E(verette) Howard Hunt Essay - Critical Essays

Hunt, E(verette) Howard

Hunt, E(verette) Howard 1918–

Hunt is an American suspense and adventure writer whose participation in the Watergate burglaries has sharpened interest in his novels. He has used numerous pseudonyms. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 45-48.)

[The Berlin Ending] is a splendid suspense novel—perfectly paced, intricately plotted, the prose professional, tight, and interesting. Hunt is a first-rate suspense novelist, and every sign here—the magnitude of the themes, the fully realized characters, the social and political sophistication—points to great potential as a writer of serious fiction…. But unfortunately for Hunt his abilities as a real-life intriguer fall far short of his abilities as a creator of fiction. Yet ironically, those traits that appear to have led to his personal tragedy may mean professional success, for the fallout from Watergate will catapult this book into bestsellerdom. And the final irony: The Berlin Ending is good enough to make it on its own.

J. R. Coyne Jr., in National Review (150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), September 28, 1973, p. 1067.

The actual writing of Limit of Darkness is not at all bad; it is not at all good either. H. H. demonstrates the way a whole generation of writers ordered words upon the page in imitation of what they took to be Hemingway's technique. At best Hemingway was an artful, careful writer who took a good deal of trouble to master scenes of action—the hardest kind of writing to do, while his dialogue looks most attractive on the page. Yet unwary imitators are apt to find themselves (as in Limit of Darkness) slipping into aimless redundancies. Wanting to Hemingwayize the actual cadences of Wasp speech as spoken by young fliers, H. H. so stylizes their voices that one character blends with another….

In H. H.'s early books, which won for him a coveted (by Capote and me) Guggenheim grant, there is a certain amount of solemnity if not seriousness. The early H. H. liked to quote from high-toned writers like Pliny and Louis MacNeice as well as from that echt American Wasp William Cullen Bryant—whose radical politics would have shocked H. H. had he but known. But then I suspect the quotations are not from H. H.'s wide reading of world literature but from brief random inspections of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations….

Had H. H. not chosen a life of adventure I think he might have made a good second string to O'Hara's second string to Hemingway. H. H. has the O'Hara sense of irredeemable social inferiority which takes the place for so many Irish-American writers of original sin; he also shares O'Hara's pleasure in listing the better brand names of this world. Even on Guadalcanal we are told of a pipe tobacco from "a rather good New Zealand leaf."

By 1943 H. H. was a promising author. According to The New York Times, "East of Farewell was a fine realistic novel, without any doubt the best sea story of the war." Without any doubt it was probably the only sea story of the war at that point but the Times has a style to maintain….

[In Stranger in Town,] H. H. conforms to that immutable rule of bad fiction which requires the sensitive hero to practice the one art his creator knows nothing about….

The themes that are to run through H. H.'s work and life are all to be found in Stranger in Town. The sense that blacks and Latins are not quite human (Fleming is attracted to a "Negress" but fears syphilis). The interest in pre-war jazz: Beiderbecke and Goodman. A love of fancy food, drink, decor; yet whenever the author tries to strike the elegant worldly note, drapes not curtains tend to obscure the view from his not so magic casements, looking out on tacky lands forlorn. Throughout his life's work there is a constant wistful and, finally, rather touching identification with the old American patriciate.

There is a rather less touching enthusiasm for war: "An atom bomb is just a bigger and better bomb," while "the only justification for killing in war is that evil must be destroyed." Although evil is never exactly defined, the killers for goodness ought to be left alone to kill in their own way because "if I hired a man to do a dirty job for me, I wouldn't be presumptuous enough to specify what weapons he was to use or at what hour…."… As it was, the book failed. Too avant-garde. Too patriotic….

In 1949, at popular request, the novelist Howard Hunt hung up the jock until this year when he reappeared as E. Howard Hunt, author of The Berlin Ending. Simultaneous with the collapse of his career as a serious author, his attempts at movie writing came to nothing because of "the impact of TV." Too proud to become part of our Golden Age of television, H. H. joined the CIA in 1948 or 1949, a period in which his alias Robert Dietrich became an agent for the IRS in Washington….

A Foreign Affair … marks the resumption of H. H.'s literary career and the beginning of what one must regard as the major phase of his art. Between 1953 and 1973, H. H. was to write under four pseudonyms over forty books….

From the number of books that H. H. began to turn out, one might suspect that he was not giving his full attention to the work of the CIA….

(Although H. H. is a self-admitted forger of state papers I do not think that he actually had a hand in writing Bremer's diary on the ground that the journal is a brilliant if flawed job of work, and beyond H. H.'s known literary competence.)

Gore Vidal, "The Art and Arts of E. Howard Hunt," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1973 by NYREV, Inc.), December 13, 1973, pp. 6-19.