Hemingway, Ernest 1899–1961
Hemingway was a major American novelist and short story writer whose principal themes were violence, machismo, and the nature of what is now called "male bonding." His renowned style, for his firmly non-intellectual fiction, is characterized by understatement and terse dialogue.
The first thing to be remarked about Across the River and into the Trees is that it is so egregiously bad as to render all comment on it positively embarrassing to anyone who esteems Hemingway as one of the more considerable prose artists of our time and as the author of some of the finest short stories in the language. Hence the disappointment induced by this … work of his, a work manifestly composed in a state of distemper, if not actual demoralization.
This novel reads like a parody by the author of his own manner—a parody so biting that it virtually destroys the mixed social and literary legend of Hemingway that has now endured for nearly three decades. For it can be said that not since the days of Dickens and later of Mark Twain has a writer of fiction in English succeeded in beguiling and captivating his readers to the extent that Hemingway did; and his success had a quality of ease and naturalness that was essentially exhilarating. In this … book, however, the legend suffers irremediable damage. Here he really goes too far in the exploitation of it, indulging himself in blatant self-pity and equally blatant conceit, with the result that certain faults of personality, and the moral and intellectual immaturity which he was never able to overcome but which heretofore, in the greater part of his creative work, he managed to sublimate with genuine artistry, now come through as ruling elements, forcing the reader to react to Hemingway the man rather than to Hemingway the artist. And the man in Hemingway—in his literary appearances at any rate—has nearly always struck one as the parasitical double of the artist in him.
Philip Rahv, "Hemingway in the Early 1950's" (1950), in his The Myth and the Powerhouse (© 1965 by Philip Rahv; reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.), Farrar, Straus, 1965, pp. 193-98.
[Hemingway] had become a legendary figure, a kind of twentieth-century Lord Byron; and like Byron, he had learned to play himself, his own best hero, with superb conviction. He was Hemingway of the rugged outdoor grin and the hairy chest posing beside a marlin he had just landed or a lion he had just shot; he was Tarzan Hemingway, crouching in the African bush with elephant gun at ready, Bwana Hemingway commanding his native bearers in terse Swahili; he was War Correspondent Hemingway writing a play in the Hotel Florida in Madrid while thirty Fascist shells crashed through the roof; later on he was Task Force Hemingway swathed in ammunition belts and defending his post singlehanded against fierce German attacks.
John W. Aldridge, "Hemingway: Nightmare and the Correlative of Loss," in his After the Lost Generation, McGraw-Hill, 1951.
Hemingway's first and best two novels [The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms] were … primarily descriptions of a society that had lost the possibility of belief. They were dominated by an atmosphere of Gothic ruin, boredom, sterility, and decay. Yet if they had been nothing more than descriptions, they would inevitably have been as empty of meaning as the thing they were describing. What saved them as novels was the values which Hemingway was able to salvage out of the ruin of his characters and transform, through the medium of style and tone, into a kind of moral network that linked them together in a unified pattern of meaning. The famous code of forbearance, primitive loyalty, and silent suffering, which was the direct product of the disappearance of all traditional codes, was a weapon that served for a little while to protect Hemingway's characters from the worst consequences of a life without meaning. It also served to protect Hemingway himself from the worst consequences of writing about that life; for the unceasing conflict between the code and the life created the dramatic tension that lifted his work above mere reportage and gave it the stature of art.
John W. Aldridge, "The Young Writer in America: 1945–1951," in his After the Lost Generation, McGraw-Hill, 1951.
In The Old Man and the Sea the artist in [Hemingway] appears to have recouped some of his losses, curbing the overassertive ego so easily disposed to fall into a kind of morbid irritability of self-love mixed with self-pity….
But free as this … work is of the faults of the preceding one, it is still by no means the masterpiece which the nationwide publicity set off by its publication in Life magazine has made it out to be. Publicity is the reward as well as the nemesis of celebrities, but it has nothing in common with judgment. Though the merit of this new story is incontestable, so are its limitations. I do not believe that it will eventually be placed among Hemingway's major writings.
Moreover, it is in no sense a novel, as the publishers would have us believe. At its core it is actually little more than a fishing anecdote, though one invested with an heroic appeal by the writer's art, which here again confirms its natural affinity with the theme of combat and virile sports. This art is at its best in the supple and exact rendering of the sensory detail called for by its chosen theme; and in telling of the old fisherman's ordeal on the open sea—of his strenuous encounter with a giant marlin, the capture of him after a two-day struggle, and the loss of the carcass to the sharks in the end—Hemingway makes the most of his gifts, turning to good account the values of courage and endurance and discipline in action on which his ethic as an artist depends….
[One] is still left with the impression that the creative appeal of this narrative is forceful yet restricted, its quality of emotion genuine but so elemental in its totality as to exact nothing from us beyond instant assent. It exhibits the credentials of the authentic, but in itself it promises very little by way of an advance beyond the positions already won in the earlier phases of Hemingway's career. To be sure, if one is to judge by what some of the reviewers have been saying and by the talk heard among literary people, the meaning of The Old Man and the Sea is to be sought in its deep symbolism. It may be that the symbolism is really there, though I for one have been unable to locate it.
Philip Rahv, "Hemingway in the Early 1950's" (1952), in his The Myth and the Powerhouse (© 1965 by Philip Rahv; reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.), Farrar, Straus, 1965, pp. 198-201.
By a great effort [Hemingway] became master of the magic style, soon to be imitated and cheapened far and wide. But, unlike Yeats in a similar situation, he could not draw on fresh life-giving resources of the spirit, nourishment from responsibility itself, from broadening experience; he was incapable of any great further effort. So the style, in the old sinister magical fashion, mastered him. It took him away from a whole continent of life, his own people, his own maturity as a novelist, and sent him to Spain, to Africa, anywhere, in search of more violence, more death. There was no farewell to arms, no separate peace. Where before he had discovered the effects to express the situation, a situation perhaps demanded by some bitter wound in the soul, now themes were chosen just because they enabled him to use the effects again. True, many of the short stories he wrote during these years have been highly praised, and of course they are written with great skill; but not only do they fail to show any signs of a major novelist arriving at his maturity, they suggest that something false, false to life and to art, is creeping in, a touch of cynical swagger, a hint of bogus profundity, as if he is now unconsciously beginning to parody himself. He is genuinely attracted to Spain, a land of hard obstinate men and haunted by death; the test of lonely courage fascinates him; but while he himself is being brave all over the place, he is refusing the one courageous act demanded of him by his life in art—and he created himself out of literature as an art—and that is, to settle down in or near any American city, take it in all over again, sink down some shafts, if necessary find a new manner and forge a new style, and then write the great American novels of his maturity.
J. B. Priestley, in his Literature and Western Man (copyright © 1960 by J. B. Priestley; reprinted by permission of A. D. Peters and Company), Harper, 1960, pp. 435-36.
Hemingway never wrote a book set in the Mountain West, but he wrote none in which innocence and nobility, heroism and cowardice, devotion and passion (not love but aficion) are not defined as they are in the T.V. Westerns which beguile a nation. The West he exploited is the West not of geography but of our dearest and most vulnerable dreams, not a locale but a fantasy, whose meanings do not change when it is called Spain or Africa or Cuba. As long as the hunting and fishing is good. And the women can be left behind. In Gary Cooper, all at which Hemingway merely hinted was made explicit; for Cooper was what Hemingway only longed to be, the West made flesh—his face, in its inarticulate blankness, a living equivalent of Hemingway's prose style….
Only a comic view could have been truer to our times, and this Hemingway notoriously lacks. He never knew how funny the Westerner had come to seem in our world, whether played by Roy Rogers or Cooper or Hemingway himself—only how sad. Of all his male leads, Jake Barnes comes closest to being redeemed from self-pity by humor—the humor implicit in his comic wound. And consequently Jake could no more have been played by Cooper than could the Nick Adams of the earliest stories, or the old men of the last books. Never quite young, Cooper was not permitted to grow really old—only to betray his age and suffering through the noncommital Montana mask. He represents ideally the protagonists of Hemingway's middle novels, Lieutenant Henry and, of course, Jordan; but he will not do for anything in To Have and Have Not, a Depression book and, therefore, an ill-conceived sport sufficient unto Humphrey Bogart. The roles on either side of middle age, Hemingway was able to play himself, off the screen yet in the public eye: the beautiful young man of up to twenty-three with his two hundred and thirty-seven wounds, the old stud with his splendid beard and his guns chased in silver. We cannot even remember the face of his middle years (except as represented by Cooper), only the old-fashioned photographs of the youth who became the "Papa" of cover-stories in Look and Life: his own doomed father, his own remotest ancestor as well as ours.
Leslie Fiedler, "An Almost Imaginary Interview: Hemingway in Ketchum," in Partisan Review (copyright © 1962 by Partisan Review, Inc.), Summer, 1962.
Of all the writers who began to print after the First World War, Hemingway seems best to have captured the tone of human malaise in an era of war and revolution; yet it is noteworthy that, while doing so, he rarely attempted a frontal or sustained representation of life in the United States, for he seems always to have understood that common experience was not within his reach. By evoking the "essence" of the modern experience through fables of violence that had their settings in Africa and Europe, Hemingway touched the imagination of American readers whose lives, for all their apparent ordinariness, were also marked by the desperation which would become his literary signature and which is, indeed, central to all "modernist" writing. These readers, in turn, often tried to endow their lives with meaning and value by copying the gestures of defiance, the devotion to clenched styles of survival, which they found in Hemingway's work. Because he had penetrated so deeply to the true dilemmas of the age, Hemingway soon began to influence its experience—not for the first time, life came to imitate art….
There emerges … the characteristic hero of the Hemingway world: the hero who is wounded but bears his wound in silence, who is sensitive but scorns to devalue his feelings into words, who is defeated but finds a remnant of dignity in an honest confrontation of defeat. In almost all of Hemingway's books there is a tacit assumption that the deracination of our life is so extreme, everyone must find a psychic shelter of his own, a place in which to make a last stand.
But note: to make a last stand—for if defeat is accepted in Hemingway's world, humiliation and rout are not. His fictions present moments of violence, crisis and death, yet these become occasions for a stubborn, quixotic resistance through which the human capacity for satisfying its self-defined obligations is both asserted and tested. "Grace under pressure": this becomes the ideal stance, the hoped-for moral style, of Hemingway's characters….
[The Hemingway code involves the] determination to be faithful to one's own experience, not to fake emotions or pretend to sentiments that are not there; the belief that loyalty to one's few friends matters more than the claims and dogmas of the world; the insistence upon avoiding self-pity and public displays; the assumption that the most precious feelings cannot be articulated and that if the attempt is made they turn "rotten"; the desire to salvage from the collapse of social life a version of stoicism that can make suffering bearable; the hope that in direct physical sensation, the cold water of the creek in which one fishes or the purity of the wine made by Spanish peasants, there will be found an experience that can resist corruption….
Hemingway was always a young writer, and always a writer for the young. He published his best novel The Sun Also Rises in his mid-twenties and completed most of his great stories by the age of forty. He started a campaign of terror against the fixed vocabulary of literature, a purge of style and pomp, and in the name of naturalness he modelled a new artifice for tension. He struck past the barriers of culture and seemed to disregard the reticence of civilized relationships. He wrote for the nerves….
Hemingway was not so foolish as to suppose that fear can finally be overcome: all his best stories, from "Fifty Grand" to "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber" are concerned to improvise a momentary truce in the hopeless encounter with fear. But Hemingway touched upon something deeper, something that broke forth in his fiction as the most personal and lonely kind of experience but was formed by the pressures of 20th Century history. His great subject was panic, the panic that follows upon the dissolution of nihilism into the blood-stream of consciousness, the panic that finds unbearable the thought of the next minute and its succession by the minute after that. We all know this experience, even if, unlike Jake Barnes, we can sleep at night: we know it because it is part of modern life, perhaps of any life, but also because Hemingway drove it into our awareness….
A code pressing so painfully on the nervous system and so constricted to symbolic gratifications is almost certain to break down—indeed, in his best work Hemingway often shows that it does. After a time, however, his devotion to this code yields him fewer and fewer psychic returns, since it is in the nature of the quest for a moral style that the very act of approaching or even finding it sets off a series of discoveries as to its radical limitations. As a result the later Hemingway, in his apparent satisfaction with the moral style he has improvised, begins to imitate and caricature himself: the manner becomes that of the tight-lipped tough guy, and the once taut and frugal prose turns corpulent.
Irving Howe, in his A World More Attractive: A View of Modern Literature and Politics (© 1963; reprinted by permission of the publisher, Horizon Press, New York), Horizon, 1963, pp. 65-70.
Hemingway … made the one technical advance that could still be recognizable as an advance. He gave the illusion of having purified the method of poetry, as Klee the method of painting, or Pirandello the method of the theater. But it was never more than an illusion.
John Wain, "The Conflict of Forms in Contemporary English Literature," in his Essays on Literature and Ideas (reprinted by permission of Macmillan, London and Basingstoke), St. Martin's, 1963.
[It] is apparently through books that Hemingway learned to write Hemingway-ese—through the eye rather than the ear. If his language is colloquial, it is written colloquial; for he was constitutionally incapable of hearing English as it was spoken around him. To a critic who once asked him why his characters all spoke alike, Hemingway answered, "Because I never listen to anybody." Except, one imagines, to himself, to his own monologues, held, drunk, or sober, over a book or before a mirror, in the loneliness of his own head. He was, of all eminent writers, the most nearly inarticulate—garrulous, when garrulous at all, like the friendly drunk who claims your ear and at great length manages to say nothing. To the end of his life, "articulate" was to Hemingway a curse word, an epithet applied with mingled admiration and contempt to certain rival writers. And yet he, who spoke with difficulty, and surely wrote with more, managed to invent, without betraying his inarticulateness, one of the most imitated prose styles of all time….
That he loved nothingness more than being, death more than his own life, and failure more than success, is the glory of the early Hemingway, which is to say, of the best Hemingway. His authentic work has a single subject: the flirtation with death, the approach to the void. And this subject he managed to treat in a kind of language which betrays neither the bitterness of death nor the terror of the void….
In The Old Man and the Sea, trying to recapture the spare horror of his early work, he produced only an echo, a not-quite-convincing counterfeit of his best. All this he must have known. Certainly, after The Old Man and the Sea, self-doubt overwhelmed him as the felt failure of his later work undermined his confidence even in the early, and the confusion about his identity (was he Papa? Gary Cooper? Nick? Jake Barnes?) mounted toward the pitch of madness. In his distress, he scurried back into his earlier life, seeking some self that might have written books worthy of survival. The articles on bullfighting in Spain which appeared in Life shortly before his death, the book on the 1920's in Paris on which he was working at the very end, are evidence of this search: a man without a future ransacking the past for the meaning of his career.
Leslie A. Fiedler, "The Death of the Old Men," in his Waiting for the End (copyright © 1964 by Leslie A. Fiedler; reprinted by permission of Stein and Day/Publishers), Stein & Day, 1964, pp. 9-19.
In the best of the early Hemingway it always seemed that if exactly the right words in exactly the right order were not chosen, something monstrous would occur, an unimaginably delicate internal warning system would be thrown out of adjustment, and some principle of personal and artistic integrity would be fatally compromised. But by the time he came to write The Old Man [and the Sea] there seems to have been nothing at stake except the professional obligation to sound as much like Hemingway as possible. The man had disappeared behind the mannerism, the artist behind the artifice, and all that was left was a coldly flawless façade of words.
John W. Aldridge, "A Last Look at the Old Man" (1965), in his Time to Murder and Create: The Contemporary Novel in Crisis, McKay, 1966, pp. 185-91.
The Sun Also Rises seems to me Hemingway's only completely honest novel. If, as they say, there is a thin shy ectomorph buried inside every stout hearty endomorph, The Sun Also Rises uncovers him. More than that, in boldly choosing for his subject matter the love between an impotent man and a frigid promiscuous woman, Hemingway found a truly representative and deeply disturbing metaphor for the human condition….
There are fine scenes and parts, too, in the later novels, but after The Sun Also Rises, I think, none is a complete success. From A Farewell to Arms to The Old Man and the Sea, they show a progressive emotional softening, an increasing self-indulgent slackness of the prose, less and less control of the id's fantasy gratifications and the ego's defense mechanisms. "Famous at twenty-five; at thirty a master," Archibald MacLeish has written of Hemingway, but he omits the melancholy conclusion: over the hill at thirty-five.
