, and The Kinks.

Selected reading, viewing, and listening:

Books and Plays: