Ernest Hemingway and His World

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

Is there anything left to say about Ernest Hemingway? There is possibly no other American writer in the twentieth century about whom every critic or student has spoken with so absolute a sense of assurance. Many of the older generation of critics have, in fact, abandoned the author for newer horizons, leaving behind a heritage of scholarly disdain. Their traditional critical view portrays Hemingway’s world as one of natural and human violence in which characters struggle to survive and to assert the integrity of self. According to these critics, war, sports, and sometimes love are the games played by the Hemingway hero, but in the conventional sense these games are always lost and the hero ends as victim.

Some past scholarship has discovered, however, more than material for scorn. A few critics have admired the saturation of Hemingway’s works with the memory of physical pleasure and its costs. Others have cited the author’s lean, hard-hitting sentence structure which dramatizes the action of his narrative.

Now a new breed of critic is starting to drift back to Hemingway, determined to venture into the inner turbulence of the author’s mind and craft. Sadly, many of these scholars seem to rely on archetypal myths or Freudian approaches to explain the secrets of Hemingway’s art in relation to his psyche. Hemingway remains, however, a slippery quarry, and we often learn more about the critic than about his subject.

In truth, the relationship between Ernest Hemingway’s life and his art has never been wholly explained, despite the appearance of several major biographies in recent years. One simple but compelling explanation is that the author’s life style, which drew more attention to himself as a man and attracted more nonliterary copy than any other American writer in our century, was as dramatic as was his prose but much more flamboyant. It is significant that at times his life-style became outrageously disproportionate to his work.

There is, however, a deeper level inherent in the relationship between the man and his work. Anthony Burgess, the English literary critic and novelist, explores this area in Ernest Hemingway and His World in order to clarify the events of the author’s life as sources of inspiration for his writing. To his friends, Hemingway was, as one noted when he died, “a man who lived it up to write it down”; but to his enemies, what he wrote shrouded rather than revealed the truth about his inner self. Both groups of observers are shortsighted in that they fail to perceive arbitrary and necessary distinctions between the life and the work.

In his balanced portrait, Anthony Burgess evokes both sides of Hemingway—the compulsive arrogance and the frustrated literary artistry. He is aided in this endeavor by the many rare photographs that adorn the text. These unique and relatively fresh glimpses serve to highlight and further clarify some skillful critical analysis. His essay effectively traces the events of Hemingway’s life in an attempt to be selective without oversimplifying. As is the case with other contemporary critics, Burgess finds much that repels him in the author’s personality, but his feelings concerning aspects of Hemingway’s behavior do not decrease his regard for the artistry embodied in many of the novels and short stories.

Hemingway the man, states Burgess, was as much a creation as his books, but a far inferior one. The author was not content with mere excellence as a hunter, fisherman, boxer, and guerrilla leader. He desired to turn himself into a Homeric myth, which meant posing, lying, and treating life as fiction. While some of his lies are transparent, according to Burgess, it is difficult to sort out the self-made legend from a reality which was less glamorous, though still colorful enough. Unfortunately, we know Hemingway the man not from letters and diaries, but primarily from tales told by himself in bars, on shipboard, on safari, from tales retold by others, and finally, from reminiscences which conform to the legend and which grow continually less reliable.

Hemingway the legend is treated skeptically by Burgess, but Hemingway the writer is dealt with more...

(The entire section is 1724 words.)

Ernest Hemingway and His World Bibliography

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

America. CXXXIX, December 2, 1978, p. 414.

Atlantic. CCXLII, October, 1978, p. 116.

Critic. XXXVII, November 15, 1978, p. 7.

New Republic. CLXXIX, October 7, 1978, p. 37.

Spectator. CCXLI, November 25, 1978, p. 23.