Hemingway is not the first American writer stifled by fame and wealth. In the self-disgust of the autobiographical protagonist in "The Snows of Kilimanjaro," he suggests that some inner failure demands the outer stifling. The question of whether the individual or the culture is primarily responsible when a writer like Hemingway does not mature beyond his early work, or improve on its excellence, is ultimately unanswerable and pointless. If despite his great gifts Hemingway never became Melville or Tolstoy, Joyce or Proust, he nevertheless left us, in The Sun Also Rises and a handful of short stories, authentic masterpieces, small-scale but immortal.
Stanley Edgar Hyman, "The Best of Hemingway," in his Standards: A Chronicle of Books for Our Time (© 1966; reprinted by permission of the publisher, Horizon Press, New York), Horizon, 1966, pp. 28-32.
Hemingway's love for Africa is a love of the unspoiled, of the natural beauty of green hills and cool lands, of heat and the "beautiful killing" by the hunter, of the untutored impulse to nobility. In his shorter fiction, like the stories, "The Snows of Kilimanjaro," "The Short Happy life of Francis Macomber," and "Hills Like White Elephants," where the natural beauty of Africa is a backdrop to the neurotic destruction of life by the two major characters, Hemingway reveals his love for Africa as a love of the primitive….
If Africa for Conrad is the key to self-revelation, for Hemingway it is the key to contentment. Africa is a mask—perhaps in itself a greater reality but still a reality one puts on—which provides the illusion of the unspoiled, paradisiacal Garden. In Green Hills of Africa the real Hemingway can forget the cities and the neurotic urban citizens he wants so desperately to flee. He can create a jungle of that ideal in which kudu, camp fires, books, and a ready supply of achohol are the ingredients…. Hemingway's African quest was a means of releasing the pure in himself. Hemingway could not live without Africa because he needed its illusion, and that illusion gave him a sense of purpose which enabled him to work.
Martin Tucker, in his Africa in Modern Literature: A Survey of Contemporary Writing in English, Ungar, 1967, pp. 131-32.
The central figure in Hemingway is strong, rugged, masculine—a kind of champ. But somehow he's been entered in a match against Life itself, "The Destroyer," who hopelessly outclasses him. The bout turns out to be a real war, and the Hemingway champ has to stay and take it. He might think there's an easy out—making a separate peace, throwing the fight, or just doggedly slugging back and not letting himself think about things—but nothing really works. He's going to get defeated, and destroyed too. Anyone fighting Life, winner or loser, takes nothing for his purse. And this is what the whole world is full of, despite all the big fish waiting to be caught, all the brave bulls and bullfighters waiting to be admired, all the good liquor waiting to be drunk: nothing, nada.
Samuel I. Bellman, in The Southern Review, Vol. IV, No. 3, Summer, 1968, p. 837.
Hemingway's achievement was to create a style exactly fitted for the exclusion of the cerebral. He didn't, as we know, forge it ex nihilo; he got it from Gertrude Stein, in whose books it seems more faux-naïf than a genuine return to the roots of language. But Gertrude Stein didn't know what to do with it; Hemingway did.
That it was the product of prolonged meditation and hard work on Hemingway's part seems implausible to those writers who can hammer out yards of it on the typewriter: Hemingway made it seem as inevitable as all good writing, and, once the rhythms had been sounded, it was not difficult to pick them up and reproduce them. Faulkner said of him that he had no courage, that he had 'never been known to use a word that might send the reader to the dictionary'….
The masculine action doesn't always please: too much shooting at things and people; too many boy's book gestures of loyalty and honour; too many camp-fire rituals. But the blood was a cleanser, and after the expatriate American Henry James the expatriate Ernest Hemingway was needed—a thrust of the old yang to ginger up the flaccid yin. But the dangers of flaccidity and decadence could hit his ritual prose as easily as the fatter liturgy against which he rebelled. In Across the River he fell; in The Old Man and the Sea he recovered—beautifully and triumphantly. Reconciling literature and action, he fulfilled, for all writers, the sick-room dream of leaving the desk for the arena, and then returning to the desk. He wrote good and lived good, and both activities were the same. The pen handled with the accuracy of the rifle; sweat and dignity; bags of cojones.
Anthony Burgess, "He Wrote Good," in his Urgent Copy: Literary Studies (reprinted by permission of W. W. Norton & Co., Inc.; copyright © 1968 by Anthony Burgess), Norton, 1968, pp. 121-26.
Despite the fact that a surprising amount of Hemingway's work is social commentary and satire, that much of it has to do with the peace-time relationships of men and women, children and parents, or friend and friend, and that a good deal of it partakes of the comic, the overwhelming impression derived by the reader of Hemingway is that of a violent world, a world at war, a world in which anarchy prevails. Hemingway's depiction of violence, although it is in frequency by no means his major concern, is nevertheless perhaps the most vivid and memorable aspect of his art. And even where there is little or no violence, as in The Sun Also Rises, we are given the sense of breakdown, fragmentation, disintegration. In such a world, toughness seems the only means of survival.
Throughout Hemingway's early work, and despite the keen social consciousness of much of it, law neither guides human conduct nor seemingly has much relevance to it. No characters in modern fiction exercise greater moral awareness than Hemingway's; none struggle harder for moral certainties, and almost none achieve such little success. Witness Jake Barnes' continuing, agonized, but ultimately futile attempts to find some durable meaning in his suffering and make some useful philosophy from it. Each of these attempts concludes only in Jake's recognition of the emptiness of his endeavor, culminating in his final, stark, tough comment "Isn't it pretty to think so?"
Frederick Henry's struggles to achieve a satisfactory moral resolution in A Farewell to Arms have equally unsatisfactory results. The brutal actualities of war have taught him to distrust such shibboleths and abstractions as glory and honor, and Catherine's agonies in childbirth lead him to conclude that men's sufferings in life are as pathetically frantic and meaningless as the scrambling of ants on a burning log. Society is partner to this cruel deception because it insists in promulgating a mock order and respectability which ignore the harsh reality of the human condition. Once he has discovered its vicious sham, the Hemingway protagonist can no longer count himself one of its members….
In Hemingway, as in his followers, there are three tests or criteria for toughness. The first and most obvious of these is sheer physical stamina and the ability—a synthesis of physical stamina and iron will—to keep functioning despite pain and bodily damage. Although Hemingway's protagonists are never supermen, they are distinguished by their power to rise to the crisis….
The second standard for toughness is that of control over personal feeling and natural appetites, especially in a professional situation. The epitome of sloppy sentimentality and self-indulgence, and thus at the furthest remove from the tough hero, is the character of Robert Cohn in The Sun Also Rises. But on this point we encounter a paradox. As weak and childish as Cohn is made to seem in his predilection for sentiment and public displays of emotion, no Hemingway protagonist, and few of the protagonists of his disciples, is wholly successful in the restraint of emotion. All strive for coolness and freedom from passion, but all are subject to it….
Indeed, the tough hero's capacity for emotion constitutes the essence of his humanity. It is this quality which renders him most humanly attractive and credible to the reader and which provides the most important means of distinguishing him from his antagonists, the gangsters and thugs. Quite aside from the inalienable situation in which we approve the hero because he stands for Right and the villain for Wrong, we identify with him because, in his power to feel, the tough hero is fundamentally normal. In contrast, the criminal's inveterate choice of things or money over people, his immunity to love, guilt, or remorse (the criminal's prime emotions are greed, fear, anger, and hatred), his total callousness to the pain endured by others, and his incapacity for compassion or empathy, all mark him as less than human and consequently deserving of destruction….
Finally, we observe that toughness in Hemingway and his hard-boiled followers is defined not only by physical durability and the maintenance of the stoic pose, but also and ultimately the power to confront death without morbid pessimism or specious piety…. [There is] consistent attempt in Hemingway's early work not to deny death but to deglamorize and de-romanticize it. The Hemingway hero attains a secular grace when in the very presence and full consciousness of death he behaves as though he would live forever….
To Hemingway death provides the most severe and intense test of character, the sharpest lens through which to study life. As he explains it in the opening chapter of Death in the Afternoon, it is for these reasons he assigns it so prominent a place in his work. It is also the prime reason why Hemingway recurrently returns to the bullring as the locale for his fiction, and why he professes such admiration for the brave matador. At first glance the tough hero and the matador would seem to have little in common, so far removed are they in locale and circumstance, yet only a little reflection serves to emphasize their fundamental likenesses: notably their professional devotion to craft, their physical toughness, and above all, their coolness in the presence of death….
