Hemingway, Ernest 1899–1961
Winner of both the Pulitzer and Nobel Prizes, Hemingway was an American novelist and short story writer noted for terse dialogue and understatement. His major works include The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and The Old Man and the Sea.
Hemingway had the good fortune to discover early the discipline he required. He loved and admired Flaubert, and he wanted to achieve an accuracy of statement like Flaubert's—the difference between them being that whereas Flaubert had aimed especially at accuracy of statement regarding the exterior world, trying to nail an object with the one word that fitted it, for Hemingway the great necessity was to be accurate in the statement of emotions…. In the 1930's either he runs away from the discipline or it runs away with him; he preaches it, rather raucously, but has such great trouble with the practice that it is hard to admire much that he writes. And then, in a third stage, he returns to practicing it again, perhaps not with complete success.
From the beginning the thing that stirred him most was violence, and the emotions of which he wrote were those stimulated by pain and killing—war, and bullfighting, and big game-hunting, and fishing to kill rather than for sport, and love conceived as something in itself very akin to violence….
He had never been one of those objective novelists who delight in the creation of character. In all three of the books of the retirement period, the central character is Hemingway; the other figures are there as supporting cast. He appears as himself in Death in the Afternoon and in Green Hills of Africa, and in To Have and Have Not as Harry Morgan, the man who does everything (Freud would say "including die") that Hemingway would like to do. In the first two he is contemplating violence in the most striking forms he can find, at a time when, as he says somewhat regretfully, war is not available; and he is striving to report, still with the greatest possible accuracy, the emotions this violence inspires in him. Between the first book and the second, a further complicating factor intrudes itself. Hemingway now changes from the spectator, central and important, that he is in the bullfighting book; he becomes the participant—in the last two books, it is he who runs the danger and does the killing. It is as if he had come to find dissatisfaction along the line: to watch killing and to experience the associated aesthetic emotion is no longer enough; he must have the actual feel of the kill and the feel of the danger that attends it….
Almost everything he writes is exaggerated. The fine spoofing which is so natural a part of The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms now becomes the garrulous joking with the Old Lady interlocutor in Death in the Afternoon. The characters, already given to understatement and averse to intellection in the earlier novels, now descend to communication almost on the level of grunting. The tendency to reduce people to the animal level, always present in Hemingway, now results in a situation such as that in Death in the Afternoon, wherein the brave, integrity-filled bulls are almost superior, in Hemingway's own scale of human values, to the men who kill them….
The testimony of [For Whom the Bell Tolls] points not to a decline but to the failure of new powers to develop…. The fact is that he does not "peter out"—at least if this verb means to go on producing work of increasingly inferior quality. From the beginning he has been concerned less with the relations between human beings than with the relations between himself, or some projection of himself, and a harsh and mainly alien universe in which violence, suffering, and death are the rule, and which, in terms of what the human being expects of it, stubbornly refuses to make sense. For Whom the Bell Tolls cannot be said to enlarge this fundamental pattern….
For Hemingway courage is a permanent element in a tragic formula: life is a trap in which a man is bound to be beaten and at last destroyed, but he emerges triumphant, in his full stature, if he manages to keep his chin up. What even the most devoted reader comes to object to in this is that the formula is a formula…. [As] Hemingway and his heroes grow older, the eternal "idyll" moves us less….
Hemingway has, in fact, devoted his great talent to relatively small subjects. There was a moment, the moment of For Whom the Bell Tolls, when one could talk about Hemingway's growth. In his early work his interest in violence had been largely aesthetic, although the gap between aesthetics and ethics was bridged to some extent by his insistence that integrity is an element of aesthetics…. The technical failures of [For Whom the Bell Tolls] come from Hemingway's not having faced the formal requirement of the "novel of destiny" that it shall not delay, dally, digress, that the reader must feel the progress of the action as rectilinear. But, quite apart from this kind of defect, one admired For Whom the Bell Tolls because its violence possessed so much meaning. The subject, in Faulkner's sense, had size. But the subjects Hemingway treated [subsequently] do not have size. For the greatest satisfaction one must reread his early work. It should be added, in simple justice, that this satisfaction remains very great indeed.
W. M. Frohock, "Ernest Hemingway—The River and the Hawk," in his The Novel of Violence in America, Southern Methodist University Press, revised edition, 1957, pp. 166-98 (in the Beacon Press paperbound edition, 1964).
