Ernest Hemingway Essay - Hemingway, Ernest (Miller)

Hemingway, Ernest (Miller)

Introduction

Ernest (Miller) Hemingway 1899–1961

American short story writer, novelist, nonfiction writer, journalist, poet, and dramatist. See also Ernest Hemingway Criticism, and Volumes 1, 3, 6, 8, 10, 13.

Hemingway is regarded by many as one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century. Considered master of the understated prose style which became his trademark, Hemingway was awarded the 1954 Nobel Prize in literature. Both his novels and short stories have evoked an enormous amount of critical commentary; although his literary stature is secure, he remains a highly controversial writer. His narrow range of characters and his thematic focus on violence and machismo, as well as his terse, objective prose, have led some critics to regard his fiction as shallow and insensitive. Others claim that beneath the deceptively limited surface lies a complex and fully realized fictional world. His supporters note the supreme importance of the things left unsaid. As Hemingway commented in Death in the Afternoon (1932), the "dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water." Despite the fact that his style is variously applauded and denounced, Hemingway is one of the most widely imitated writers of contemporary literature.

Critical assessment of Hemingway's writing frequently focuses on the connections between his life and his work. Born and raised in affluent, suburban Oak Park, Illinois, Hemingway spent the greater part of his life trying to escape the repressive code of behavior set by his strict, disciplinarian parents and their society. His first break from home came in 1918 when he volunteered for service in World War I. Hemingway was stationed in Italy for only a few weeks before he was wounded and forced to return to Oak Park. Scarred physically and emotionally from the war and stifled by his home environment, Hemingway, according to some critics, began a quest for psychological and artistic freedom that was to lead him first to the secluded woods of northern Michigan, where he had spent his most pleasant childhood moments, and then to Europe, where his literary talents began to take shape.

Although Hemingway's most significant works include such renowned novels as The Sun Also Rises (1926), A Farewell to Arms (1929), and For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940), as well as his Pulitzer Prize-winning novella, The Old Man and the Sea (1952), critical response to his longer fiction has been less uniformly favorable than to that of his short stories. The short stories in his first major publication, In Our Time (1925), are increasingly considered to be some of his most successful works and are seen to embody the predominant stylistic and thematic concerns which mark all of his later fiction. The majority of these stories focus on Nick Adams, a protagonist often discussed as the quintessential Hemingway hero and the first in the line of Hemingway's "fictional selves."

Nick Adams stories are scattered throughout Hemingway's collections, including In Our Time, Men without Women (1927), Winner Take Nothing (1933), and The Fifth Column and the First Forty-Nine Stories (1938). Although the Nick Adams stories were not initially identified as a unified sequence, Philip Young, a noted Hemingway scholar, edited a volume in 1972 which collects these stories and places them roughly in chro-nological order based on Nick's maturation. Young has been influential in directing critical attention to connections between Hemingway's work and his early life.

Like Hemingway, Nick Adams spent much of his early youth in the Michigan woods, went overseas to fight in the war, was wounded, and returned. The early stories set in Michigan, such as "Indian Camp," "The End of Something," "The Three-Day Blow," and "The Doctor and the Doctor's Wife," introduce Nick as a vulnerable adolescent attempting to understand a brutal, violent, and confusing world. On the surface, Nick, like Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises, Robert Jordan in For Whom the Bell Tolls, and, in fact, all of Hemingway's protagonists, appears tough and insensitive. However, critical exploration has resulted in a widespread conclusion that the toughness stems not from insensitivity but from a strict moral code which functions as the characters' sole defense against the overwhelming chaos of the world. Cleanth Brooks, Jr. and Robert Penn Warren, in their influential exposition of the short story "The Killers," noted that "it is the tough man,… the disciplined man, who actually is aware of pathos or tragedy." Though he seems to lack spontaneous human emotion, the hero "sheathes (his sensibility) in the code of toughness" because "he has learned that the only way to hold on to 'honor,' to individuality, to even, the human order … is to live by his code."