Hemingway's tough style depends on three dominant elements: first, short and simple sentence constructions, with heavy use of parallelism, which convey the effect of control, terseness, and blunt honesty; second, purged diction which above all eschews the use of bookish, latinate, or abstract words and thus achieves the effect of being heard or spoken or transcribed from reality rather than appearing as a construct of the imagination (in brief, verisimilitude); and third, skillful use of repetition and a kind of verbal counterpoint, which operate either by pairing or juxtaposing opposites, or else by running the same word or phrase through a series of shifting meanings and inflections….
Hemingway's most extensive work in the tough tradition is his 1937 novel To Have and Have Not. Not only does it bear out the definition of toughness we have established, it also exhibits an important but often neglected dimension of the tough guy school…. I speak of the socio-economic dimension, which involves both class conflict and social injustice. And here we encounter a curious ahbiguity: the employers of the tough hero, who is almost always a private detective, are the rich and the aristocratic (since only they can afford his fees), and his antagonists are the criminals who are almost invariably the poor or who once had their origins in poverty; yet the tough hero's own origins and sympathies belong more to the poor than the rich. Furthermore, because the tough hero is usually engaged to keep the rich from suffering the consequences of their misdeeds, he is obliged in the very nature of his mission to make certain that the poor (criminal) do not escape the consequences of their misdeeds. Finally, as vicious, brutal, and treacherous as the thugs, hoodlums, conmen, blackmailers, etc., who threaten the rich, the rich often prove themselves capable of equal if not greater depravity, all the more despicable because it is carried on under the guise of elegant manners and respectability….
The world Hemingway portrays in To Have and Have Not is the essential milieu of all tough novels, a society so dominated by crime and injustice that law and order have become viciously hypocritical terms. Only power, money, and indomitable individual action make for survival, and if one must survive at the expense of others, so be it. Consequently, Harry Morgan, tough hero that he is, adopts a personal and pragmatic standard of behavior, a Darwinian-Nietzschean morality at the furthest remove from the official morality of our Judaeo-Christian culture, a morality in which a man must sometimes act as a "criminal" in order to win decency and dignity as a man….
With all its flaws, and regardless of its success as a social document, To Have and Have Not remains the best of the tough novels of its decade and perhaps the best yet written in America, as Hemingway, despite almost a half century of imitation, remains unsurpassed as a tough writer. His total artistic achievement amounts to a great deal more than that, of course, and in the estimation of many, he belongs in the front rank of the fiction writers of our language. Considering his stature and originality, there is small wonder he has given rise to so many different kinds of progeny, among them two generations of hard-boiled children, from Dashiell Hammett to Ian Fleming. No doubt each new decade will see the emergence of other varieties of tough writers whose work we will continue reading to satisfy our vicarious desire for the strenuous life, to participate in the adventures of the strong, stoical heroes who can take it and hand it out, to become in our imaginations the tough guys who transcend the fear of softness, of old age, and of dying.
Sheldon Norman Grebstein, "The Tough Hemingway and His Hard-Boiled Children," in Tough Guy Writers of the Thirties, edited by David Madden (© 1968 by Southern Illinois University Press; reprinted by permission of Southern Illinois University Press), Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1968, pp. 18-41.
By the time of his suicide in 1961, when he knew better than anyone that he was utterly exhausted, Hemingway had already been dead for some time to at least one generation of American writers. Snarl as he might at critics and detractors, and however much he surrounded himself with sycophants and soothsayers, he could scarcely protect himself from the knowledge that he had long since been blocked in ice as a school classic; that, with a few scattered exceptions, critics regarded his early work as his best work; that the young read him dutifully, perhaps admiringly, but listened themselves to other voices.
For them, he might as well have been an ancient Roman. The attitudes and postures which his name automatically evoked had nothing to do with contemporary obsessions; the famous style, having passed into and out of the literary language—having done its necessary work of housecleaning—had become a manner that hack feature-writers could, and did by the dozen, easily ape. In fact, by those imitations his own later manner stood cruelly exposed for the bare thing it was when it no longer had a great subject to grind against; it had become a way of punching out sentences and putting together paragraphs that fifth-rate novelists who had neither style nor vision of their own could appropriate entire, as they never could do, even if they had the wit to will it, with his most formidable contemporaries, Fitzgerald and Faulkner.
Saul Maloff, "The Importance of Being Ernest," in Commonweal (reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), May 9, 1969, pp. 235-38.
An interesting aspect of [the] purposeful relation between the observer and the world [in Hemingway's work] is the semi-professional view that the characters often take of their world as if they were evaluating it for an immediate or future specific use. The major characters often reveal a handbook view of an object, a view conditioned by their function as professional observers. Santiago looks at sky, water, and light for indications of future weather and fishing conditions. Frederic and Robert, as soldiers, consider roads, bridges, and terrain in terms of men, movement, and equipment, though Frederic Henry does so with a dull and jaded eye while Robert Jordan is always interested and often pleased; finally, Jake, the newspaper man, views spectacles in the colorful manner that might be expected of a journalist and sojourner. These special variations of purposeful observation are the results of two basic conditions of the Hemingway protagonists that elicit the consciousness of particular or professional knowledge. The hero is often a foreigner; even though he may know the language fluently, he is in some way an outsider, not really in the stream of tradition or daily life. As a result he must learn rather consciously as much as possible about the alien world if he is to deal with it; terrain and customs must be assimilated. Furthermore, while the hero's senses are alerted in his learning process, he, as a "professional," has something to teach the other characters, whether it be bull fighting, warfare, fishing, or eating and drinking. The hero as either student or teacher needs to be aware of the world around him—persons as well as places and things—if he is to survive as a personality and, often, as a physical entity.
These teacher-learner relations function not only within the world of the novel but extend to the reader. The two premises—hero as foreigner and hero as professional—encourage the reader's identification with the protagonist as learner as well as submission to his (teacher's) knowledge and experience. The reader is inclined to identify himself with the hero-foreigner since the reader himself is a stranger who accepts and welcomes information given by the author (either directly or indirectly), the presentation of which he would find obtrusive under other circumstances. This attitude is not limited to acceptance of fact, but after conditioning the reader to accept him as guide to the facts of the situation, the author is in a more authoritative position in any statement he makes or impression he conveys. In some particular sphere, however, the author is often knowledgeable. The "teaching" aspect in Hemingway's novels may be divided into three basic facets: 1. Characters teach characters: Jake teaches Bret about bullfighting ([The Sun Also Rises,] Ch. XIII), peasants teach Bill how to drink wine from a skin (Ch. XI), Karkov teaches Robert Jordan his politics ([For Whom the Bell Tolls,] Ch. XVIII), Robert Jordan teaches gun placement and observation (Ch. XXII & XLIII); 2. Hemingway teaches reader directly: Aficion, The Sun Also Rises (Ch. XIII), France and tipping … (Ch. XIX), and fishing methods, The Old Man and the Sea; 3. Hemingway teaches reader indirectly: Jake prepares trout ([The Sun Also Rises,] Ch. XII), Santiago prepares fish ([The Old Man and the Sea,] p. 47) and Jordan makes a bough bed ([For Whom the Bell Tolls,] Ch. XX) and loads a gun (Ch. XLI).
The sense of immediacy in Hemingway's novels is gained not by the reproduction of the object for itself or even in the perception of the object by the subject so much as by the subject's awareness of his act of perception and the activity of the object perceived.
John Graham, "Ernest Hemingway: The Meaning of Style" (originally published in a slightly different version in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. VI, 1960–61; revised version © 1969, by Purdue Research Foundation, West Lafayette, Indiana, and reprinted by permission of the author and Purdue Research Foundation), in Studies in A Farewell to Arms, edited by John Graham, Merrill, 1971, pp. 97-8, 105.