[The] scale of values [that is defined by] Man [as] finitely simple, and Nature [as] infinitely complex … is the Hemingway palette and the key to the scale of his style. He is never reduced to tampering with personalities. A Cézanne-like simplicity of scene is built up with the touches of a master, and the great effects are achieved with a sublime economy. At these moments style and substance are of one piece, each growing from the other, and one cannot imagine that life could exist except as described. We think only of what is there, and not, as in the less successful moments, of all of the elements of experience that are not.
Wright Morris, "The Function of Style: Ernest Hemingway," in his The Territory Ahead: Critical Interpretations in American Literature, Harcourt, 1958, pp. 133-46.
Hemingway's entertaining and elusive accent of provincial innocence stems back to the dead-pan humor of the frontier; the description of writing in terms of professional athletics is a familiar pose of this muscular aesthete, who has, however, always searched for extreme emotional states in acts of physical tension.
This is a good time to evaluate Hemingway's position in terms of his own period and literary tradition. He has influenced his generation more deeply perhaps than any other American artist, and he has already established, despite certain obvious limitations, a durable and celebrated body of work.
His work as a whole has been a sort of literary catalyst which has affected the entire course of American writing, and like a catalyst it has remained untouched by and superior to all the imitations of it. Such writers as Dashiell Hammett, James Cain, and the entire hard-boiled school of American novelists stem from Hemingway's work. Among the new writers there are talents as varied as Ira Wolfert, and Norman Mailer who show his influence.
Maxwell Geismar, "Ernest Hemingway: At the Crossroads" (reprinted by permission of Hill and Wang, a division of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1958 by Maxwell Geismar), in his American Moderns: From Rebellion to Conformity, Hill & Wang, 1958, pp. 54-8.
What made Hemingway important was that from [the beginning] he had made a careful and a conscientious formula for the art of the novel. This meant that he had not merely exploited the war theme or carefully cultivated the advantages of the readers' acquired tastes, but had honestly worked within his own experience and developed its possibilities. His material was his experience, and he had only to resist the temptation to make it something less than honestly his own in order to gain success and financial security….
Hemingway's chief virtue was his dedication to the art of writing within his own candidly recognized limitations. He was not a man of ideas, and he scorned those of his contemporaries who forced their experiences into pseudo-intellectual patterns or imposed ideas upon them….
The contribution of Hemingway to modern fiction can best be inferred from what he has done by way of establishing and exploring exhaustively the possibilities of simplicity. The "esthetic of simplicity" involves not merely a specious fidelity to Howell's commonplace truth but a basic struggle for absolute accuracy in making words correspond to experience. In this struggle the absence of intellectual interest, his scorn of men who "make abstractions do for experience," served him well. The problems of structure and style had all therefore to be related to discrete and irreducible fact, unencumbered (or scarcely ever encumbered) by falsely imposed meanings and organized into intrinsically meaningful structures. What had served him so well in the 1920's, however, forced him in the 1930's to have recourse to a body of intellectual discourse to which his 1920's writing had shown him tempermentally allergic.
Frederick J. Hoffman, in his The Modern Novel in America, Regnery, revised edition, 1963, pp. 98-111.
As much as Conrad and Malraux, Hemingway is the dramatist of the extreme situation. His overriding theme is honour, personal honour: by what shall a man live, by what shall a man die, in a world the essential condition of whose being is violence, one in which, moreover, for the Hemingway hero all external sanctions of religion and traditional values have disappeared? The problems are posed rather than answered in his first book, In Our Time, a collection of short stories in which almost all Hemingway's later work is contained by implication…. In a sense, Hemingway did nothing better than In Our Time. Everything is there, the fascination with death and the miraculous rendering of the life of the senses….
Despite his wide reading, no writer of comparable stature has had a greater distrust for 'literature'. He cut out and dismissed as fiction all the great abstract words…. Against the great abstractions Hemingway set the small concrete nouns, the names of things one could be sure of, that could be tested by the evidence of the senses. His vocabulary must be the smallest of any major writer, and the restriction was deliberate.
Walter Allen, in his The Modern Novel (© 1964 by Walter Allen; published by E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc. and used with their permission), Dutton, 1964, pp. 92-6.
