See also Volumes 1, 3, 6, 8, 10, 13, and 30.
Ernest Hemingway is a giant of modern literature. Among twentieth-century American fiction writers, his work is most often compared to that of his contemporaries William Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Combined with his outstanding short stories, Hemingway’s four major novels—The Sun Also Rises (1926), A Farewell to Arms (1929), For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940), and The Old Man and the Sea (1952)—comprise a contribution to modern fiction that is far more substantial than Fitzgerald’s and that approximates Faulkner’s.
Faulkner was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature a few years before Hemingway received this recognition, but their respective approaches to fiction are so dissimilar that this belated receipt says little or nothing about Hemingway’s stature relative to that of Faulkner. When set alongside Faulkner’s Mississippi novels, Hemingway’s major works feature simpler structures and narrative voices/personae.
As or more important, Hemingway’s style, with its consistent use of short, concrete, direct prose and of scenes consisting exclusively of dialogue, gives his novels and short stories a distinctive accessibility that is immediately identifiable with the author. Owing to the direct character of both his style and his life-style, there is a tendency to cast Hemingway as a “representative” American writer whose work reflects the bold, forthright and rugged individualism of the American spirit in action.
His own background as a wounded veteran of World War I, as an engaged combatant in the fight against Fascism/Nazism, and as a “he-man” with a passion for outdoor adventures and other manly pursuits reinforce this association.
But this identification of Hemingway as a uniquely American genius is problematic. Although three of his major novels are told by and/or through American men, Hemingway’s protagonists are expatriates, and his fictional settings are in France, Italy, Spain, and later Cuba, rather than America itself.
While Hemingway’s early career benefited from his connections with Fitzgerald and (more so) with American novelist Sherwood Anderson, his aesthetic is actually closer to that shared by the transplanted American poets that he met in Paris during the 1920s; T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and, most crucially, Gertrude Stein. In this context, we must realize that Hemingway’s approach to the craft of fiction is direct but never blunt or just plain simple.
Hemingway’s text is the result of a painstaking selection process, each word performing an assigned function in the narrative. These choices of language, in turn, occur through the mind and experience of his novels’ central characters whether they serve explicitly as narrators of their experience or as focal characters from whose perspectives the story unfolds. The main working corollary of Hemingway’s “iceberg principle” is that the full meaning of the text is not limited to moving the plot forward: there is always a web of association and inference, a submerged reason behind the inclusion (or even the omission) of every detail.
We note, too, that although Hemingway’s novels usually follow a straightforward chronological progression as in the three days of For Whom the Bell Tolls, Hemingway does make use of summary accounts of the past, of memories related externally as stories, and of flashbacks. These devices lend further depth to his characters and create narrative structures that are not completely straightforward chronicles.
Hemingway is direct. But he is also quite subtle, and subtlety is not a trait that we ascribe to the American way. In the end, Hemingway is an international artist, a man who never relinquished his American identity but who entered new territories too broad and too deep to fit within the domain of any national culture.
Did this raise a question for you?