Islands in the Stream is a formless and sprawling work which dispenses with the usual structure and architecture of the novel: its three major sections are really vignettes extended to hundreds of pages. It is as if Hemingway, at the end of his career, had come full cycle from the dramatic conciseness of the short stories in the early 1920s which brought him world-wide attention at an early age. Yet the economy and understatement of the short scene is Hemingway's real strength, and despite brilliant passages in Islands in the Stream (passages almost detachable from the novel), the work as a whole suffers from a looseness that suggests a slackness in conception. Some of the characters are weakly created: the Hudson sons seem unreal as people, and when they are rather too neatly killed off, the great sorrow imputed to Hudson seems unreal too. Other characters drift in and out of the novel without explanation. The men on board Hudson's ship at the end have names like Antonio and Gil and Ara, but they are all faceless and interchangeable with one another. Most of all, Hemingway drifts off at times into lengthy memoire-like recollections which not only do not move the novel along, but give the impression of an imperfect fusion of literary forms. The only thing that really is "happening" in Islands in the Stream is style, style as an end and pleasure in itself and related weakly, if at all, to a compelling human drama. It is as if, in Islands in the Stream, Hemingway's art had survived intact and failed only of a subject.
Robert Emmet Long, in Commonweal (reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), October 23, 1970, pp. 99-100.
The work of Ernest Hemingway may prove, above Faulkner's, Eliot's, or O'Neill's, above the work of any other American of that generation, closest to our consciousness, our blankness and rage. Familiar as it may now seem, the work engages modernism on the deepest levels, and its experience occupies the time and space we inhabit. Indeed, Hemingway's fiction makes for itself a place in the tradition of silence that extends from Sade, through Kafka, Genet, and Beckett, to the inverted literary imagination of our own day….
Like the Symbolist poets, Hemingway wants to purify the language of the tribe; like the Dadaists and Surrealists, he disdains "literature." He values the rigor of art; he abhors untruth. Hemingway suspects the power of literature to falsify experience, its readiness to mediate vitality and concreteness….
Superficially, Hemingway objects to gentility. On a deeper level, he distrusts the accretions of language…. Hemingway's distrust of language has many guises. His vocabulary is perhaps the smallest of any major novelist. To speak is to lie, Burroughs avers; this is fanatic. Hemingway is merely taciturn; he advises curtness in feeling, in action. He emulates the clipped speech of the English upper classes and of the laconic Westerner. The few words he imports from foreign languages tend to be simple, even obscene; the essential task is to confront nada with cojones…. [He] seeks new values for language in slang, in fact, in understatement….
Hemingway's understatement stems from a private conviction that good things deserve to remain unexpressed; it ends by serving an artistic purpose. Understatement requires omission, and the art of omission is one that he learns from the great Impressionist painters, Cézanne particularly…. Omission compels participation. Thus the house of fiction, with its empty spaces, is finally inhabited….
But slang, fact, and understatement, as verbal modes, are equivocal. They appear to harden the surface of language; at first, they seem techniques of semantic restraint or even absence. They produce a stillness. Yet their end is to create meaning; they finally function as techniques of semantic presence. Such is the duplicity of silence in Hemingway's fiction. Literature creates itself in self-opposition, and style evolves into a pure anti-style.
The mannerisms of Hemingway's anti-style are only too memorable. Repetitions of word and phrase, suggested by the rhythmic experiments of Gertrude Stein, insinuate their significance precisely because they avoid expansion and customary elaboration. Substantives carry the burden of his statements, and make all analysis superfluous….
Style engages human conduct, and conduct engages fate. Hemingway, we know, abhors the cant of ideology; his ethic is elementary. If you "feel good" after an action, you have acted morally. Morality, then, is a subjective response; but it is the response of one who accepts a code of skill and courage, and knows that death exposes the shabbiness of human endeavor….
This difficult code offers few comforts and relies on fewer presuppositions. It leaves out much of what history has bequeathed to us of philosophy and religion. The radical skepticism of Hemingway is backed only by what a man truly possesses: his flesh, the home of his morality. As a result of this reductive ethic, the characters of Hemingway are forced to be tough; they avoid all unnecessary responses to the world around them. But they also exact from themselves the extreme response when circumstances warrant it: speechless violence….
When we exclude enough, we are left with nothing, nada. This, and not physical death, is the destiny of Hemingway's heroes. As a symbol of non-being, of the void, of life's ineluctable emptiness, death chills the spine of the bravest: there is no answer to it but suicide….
Yet it is perverse to see only the emptiness of Hemingway's world. In its lucid spaces, a vision of archetypal unity reigns. Opposite forces obey a common destiny; enemies discover their deeper identity; the hunter and the hunted merge. The matador plunges his sword, and for an instant in eternity, man and beast are the same. This is the moment of truth, and it serves Hemingway as symbol of the unity which underlies both love and death. His fatalism, his tolerance of bloodshed, his stoical reserve before the malice of creation, betray a sacramental attitude that transcends any personal fate….
His redeemed characters know that the universe is not Naught but One. And they all cast, like one man, a single shadow across death, the unifier of all our tales.
The black paradox of Ernest Hemingway remains the same: he can never stray far from the reticence of death, madness, and the void without betraying his vision. Critics have speculated about the "fourth" and "fifth" dimensions that Hemingway believes can be given to prose fiction. They have suggested the dimensions of death, transcendence, and the mystic present. Silence, which bears some relation to these topics, may be conceived as an added dimension to his prose. In that dimension, the exclusive rage and unitary obsession of Hemingway find their best expression….
Yet there is some infirmity, perhaps, in that silence, and it must be acknowledged. It disguises a deliberate restriction of feelings, the tightness of holding tight….
Everything must be simplified. Everything must be simplified and repeated. During his life span, Hemingway doubles up on his tracks across three continents to conquer the fright of being. His compulsion to repeat turns the later work into a parody of the earlier….
We need not speculate on the disease of genius. Whatever ravages Hemingway's life, whatever insanity finds its way to the end, he still manages to create a unique literary style, and manages to create a style of survival that compels envy and emulation the world over. He offers also a parable of the literary imagination nearing the end of its tether, of consciousness struggling against the nihilism that consciousness alone can engender. In his work, literary statement approaches the edge; language implies the abolition of statement. A minimal assertion holds the world of Hemingway together against madness.
Ihab Hassan, "Hemingway: Valor Against the Void," in his The Dismemberment of Orpheus: Toward a Postmodern Literature (copyright © 1971 by Ihab Hassan; reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.), Oxford University Press, 1971, pp. 80-109.
We speak of certain writers as "stylists" in the sense that they cultivate very agreeable effects in language; but this purely "aesthetic" sense falls far short of what style meant for Hemingway. For him style was a moral act, a desperate struggle for moral probity amid the confusions of the world and the slippery complexities of one's own nature. To set things down simple and right is to hold a standard of rightness against a deceiving world. This style is so far from being a merely "literary" phenomenon that Hemingway in fact set a pattern of life for a whole generation. Young men turned up in New York or Paris trying to walk, talk, and gesture in the Hemingway manner….
In comparison with some of the greatest novelists, undoubtedly, Hemingway falls short in richness of characterization (his characters tend to be flat), in the depth of psychological insight (his range here is narrow), and in fertility at creating situations (his plots are usually uninventive). No matter; language will carry the day and make do for all of these. For in language man comes to the truth of being that is both appropriate and possible for him….
Style for him … was a matter not of belles-lettres but of a style of life. Style provided a moral gauge or standard to which we must hold fast, which we must guard and preserve that it might also guard and preserve us. "It is what we have in place of religion," says Lady Brett Ashley in The Sun Also Rises after she decides to stick to her code and not play the bitch by ruining the young bullfighter Pedro Romero. But this morality of style is possible only through that other dimension of truth: the right style is one that lets us see things as they are. Only if language opens up some clearing, some open space in which we can lay hold of them, can we come close to and hold fast to the things that matter….
But these virtues of style, like everything else in human life, exact their price. To maintain a style requires discipline, toil, a kind of Spartan asceticism against the flabbier and easier thing to do. It is a mistake that some critics have made to think that Hemingway preaches a "cult of sensation" as if he were presenting us with some gluttonous or childish epicureanism….
Every mode of vision, which is what a style is, by its very nature must exclude things from its field. To focus a camera is to scan out other objects, other shades and lights, other ranges of possibility. All that we can rightfully ask is that when the camera is focused, and the shutter clicks, the image will come out sharp and clear and so fresh that we are really seeing it for the first time just because it was always there before our eyes though we were not able to look….
There is one important sense in which Hemingway may be said to be the most successful of modern writers: bestriding the chasm between highbrow and lowbrow, he was celebrated by both camps. This split between "the two audiences," which began in the nineteenth century with the universal spread of literacy, has been taken as the inescapable burden of all modern culture since. Hemingway manages to escape its restrictions. A whole generation of journalists and popular fictionists produced parodies of him in the well-known "tough guy" style while at the same time elaborate analyses of his books were being printed in the scholarly literary quarterlies. No other writer managed to speak to both cultures….