One of the most popular and provocative of the Nick Adams stories is "Big Two-Hearted River." For many years its ambiguities puzzled critics and other readers. On the surface it simply recounts Nick's solitary fishing expedition along the Big Two-Hearted River in northern Michigan. However, there is an air of unsettling calm underlying the uneventful plot. As is characteristic of Hemingway's fiction, the terse, almost journalistic prose, the compressed action, and the subdued yet suggestive symbolism point to a deeper meaning than appears on the surface. In the late 1930s Edmund Wilson introduced the idea that the "thing left out" of "Big Two-Hearted River" is its entire social context. He proposed that Nick has recently returned from war and that the "touch of panic" which surrounds him is in fact his shock and withdrawal from the brutal nature of life. Nick's escape along the Big Two-Hearted River, like Huck Finn's along the Mississippi, can be seen in a wider context as a rejection of society as a whole. In 1952 Philip Young, expanding on Wilson's theory, suggested that all of Hemingway's fiction revolves around the psychologically wounded hero, which in turn reflects Hemingway's own relentless struggle to face the world with "grace under pressure." Earl Rovit notes that "in a sense, (Nick Adams) is a released devil of our innocence…. He suffers our accidents and defeats before they happen to us…. On this level, then, the Nick Adams projection is a vital defensive weapon in Hemingway's combat with the universe." Wilson's and Young's theories, though controversial, have been widely accepted and form the basis of critical interpretation of Hemingway's fiction.

Like William Faulkner, Hemingway began his literary career by publishing poetry; he also wrote a play, The Fifth Column (1937). But these works are considered less significant contributions to his overall literary achievement. In 1961, at the age of 61, Hemingway committed suicide, thus ending the life of one of the most influential prose stylists of the twentieth century.

(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, 6, 8, 10, 13, 19; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 77-80; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 4, 9; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1981; and Dictionary of Literary Biography Documentary Series, Vol. 1.)

In this volume commentary on Ernest Hemingway is focused on the Nick Adams stories.

Edmund Wilson

Ernest Hemingway's In Our Time was an odd and original book. It had the appearance of a miscellany of stories and fragments; but actually the parts hung together and produced a definite effect. There were two distinct series of pieces which alternated with one another: one a set of brief and brutal sketches of police shootings, bullfight crises, hangings of criminals, and incidents of the war; and the other a set of short stories dealing in its principal sequence with the growing-up of an American boy against a landscape of idyllic Michigan, but interspersed also with glimpses of American soldiers returning home. It seems to have been Hemingway's intention—'In Our Time'—that the war should set the key for the whole. The cold-bloodedness of the battles and executions strikes a discord with the sensitiveness and candor of the boy at home in the States; and presently the boy turns up in Europe in one of the intermediate vignettes as a soldier in the Italian army, hit in the spine by machinegun fire and trying to talk to a dying Italian: 'Senta, Rinaldi. Senta,' he says, 'you and me, we've made a separate peace.'

But there is a more fundamental relationship between the pieces of the two series. The shooting of Nick in the war does not really connect two different worlds: has he not found in the butchery abroad the same world that he knew back in Michigan? Was not life in the Michigan woods equally destructive and cruel? He had gone once with his father, the doctor, when he had performed a Caesarean operation on an Indian squaw with a jackknife and no anaesthetic and had sewed her up with fishing leaders, while the Indian hadn't been able to bear it and had cut his throat in his bunk…. Even fishing in Big Two-Hearted River—away and free in the woods—he had been conscious in a curious way of the cruelty inflicted on the fish, even of the silent agonies endured by the live bait, the grasshoppers kicking on the hook.