The Sun Also Rises was Ernest Hemingway's first serious venture into the craft of the novel, and in some ways the 1926 novel may be his best…. But in terms of Hemingway's present canon and the themes of love in his work as a whole, the interest of the novel is more than esthetic or historical. In The Sun Also Rises, the dominant themes that run through all of Hemingway's novels begin to emerge. The emphases of the different themes will vary as will the images which he will use to convey them, but basically the subject of Hemingway's novels has been chosen in this first novel, and that subject is love. If it were not for gradually changing attitudes toward that subject, the canon might truly be as monotonous as Hemingway's deprecators say it is, but with each novel some changes are evident, though the themes are familiar from The Sun Also Rises on.
Further, the method of this first novel is much more heavily ironical than that of the work of the middle and later Hemingway. Thus one can see Hemingway destroying romantic illusions much easier than one can see the construction of positive ideals. In terms of the later Hemingway…, it is possible to read into The Sun Also Rises a foreshadowing of the rebirth of love; but mainly the impression of the novel is negative. Loss rather than eternal return and renewal is clearly more strongly felt, in spite of the title and the Biblical epigraph. The irony seems a natural shield for this loss as well as for the novelist's and the hero's sensitivity, self-pity, and lack of a constructive, positive faith to fill the void….
The success and continued acclaim of the novel is remarkable in that Hemingway has created such a convincing version of an old theme that is usually read as an attack on that old Tristan and Iseult story—"The death of love in The Sun Also Rises"—but this story is of a sick love, a hypochondriac love, of lovers who enjoy poor health, poor love, sick love. But the love never dies.
Robert W. Lewis, Jr., "Tristan or Jacob: The Choice of The Sun Also Rises," in his Hemingway on Love, University of Texas Press, 1965.
Hemingway … is much addicted to describing the sex act. It is the symbolic center of his work…. There are, however, no women in his books! In his earlier fictions, Hemingway's descriptions of the sexual encounter are intentionally brutal, in his later ones unintentionally comic; for in no case, can he quite succeed in making his females human, and coitus performed with an animal, a thing, or a wet dream is either horrible or ridiculous. If in For Whom the Bell Tolls Hemingway has written the most absurd love scene in the history of the American novel, this is not because he lost momentarily his skill and authority; it is a give-away—a moment which illuminates the whole erotic content of his fiction.
Hemingway is only really comfortable in dealing with "men without women." The relations of father to son, of battle-companions, friends on a fishing trip, fellow inmates in a hospital, a couple of waiters preparing to close up shop, a bullfighter and his manager, a boy and a gangster: these move him to simplicity and truth. Perhaps he is best of all with men who stand alone—in night-time scenes when the solitary individual sweats in his bed on the verge of nightmare, or arises to confront himself in the glass; though he is at home, too, with the Rip Van Winkle archetype, with men in flight from women. Certainly, he returns again and again to the fishing trip and the journey to the war—those two traditional evasions of domesticity and civil life. Yet he feels an obligation to introduce women into his more ambitious fictions, though he does not know what to do with them beyond taking them to bed. All his life, he has been haunted by a sense of how simple it all was once, when he could take his Indian girl into the clean-smelling woods, stretch out beside her on the pine-needles (her brother standing guard), and rise to no obligations at all….
In Hemingway the rejection of the sentimental happy ending of marriage involves the acceptance of the sentimental happy beginning of innocent and inconsequential sex, and camouflages the rejection of maturity and of fatherhood itself…. [Typically] he aspires to be not Father but "Papa," the Old Man of the girl-child with whom he is temporarily sleeping; and surely there is no writer to whom childbirth more customarily presents itself as the essential catastrophe. At best he portrays it as a plaguey sort of accident which forces a man to leave his buddies behind at the moment of greatest pleasure as in "Cross Country Snow"; at worst, it becomes in his fiction that horror which drives the tender-hearted husband of "Indian Camp" to suicide, or which takes Catherine away from Lieutenant Henry in A Farewell to Arms.
Poor things, all they wanted was innocent orgasm after orgasm on an island of peace in a world at war, love-making without end in a scarcely real country to which neither owed life or allegiance.
Leslie A. Fiedler, in his Love and Death in the American Novel, Stein & Day, revised edition, 1966, pp. 316-17.
[Some] critics feel [that Hemingway's] self-conscious and almost obsessive interest in sports and in sensuous pleasures suggests a minor vision, a sensibility crippled by immaturity and characterized by the need to escape.