Innocence and adventure—they are always present in Hemingway even when the tone and message of his stories border on the far edge of nihilism. This innocence is part of the dream of an idyllic wilderness, as in the story "Big Two-Hearted River."… Step by step, Hemingway brings us back through the imagination of a boys' story to that morning of the world where we have at last discovered paradise lost. This dream of the unspoiled wilderness where all are redeemed haunts the American imagination, and perhaps secretly tarnishes our innocence at its source by a guilt for the virgin continent our civilization has raped and plundered….
Violence, someone has said, is as American as apple pie. How much this cultivation of violence is connected with our famed American innocence would be a tempting subject to explore. I venture to think they are not unconnected. The innocent are very often more brutal than the worldly. An older and more worldly-wise person may do you harm, but it is more likely to be within the rules of the game that society prescribes. In any case, Hemingway's pursuit of the theme of violence is more than a matter of being in the native American grain; he sees that the violent is woven into the structure of life itself. Life is a contest, an agon as the ancient Greeks understood it, in which we are all, variously, protagonists and antagonists. Hence, the violence in Hemingway is stylized, since it is always played, even in nature, perhaps above all in nature, according to some form. The violence erupts within the patterns of war or the patterns of the bullring. Hence there is little of that random and sensationalistic violence that cheaper writers, falsely patterning themselves after him, throw in for fireworks….
[Courage] for Hemingway [is] the indispensable virtue. What is the menace that lurks in Hemingway's world? What is it really that we have to fear? It is that at some moment when we do not expect it our courage will fail us. Driven by this fear, Hemingway went out of his way to test his own courage—in war, the hunting of big game, deep-sea fishing. But all these ordeals by fire were no guarantee that courage might not desert him that dark night in Idaho when he was led to take his own life. In life there is never any guarantee. What is the fear behind this fear that courage can always desert us? It is the presence of the void to which, however we hide from it, we are always exposed. Courage is therefore not the special and gaudy virtue of the man of action; it is the act of life itself as we endure from one moment to the next. Courage is to know quietly and surely that the void is always there, ready to spring, even though sometimes by going off to the wars or hunting big game we may actually be running away from its presence.
William Barrett, "Winner Take Nothing," in his Time of Need: Forms of Imagination in the Twentieth Century (copyright © 1972 by William Barrett; reprinted by permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.), Harper, 1972, pp. 64-95.
In … Men at War, as well as in A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls, Hemingway shows how he learned from Stendhal that language is one of the earliest casualties of battle. A significant part of the language complex in battle, as both Stendhal and Hemingway show, is that language loses touch with reality and becomes either obscenely abstract or obscenely vulgar. It is another way of contrasting noble and earthy accounts of war….
What Hemingway learned from Stendhal's account of war was basically an epistemological and ultimately an esthetic insight. Neither [Stendhal's] Fabrizio nor [Hemingway's] Frederic sees war as an objective event to which one must find a right relationship. Rather it is an event created by the interaction of objective detail and subjective perception. The subject is inevitably part of the action. Thus, the establishment of the protagonist's state of mind precedes his perception of the event. He sees what he is emotionally ready to see. And Hemingway, drawing on the created experience of Fabrizio, could present another created experience that has more psychological validity than a direct recording of events might have.
Hemingway's debt to Stendhal did not end, however, with the battle and retreat passages. He saw Fabrizio's development from callow revolutionary to man of earned belief as a usable and appropriate one for Frederic. His reliance on such a pattern of development provides evidence relevant to a number of critical problems in A Farewell to Arms.
First, while the war experience is important in the spiritual pilgrimages of both Fabrizio and Frederic, the influence of Stendhal's work suggests that for A Farewell to Arms, as well as for The Charterhouse of Parma, love rather than war is the principal subject. Further, Stendhal's example suggests that Frederic, like Fabrizio, is prepared by his war experience not only for profane love but for a recognition of divine love as well….
A second way in which Fabrizio and Frederic demonstrate similarities in development enough to suggest a genetic relationship is their initial inability to love passionately because of their failure of belief. Both find themselves loved but unable to love. Their response can only be one of physical lust….
After he has suffered the catastrophe of being wounded and of losing his feeling of immunity, Frederic … can begin to learn to love…. That such a change from lust to passion can come about is clear as both protagonists put their sexual love in the context of divine love….
Hemingway's use of The Charterhouse of Parma as matrix and measuring point for A Farewell to Arms is of course best focused in the comparable passages of battle and retreat. The more subtle uses of Fabrizio's pattern of development and discovery for Frederic, however, point to the necessity Hemingway frequently cited of gaining perspective through time for the composition of fiction. He noted in Green Hills of Africa that one can write of literal events soon after they happen but that one needs time to settle experience into an imaginative framework and make a fictional world…. He not only waited ten years to write his novel but also waited until he assimilated a meaning for the events which he found in Stendhal's novel. The long perspective, coupled with the example of Stendhal's Fabrizio, indicates how A Farewell to Arms is a novel about the conditions of love in the modern world more than it is about war. Like Stendhal, Hemingway explores the paradox basic in all his fiction: how love can come out of death (war), and, though he does not announce it so, how good may come of evil. The influence of Stendhal's example thus helps place A Farewell to Arms within the ethical rather than the naturalistic tradition.
Robert O. Stephens, "Hemingway and Stendhal: The Matrix of A Farewell to Arms," in PMLA, 88 (copyright © 1973 by the Modern Language Association of America; reprinted by permission of the Modern Language Association of America,) March, 1973, pp. 271-80.
No one [not even Philip Young, editor of The Nick Adams Stories,] has ever written about all the Adams stories as a single literary work, and yet they do comprise the longest narrative about a hero of Hemingway's living in the author's own country—America, the Midwest, Michigan. The only other major work in which a substantial portion of the action occurs in America is To Have and Have Not, set in Cuba, Florida, and the Florida Keys. The Nick Adams stories are the only extended work which Hemingway wrote about his own cultural origins.
It would be silly, of course, to argue that the book about Nick is an intricately constructed novel like For Whom the Bell Tolls or that the structure moves as relentlessly and consistently as is true of A Farewell to Arms. Rather, these stories as a single work fall into the category of a genre that has become prominent and significant in modern fiction—a book of closely related and unified short stories which form a rather loose novel. Boccaccio's Decameron and Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales were forerunners of this kind of work, but even they do not focus consistently upon one single protagonist throughout all the tales. Twentieth-century writers seem to have created more related yarns of this kind than writers in any previous age. Faulkner has referred to The Unvanquished and Go Down, Moses as novels although one story in the latter ("Pantaloon in Black") does not have a single character who also appears in other stories. Katherine Anne Porter has never pulled together all her stories about Miranda, but probably they have nothing like the progress and unity of the career of Nick Adams. The stories of Eudora Welty's The Golden Apples and Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio are related and based on a single community, but they do not have the semblance of novels. Hemingway's group probably comes closer to being a work about one major figure than any other uncollected comparable narratives….
In a novel the writer would probably provide Nick's complete service record—what battles, what leaves, what wounds—and when. Of course, this is exactly the reason that the Adams stories form a loosely related work rather than one integrated novel….
Some of the factual continuity of a novel ties the Nick Adams stories together. Several characters and memories of them occur in a number of stories. The most recurrent characters besides Nick are his mother and father, who appear in the action or at least in the mind of Nick in all the early Michigan stories which Hemingway published…. Details of outdoor life in Michigan—logging, sawmilling, timber, fishing, hunting—tie together all the Michigan stories and appear also in Nick's memories of his childhood as he thinks of them during the war. Characters and the old scenery reappear less often in the wandering and the war-time parts of Nick's life, but that does not damage the unity of the book. The way of living at the time causes Nick to see more people but fewer old friends and constant companions.
Besides the mere reappearance of old things, patterns of character relationships and traits always create a unity within the stories….
The stories are held together by systems of consistent techniques and methods. Hemingway's indirection; his omission of details in a way that enables the reader to make crucial assumptions from mere implication; his use of a masculine, choppy, muscular style; his understatement; his playing down even the most crucial point of a story—all the techniques of the very best and early Hemingway are omni-present in Nick's adventures. The earliest of the stories was published in April, 1924, two years before The Sun Also Rises, and the latest appeared in 1933, years before Hemingway turned to the didacticism, sentimentality, and discursiveness of his later fiction. The short stories are among his best work, perhaps—indeed, the best of all. And the collected stories about Nick Adams, despite some lack of unity, belong to the group of his best three or four longer works.