Not that life isn't enjoyable. Talking and drinking with one's friends is great fun; fishing in Big Two-Hearted River is a tranquil exhilaration. But the brutality of life is always there, and it is somehow bound up with the enjoyment. Bullfights are especially enjoyable. It is even exhilarating to build a simply priceless barricade and pot the enemy as they are trying to get over it. The condition of life is pain; and the joys of the most innocent surface are somehow tied to its stifled pangs.

The resolution of this dissonance in art made the beauty of Hemingway's stories. He had in the process tuned a marvelous prose. Out of the colloquial American speech, with its simple declarative sentences and its strings of Nordic monosyllables, he got effects of the utmost sublety. F. M. Ford has found the perfect simile for the impression produced by this writing: 'Hemingway's words...

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Cleanth Brooks, Jr. and Robert Penn Warren

[This essay was originally published in 1943.]

[In addition to the structure of "The Killers," as it concerns the relations among incidents and with regard to the attitudes of the characters,] there remain as important questions such items as the following: What is Hemingway's attitude toward his material? How does this attitude find its expression?

Perhaps the simplest approach to these questions may be through a consideration of the situations and characters which interest Hemingway. These situations are usually violent ones: the hard-drinking and sexually promiscuous world of The Sun Also Rises; the chaotic and brutal world of war as in A Farewell to Arms, For...

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Carlos Baker

[Hemingway's] first forty-five stories may be conveniently taken as a kind of unit, since they were all written within ten years, and since they represent what Hemingway thought worthy of including in his first three collections: In Our Time (1925), Men Without Women (1927), and Winner Take Nothing (1933). Taken together or separately, they are among the great short stories of modern literature.

Their range of symbolic effects is even greater than the variety of subjects and themes employed. The subjects and themes, in turn, are far more various than has been commonly supposed. Like any writer with a passion for craftsmanship, Hemingway not only accepts but also sets himself the...

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Earl Rovit

There are, as criticism has come slowly to recognize, not one but two Hemingway heroes; or, to use Philip Young's designations, the "Nick-Adams-hero" and the "code-hero." The generic Nick Adams character, who lives through the course of Hemingway's fiction, appears first as the shocked invisible "voice" of the miniatures of in our time; he grows up through Hemingway's three volumes of short stories and at least four of his novels, sometimes changing his name to Jake Barnes, Frederick Henry, Mr. Frazer, Macomber, Harry, Robert Jordan, Richard Cantwell; and he makes his final appearances (appropriately un-named as when he first entered the fictional stage) in Hemingway's last two published stories in 1957. The...

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Joseph DeFalco

In the attempt to get at the "truth" of real-life experience and to attain the ideal of writing a "classic" that he initially posed for himself, Hemingway began in his early volumes of short stories to describe the adventures of a boy on the threshold of manhood. As Philip Young and Carlos Baker have pointed out in their studies, half of the stories of In Our Time (1925), the first short story collection, are devoted to the development of Nick Adams. They are arranged chronologically, moving from Nick's boyhood to his young manhood, and all of these stories are thematically related. Several more stories about the same character appear in the next two collections, Men Without Women (1927) and Winner...

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Clinton S. Burhans, Jr.

In Our Time incorporates [the Nick Adams stories in a broad] … unity of form and theme and in a complexity of structure well worth exploring. Reading the book for these qualities yields unexpected and exciting dividends, for it reveals that In Our Time is indeed a consciously unified work built on a noble model and containing the careful artistry and the central vision of the world and the human condition which characterize Hemingway's writing from beginning to end. As such, In Our Time is not only the first of Hemingway's major works but also the best introduction to his thought and art in the rest.

When it was published on October 5, 1925, In Our Time was the...

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Chaman Nahal

It is now accepted by almost every critic of Hemingway that the hero in his work deserves special attention. Philip Young sees the Hemingway protagonist as a sick man, wounded physically and psychically [see CLC, Vol 13]. Carlos Baker reads in him symbolic meanings, expressive of the contemporary emotional tensions [see excerpt above], Leo Gurko has written a full-length book on the subject, for to him Hemingway's novels are essentially portrayals of the hero as the "individual man" [see CLC, Vol. 6]. Thus, it is almost generally agreed that one of the important expressions of the Hemingway literary aesthetics is his hero. As it happens, his shorter fiction, now to be considered, offers as wide a scope...