But Hemingway's vision, despite his detractors, is one of the most profound of our times. The many critics who give Hemingway high praise have seen correctly that he does deal with what some of us glibly call "real life," but that he deals with it through a symbolic vision rather than by writing about labor problems or about political knights. The most consistent characteristic of Hemingway's personal and fictive interest in sports and in the sensuous life is a courageous belief in the possibility of a life with meaning, and the emphasis must be on the word possibility. Hemingway's heroes awake to a world gone to hell. World War I has destroyed belief in the goodness of national governments. The depression has isolated man from his natural brotherhood. Institutions, concepts, and insidious groups of friends and ways of life are, when accurately seen, a tyranny, a sentimental or propagandistic rationalization for those who enjoy a comfortable living room—and would just as soon not look outside….
Max Westbrook, in The Modern American Novel: Essays in Criticism, edited by Max Westbrook (© 1966 by Random House, Inc.; reprinted by permission of the publisher), Random House, 1966, p. 91.
The centres of higher thought are … repugnant to Hemingway…; they seem hardly to be reflected in a prose-style which is stripped to the bone, content with short words, impatient of Latinate abstractions. Hemingway learned the new plain language from Gertrude Stein…, an American like himself, but he popularized the pared syntax and spare vocabulary of her verbal experiments in a context of 'action fiction'. His best work is perhaps his first and last, beginning with The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms and ending with The Old Man and the Sea (a novella which, behind the action, seems to carry an allegorical meaning); his short stories—like those in the volume Men Without Women—perhaps show the paring-down process at its best. His technique is a little too easy to imitate, and many of the cheap 'tough' thrillers which infest the bookstalls are indebted to him. But his real qualities—disillusionment, stoicism, physical courage—hold their magic in a sort of historical perspective: he is very much one of the American writers who came out of the First World War.
Anthony Burgess, in his The Novel Now: A Guide to Contemporary Fiction (reprinted by permission of W.W. Norton & Co., Inc.; © 1967 by Anthony Burgess), Norton, 1967, pp. 30-1.
If Hemingway's world view is characteristically twentieth-century in its denials of divinity, of natural and social order, of any vital meaning outside man himself, he is typically American in his basic inability to conceive of a meaningful life on such harsh terms. At the center of his fiction is not that literary type that R. W. B. Lewis has termed the American Adam, but instead a kind of twentieth-century cousin, an Adam who eats of the apple as a conscious moral act in the line of duty and then expects, for this display of courage and intelligence, to be given permanent residence in Eden. It is a story, basically, of the duped American bourgeois, that third-generation son of solid parents with clay feet. Raised in plenty, self-educated to value rebellion and to expect much from life, this fallen innocent earns, sooner or later, only the usual shocks and hurts that flesh is heir to. And having rejected all that might have cushioned his fall, he feels cheated, for his difficult exile is both painful and unrewarded. What it is finally all about is a notion of risk without consequence, and though Hemingway is constantly hammering at the inescapable necessity of paying a price for one's perceptions, the price itself is invariably too high for his likable young Americans to pay without persistent wailing and regrets. The theme itself is a basic one and has produced much of our great fiction, both in stories of crucial education and in those of heroic, solitary wanderings through hard and fallen worlds. But for Hemingway, the theme is always an end in itself, the fiction merely its transcription, and it is a dead end.
Alan Lebowitz, "Hemingway in Our Time" (© 1969 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), in Yale Review, Spring, 1969, pp. 321-41.
Like many writers with a distinctive style, Hemingway often verges on self-parody, and his devout and occasionally mawkish self-consciousness is especially in evidence in Islands in the Stream, his second posthumously published book. The novel represents a summarization of the themes and settings and character types which have been Hemingway's terrain in the past; the book is threaded with conspicuous cross-references to earlier work. There is no evidence here of new interests, but rather the novel presents Hemingway narrowing in morbidly, obsessionally, on defining his concept of heroic masculinity.
Foster Hirsch, in Mediterranean Review, Spring, 1971, pp. 27-9.
In my opinion, Hemingway's work will last, not because of his stoical ethic but because of something in his style. It is sweetness. It appears more frequently in books later than The Sun Also Rises, especially in A Farewell to Arms. When it appears, the short sentences coalesce and flow, and sing—sometimes melancholy, sometimes pastoral, sometimes personally embarrassed in an adult, not an adolescent, way. In the dialogues, he pays loving attention to the spoken word. And the writing is meticulous; he is sweetly devoted to writing well. Most everything else is resigned, but here he makes an effort, and the effort produces lovely moments.
Paul Goodman, "The Sweet Style of Ernest Hemingway" (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1971 by NYREV, Inc.), in New York Review of Books, December 30, 1971, pp. 27-8.