Although the individual stories are complete entities when separate from other parts of the Nick Adams story, critics have been confused because they did not see within a particular story a device that occurs over and over in many stories. Nick learns again and again from things which happen to other people, and the effect on him may be stated or implied so briefly and simply that a reader fails to see where the focus of the story is…. In several stories, especially those about the time of his drifting and the war, Nick is passive physically. Others act upon him and cause changes in his body and mind. Part of the unity of the book, then, derives from Nick's initiation in always new experiences, whether they are his own or someone else's.
Because Nick's own actions are minor in some of the stories and because Hemingway provides mainly the stark facts with few overt clues to interpretation, many readers invent meanings and add improbable information about the stories….
Most of the mistaken critical extensions of the Nick Adams stories deal with sex in some fashion or another. The problem, I think, is not that readers are merely interested in complicating sexual relationships but that they do not understand or accept the stark facts about the relationships between characters….
The cumulative effect of the story of Nick Adams is that he is initiated time and again and that he learns more and more. Each story therefore becomes more powerful and meaningful when taken along with others instead of separately. Alone, "Big Two-Hearted River," for example, is an account of a man's going fishing after he has suffered a psychic wound. Although it is an independent work, it assumes even more depth in the context of all the stories….
The new stories and sketches is Young's collection provide information about the life of Nick Adams and even about the old stories. Without "Wedding Day," the reader would not know that Helen in "An Alpine Idyll" is Nick's wife instead of a mistress. But Hemingway was wise in not publishing most of these eight stories and sketches. It is good to know more about Nick, but his adventures are a better work of art read without the new additions, which may be read afterward as the companion pieces which they are.
That Hemingway himself never collected his Nick Adams stories does not negate the fact that they form an artistic whole. They are more a unity than Faulkner's works written about Yoknapatawpha County. They are much more closely related than many other collections of connected short stories. The hero progresses through a period of time as consistently as in the life of a living man of the time. He lives in three contemporaneous and real geographical worlds—Michigan, the terrain of the life of a hobo in the Midwest, and Europe. True, there may be many questions about blanks in Nick's life, but ther can be no question that here is one of Hemingway's books, and one of his best at that.
Floyd C. Watkins, "The Nick Adams Stories: A Single Work by Ernest Hemingway," in The Southern Review, Vol. 9, No. 2, Spring, 1973, pp. 481-91.
[The] bullfight plays an important part in much of Hemingway's work; besides Death in the Afternoon, in which the bullfight is central, it is a major element in The Sun Also Rises, as well as in several short stories. Moreover, the essential configuration which the bullfight presents, that of a man and an animal locked in mortal struggle, is frequently found in Hemingway, from Green Hills of Africa to The Old Man and the Sea. In fact, what may be called the pattern of the bullfight is found throughout Hemingway's works, and it is a pattern that demands considerably more attention than it has yet received….
[The] quality of courage, of grace under pressure, which Hemingway finds in its supreme form in the drama of the bullfight, is extended by him into other activities, particularly hunting. For Hemingway, in fact, hunting seems to be an activity like the bullfight, but an activity which he himself can participate in. The green hills of Africa are frequently described as resembling Spain, and the objects of the hunt are often described in terms drawn from the bullfight….
[The] qualities of bravery, grace, and control became associated in Hemingway's mind, particularly as he grew older, with another quality which is perhaps more necessary to the old than to the young, that of endurance. As early as Death in the Afternoon Hemingway was impressed with this quality; one of the major elements in Manuel Garcia's victory … was that he had to go in for the kill six times before he was successful; it was only on the sixth attempt, with his right wrist dislocated and swollen, that he made the kill, using the right hand and pulling the sword out with the same hand. It was not, however, until The Old Man and the Sea that Hemingway articulated in its fullest form the qualities he associated with the virtue of endurance….
If the bullfight is in its essential nature a religious ritual, then the bullfighter must in some way correspond to a religious celebrant. In the sacrifice of the bullfight, the bullfighter is the priest. Note how frequently Hemingway associates the bullfighter with religious figures…. Even as late as 1960 Hemingway is still using this same language as he describes a matador "who fought his bulls as though he were serving Mass in a dream." As a priest or priest-like figure, then, the bullfighter is a religious man and it is this religious feeling, this sense of immortality that can result from a successful bullfight as it can from any successful religious ritual, that constitutes the major focus of Hemingway's belief in the bullfight….
Hemingway describes the emotion presented by the bullfighter to his audience as that of life and death, of mortality and immortality. Yet as Hemingway makes clear throughout his works, one of the essential conditions of the human experience is mortality, not immortality. It is a perception of shared mortality, I believe, that accounts for the nature of Hemingway's identification with the bull. The bull comes into the ring at the height of his physical powers, strong and confident like a young man, but, like a young man, with very little experience. The quality that the bull, faced with impossible odds, must show is the same quality that a man, faced with the same odds, must show; that quality is bravery….
It seems that throughout his career, Hemingway was in search of something of enduring, permanent value within the impermanence of the modern condition. He seems to find this sense of permanence in various ways, in the sense of immortality that he gains from the otherwise impermanent art of the bullfight, in the fact that the "earth abideth forever," in the eternal flow of the gulf stream and in the permanence of his own writings as works of art. He does not, however, manage to communicate this sense of endurance in its fullest form until The Old Man and the Sea. In that novel, however, he succeeds in a manner which almost defeats critical description. The old man becomes the sea and like the sea he endures. He is dying, as the year is dying. He is fishing in September, the fall of the year, the time that corresponds in the natural cycle to the phase of sunset and coming death…. Yet the death of the old man will not bring an end to the cycle; as part of the sea he will continue to exist….
[If] the pattern of suffering and endurance that Hemingway presents in The Old Man and the Sea represents his fullest articulation of the tragic pattern, it is a pattern that can be found very early in his career in his reaction to the tragedy of the bull. In Aristotelian terms, the bullfight arouses in Hemingway the contrasting emotions of pity and fear. He moves emotionally toward the bull as he pities him in a sense of their common mortality; he moves emotionally away from him as he fears him as an embodiment of the demonic…. As all great tragedy somehow manages to do, catharsis has been achieved; the feelings of pity and fear have been aroused and then released….
Tragedy, whether played in the Greek theater of Dionysus, in the Spanish bullring, or in the novels of Ernest Hemingway, is the embodiment of the primitive ritual of the sacrifice of the god, a god who must die but who will be reborn. Hemingway finds the basic pattern of tragedy in the archetype of rebirth.
Steven R. Phillips, "Hemingway and the Bullfight: The Archetypes of Tragedy," in Arizona Quarterly, Spring, 1973, pp. 37-56.
Nick Adams is … one of Hemingway's best creations and appears in much of his earliest short fiction. Most of the stories in his first full-length book, In Our Time, are about Nick or someone very much like him, as are many of the best stories to appear subsequently. The impression that these stories collectively tell a more or less coherent, if fragmented, story is one that is probably common to students and aficionados of Hemingway's fiction, and the appearance of these stories [The Nick Adams Stories] in an arrangement certified by a good Hemingway scholar like Philip Young as coherent and chronological, together with new material that, according to Young, "fills substantial gaps in the narrative," would seem to prove final confirmation. But the test of these impressions is in the reading, and the results are not nearly so rewarding and clear as Young and the publisher would have us think.
To begin with, the question of what constitutes a Nick Adams story has been quietly finessed. To the stories in which Nick is specifically named the editors have added three in which the young hero is nameless—"The Light of the World," "In Another Country," and "An Alpine Idyl." Though no one would probably quarrel with these choices, the basis for including them and excluding a host of other stories in which the nameless hero may well be Nick is not offered and is not evident.
Nor does the arrangement of the stories followed in this collection always point up the coherence of Nick's adventures and the consistency of his character, as is claimed…. What this arrangement, in fact, tends to call attention to, in this and other sections, is not so much the wholeness and consistency of the Nick Adams "story" as its erratic and spasmodic nature….