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Phillip Young

[Until the publication of The Nick Adams Stories], the stories involving Nick have always appeared so many to a book, in jumbled sequence. As a result the coherence of his adventures has been obscured, and their impact fragmented. (p. 5)

Arranged in chronological sequence, the events of Nick's life make up a meaningful narrative in which a memorable character grows from child to adolescent to soldier, veteran, writer, and parent—a sequence closely paralleling the events of Hemingway's own life. In this arrangement Nick Adams, who for a long time was not widely recognized as a consistent character at all, emerges clearly as the first in a long line of Hemingway's fictional selves. Later...

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Phillip Young

[Philip Young, a noted Hemingway scholar, originally wrote the essay excerpted below as an introduction to The Nick Adams Stories (1972).]

[As we follow Nick in The Nick Adams Stories] across the span of a generation in time we have got a story worth following. As it turns out, Hemingway arranged it (consciously or otherwise) in five distinct stages—that is, the original fifteen stories occur in five segments of Nick's life, three stories to each part. "The Northern Woods," as the first section is called, deals with heredity and environment, parents and Michigan Indians. "On His Own" is all away from home, or on the road, and instead of Indians, prizefighters. "War" is exactly...

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T. G. Vaidyanathan

A proper consideration of the Nick Adams stories has been seriously bedevilled by the current critical orthodoxy surrounding the notion of 'initiation'. The desire to 'initiate' or 'educate' Nick is more apparent in the critics than in his creator who, for the most part, is content to let Nick fool around, in and around Michigan, before lighting out for the territory ahead—Europe. The reason for this pedagogical obsession is to be sought in the desire of the critics to relate the Nick stories to the early novels, especially The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms, and see in Nick dim adumbrations of the sensitive but impotent Jake Barnes and the equally sensitive but potent Frederick Henry. A new...

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Stuart L. Burns

In his preface to The Nick Adams Stories [see excerpt above], Philip Young quite correctly notes that the eight hitherto unpublished sketches and fragments add new dimension to our understanding of one of Hemingway's earliest fictional protagonists. Indeed, by bringing all the fiction involving Nick Adams together into a single volume, Professor Young has performed a needed and important service for Hemingway scholarship. If one was uncertain before, one can be certain now that Hemingway must have, at one time, planned a story cycle or novel featuring Nick as the central character—something similar to Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio or William Faulkner's The Unvanquished.

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Linda W. Wagner

When F. Scott Fitzgerald commented to Hemingway that Catherine Barkley in A Farewell to Arms is less successful than some of the women from his early short stories, he showed again his acute literary judgment. As Fitzgerald phrases it, "in the stories you were really listening to women—here you're only listening to yourself." Whatever the reason for the distancing that was to mar Hemingway's portrayal of women characters from 1929 on (except for Pilar, Maria, and Marie Morgan), there is little question that Hemingway was at his most sympathetic and skillful in drawing the female leads of the short stories of In Our Time and Men Without Women and of The Sun Also Rises. (p. 239)

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Kenneth S. Lynn

In the summer of 1924, Ernest Hemingway wrote to Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas to report on the progress he was making with a long short story in which he was "trying to do the country like [Paul] Cézanne and having a hell of a time and sometimes getting it a little bit. It is about 100 pages long and nothing happens and the country is swell, I made it all up, so I see it all and part of it comes out the way it ought to, it is swell about the fish, but isn't writing a hard job though?"

The story in question was "Big Two-Hearted River," which in addition to being swell about the fish and as visually powerful as a Cézanne landscape, turned out to be a nice little master-piece of psychological...

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