[The] assumptions that Nick's adventures were intended to have a coherence and that their fullest impact depends on a perception of their unity lead Young to lay a great deal of importance on chronological sequence, an importance which I believe is largely misplaced. Even if it were clear that the Nick Adams stories were intended to constitute a kind of novel, it would by no means follow that their best or proper order was strictly chronological. Modern fiction, if it has taught us anything, has taught us that…. Nothing, in short, is really gained by rearranging the stories.
On the other hand, there are some positive losses. The most significant, to my mind, is making "The End of Something" and "The Three-Day Blow" events in the life of Nick Adams, who has been through the traumatic experience of war. Clearly these are stories about adolescence and its tragicomic tribulations. The boys who get drunk on Irish whiskey and attempt to carry on a high-level literary conversation are not men and they are certainly not veterans of a violent war. The whole tenor of the stories is thus disrupted by the new arrangement. In In Our Time, which has a loose but discernible chronology, this pair of closely related stories is placed by Hemingway immediately after the stories of childhood and before the stories about the war. If there is any justification for changing what seems to be Hemingway's clear intention, it is not apparent.
Another drawback of the chronological arrangement is that it juxtaposes some of Hemingway's best writing with some that is very undistinguished. The latter is the new material. While unpublished fiction by a writer of Hemingway's stature is always of interest and perhaps deserves to be published if only because so many want to read it, interspersing the new material with the old, as this collection has done, makes it all too easy to lose sight of the fact that these are pieces (all but one are fragments) that did not pass muster and were not considered worthy of publication by their author….
What we learn, finally, from The Nick Adams Stories is that Hemingway knew perfectly well what he was doing. His oldest and most persistent fictional persona, Nick Adams, was created and existed only in the world of his imagination and therefore had no objective history…. It seems pretty clear that Nick's only existence consisted in what Hemingway gave him from story to story, so that there actually are no real gaps and therefore nothing to fill in. What consistency there is in the character and situation of Nick is only proximate, like that of Faulkner's people and events in Yoknapatawpha County. What is perhaps most wrong with this book is that it misdirects our attention to limited numbers of Hemingway's stories on the sole basis of the name assigned (by author or editor) to the hero. But as Young knows perfectly well, "Soldier's Home" is, in the truest sense, a Nick Adams story, even though the hero has been named Krebs and is made to live in Kansas. So is "God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen," though the Nick Adams figure there is called Horace. Hemingway's classic stories about the crossing over from innocence to experience, from the illusions of youth to the hard realities of manhood, cannot be improved or more fully appreciated by sorting them out as this collection has done. The implied assumption of the editor and publisher that such is the case is, I believe, totally unwarranted.
Douglas Wilson, "Ernest Hemingway, The Nick Adams Stories," in Western Humanities Review, Summer, 1973, pp. 295-99.
[The Things That I Know] has never been well regarded. Colonel Cantwell is a bore, and his lady love, Renata, is too much a sop to the old Colonel's vanity to be a meaningful character in her own right. Worst of all, the action of the novel goes nowhere and accomplishes almost nothing except to kill off the hero at the end. This is one time when the novel form and Hemingway's iceberg theory played him false. The novel is not a place for expounding philosophy (the so-called novel of ideas notwithstanding). Where all is conversation and soliloquy, as ninety percent of this book is, there is bound to be a lack of movement, a lack of story, a lack of genuine, active character that involves us in human striving and frustration….
However,… [by] looking at this work as a culmination of the values and attitudes he was developing for himself since the early Nick Adams stories of In Our Time, by looking for what is under the surface here through this book's relation to his other works, perhaps we can better appreciate just what the things were that Papa Hemingway wanted us to know….
One of the conclusions all the major Hemingway heroes must come to is that warfare is a natural condition of existence. Men are unremittingly competitive, vying with one another for honor, possessions, and power. This competition is stronger in Hemingway than any idealistic drive toward human brotherhood…. In fact, it is only through the relentless competition of man against man that any merging into brotherhood is possible, and then it is only for a time, a respite in the Darwinian struggle….
For Hemingway's heroes the essential illusion that must be perpetuated is that in spite of the in toto meaninglessness of it all, man does conquer, if not lastingly then at least continually within the limits of human life and time. Hemingway himself liked to imagine that as an artist he could conquer lastingly.
Robert A. Hipkiss, "Ernest Hemingway's The Things That I Know," in Twentieth Century Literature, October, 1973, pp. 275-82.
In all [his] last books Hemingway attempted that absolute identification of life with literature, in the name of precision of feeling, that was the hallmark of the moderns and their grande époque. He was the last great embodiment of the belief that experience can look entirely to literature for its ideal. After World War II writers would no longer understand this; Hemingway went to pieces because even he, to whom precision of feeling was writing and writing was everything, could no longer practice it with the old conviction….
Hemingway had discovered very early in his career the reductive principle with which he was to identify everything that promised success in his art. Even in his last books his famous style was the mold into which everything else had to fit. The Old Man and the Sea, Islands in the Stream, A Moveable Feast, Across the River and into the Trees were all extraordinarily centered, as usual, around a dominating all-absorbing self whose sensations and reflections gave pattern to the story. Even in the indulgent tenderness of A Moveable Feast and the suddenly rhetorical simplicities of The Old Man and the Sea, there was that extraordinary concentration of subject, place, mood, that enumeration of the world in Hemingway's special style, that was his trademark, his secret—and in a writer so superstitious, anxious, competitive—his rabbit's foot.
Unbeatable definiteness of detail, guaranteed precision of effect. The objective correlative in Hemingway's surefire version. One by one his beasts entered the ark, and so this Noah knew where he was.
Nothing extraneous, nothing vague. Line was everything. It was unflagging concentration, with its implicit guarantees, that from his first stories, In Our Time, gave the "stamp," the magical thing-ness, the determinable and irreducible compressiveness, to Hemingway's writing. A story was a unit of narrative, held together by a centered persona who seemed to hold his life in his hands, to be gambling it for the highest possible stakes. So you always knew where you were. There was a mental warding off of death. But within this context of danger there was a value to the moments, works and days of the hero's existence, a golden savor, that was somehow (just barely) achieved by the fiercest elimination, by the fierceness of reduction. When it worked, there was a luminous, glowing, sacred center of things that was one's intactness. The Hemingway hero comes to regard himself, to cherish himself, by achieving control over a disorder that is different in kind from himself. Everything is founded on the struggle that gives one back to oneself….
Confidence was won, just barely, when the "truth" of one's words showed the "precision" of one's feelings, and so won the battle over the "shapelessness," the "mere anarchy," "the panorama of futility and anarchy that is contemporary history." There was, Hemingway liked to say, "a real thing, a fourth or fifth dimension that can be won…." The secret was writing "truly." There had to be a one-to-one correspondence between the object described and the reaction-feeling it stimulated. Even in his last books, where the world would no longer hold for him as it once had, where it had plainly shifted out of his control, so that taken as books, his dogged enumeration of "facts" one by one seemed an imposture, rhetorical rather than the "moment of truth," his perfect passagework could move one by its fierce insistency….
No one else bet so assuredly on the future as did Hemingway. No one else came so much to identify literature with the act of writing, writing as the word-for-word struggle against the murkiness of death. Getting it right subjected Hemingway so rigorously to its code that in his last years a novel became wholly a series of symbols for Hemingway and his material. He preserved a look of dogged clarity even when the single words swelled and broke. Like the world in which he was now writing, he was being pulled out of orbit. In The Old Man and the Sea the reader is conscious of Hemingway's despairing will, of what was always most distinct in Hemingway and remained beautiful to the end—his power to invest a passage with the force of his effort….
Perhaps the greatest challenge to Hemingway was to come from Faulkner, whose unselfconscious originality of technique, his absorption in the one many-sided story he had to tell, showed narrative not as a triumph over experience, but as the struggle of language to find support for the mind in its everlasting struggle with the past.
Hemingway said that he was proud of not writing like "the author of the Octonawhoopoo stories." But Hemingway died of Faulkner as much as he died of Hemingway. In Hemingway's last years it was Faulkner, coming up after having been ignored so long, who was to be a constant shock and bewilderment to Hemingway in the new age of ambiguity. Faulkner was another name for a world—for history—that could not be reduced to a style.
Alfred Kazin, "A Dream of Order: Hemingway," in his Bright Book of Life: American Novelists & Storytellers from Hemingway to Mailer (copyright © 1971, 1973 by Alfred Kazin; reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Co. in association with the Atlantic Monthly Press), Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1973, pp. 3-20.