illustrated portrait of American author Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway

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Hemingway, Ernest 1899–1961

An American novelist and short story writer, Hemingway received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954 and the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction in 1953. The ultimate truths that face man in Hemingway's world are pain, disillusionment, violence, suffering, and, above all, death. For Hemingway's characters, value and purpose in life can be found in confrontation, in the bullfight, for example, and meaning can be gained through manly action, strong friendships, and, most importantly, through a relationship with nature. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, 6, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 77-80.)

D. H. Lawrence

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[In Our Time] does not pretend to be about one man. But it is. It is as much as we need know of the man's life. The sketches are short, sharp, vivid, and most of them excellent. (The "mottoes" in front seem a little affected.) And these few sketches are enough to create the man and all his history: we need know no more.

Nick is a type one meets in the more wild and woolly regions of the United States. He is the remains of the lone trapper and cowboy. Nowadays he is educated, and through with everything. It is a state of conscious, accepted indifference to everything except freedom from work and the moment's interest. Mr. Hemingway does it extremely well. Nothing matters. Everything happens. One wants to keep oneself loose. Avoid one thing only: getting connected up. Don't get connected up. If you get held by anything, break it. Don't be held. Break it, and get away. Don't get away with the idea of getting somewhere else. Just get away, for the sake of getting away. Beat it! "Well, boy, I guess I'll beat it." Ah, the pleasure in saying that!

Mr. Hemingway's sketches, for this reason, are excellent: so short, like striking a match, lighting a brief sensational cigarette, and it's over. His young love affair ends as one throws a cigarette end away. "It isn't fun any more."—"Everything's gone to hell inside me."

It is really honest. And it explains a great deal of sentimentality. When a thing has gone to hell inside you, your sentimentalism tries to pretend it hasn't. But Mr. Hemingway is through with the sentimentalism. "It isn't fun any more. I guess I'll beat it."

And he beats it, to somewhere else. In the end he'll be a sort of tramp, endlessly moving on for the sake of moving away from where he is. This is a negative goal, and Mr. Hemingway is really good, because he's perfectly straight about it…. [He] doesn't love anybody, and it nauseates him to have to pretend he does. He doesn't even want to love anybody; he doesn't want to go anywhere, he doesn't want to do anything. He wants just to lounge around and maintain a healthy state of nothingness inside himself, and an attitude of negation to everything outside himself. And why shouldn't he, since that is exactly and sincerely what he feels? If he really doesn't care, then why should he care? Anyhow, he doesn't. (pp. 93-4)

D. H. Lawrence, "'In Our Time': A Review," in his Phoenix, edited by Edward D. McDonald (copyright © 1936 by Frieda Lawrence; copyright © 1964 by The Estate of the late Frieda Lawrence Ravagli; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission of Viking Penguin Inc.), Viking Penguin, 1936 (and reprinted in Hemingway: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Robert P. Weeks, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1962, pp. 93-4).

Mark Spilka

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One of the most persistent themes of the Twenties was the death of love in World War I. All the major writers recorded it, often in piecemeal fashion, as part of the larger postwar scene; but only Hemingway seems to have caught it whole and delivered it in lasting fictional form…. Hemingway seems to design an extensive parable. Thus, in The Sun Also Rises, his protagonists are deliberately shaped as allegorical figures: Jake Barnes and Brett Ashley are two lovers desexed by the war; Robert Cohn is the false knight who challenges their despair; while Romero, the stalwart bullfighter, personifies the good life which will survive their failure. Of course, these characters are not abstractions in the text; they are realized through the most concrete style in American fiction, and their larger meaning is implied only by their response to immediate situations. But the implications are there, the parable is at work in every scene, and its presence lends unity and depth to the whole novel. (p. 127)

[His] fear of emotional consequences is the key to Barnes' condition. Like so many Hemingway heroes, he has no way to handle subjective complications, and his wound is a token for this kind of impotence.

It serves the same purpose for the expatriate crowd in Paris. In some figurative manner these artists, writers, and derelicts have all been rendered impotent by the war. Thus, as Barnes presents them, they pass before us like a parade of sexual cripples, and we are able to measure them against his own forbearance in the face of a common problem. Whoever bears his sickness well is akin to Barnes; whoever adopts false postures, or willfully hurts others, falls short of his example. This is the organizing principle in Book I, this alignment of characters by their stoic qualities. But stoic or not, they are all incapable of love, and in their sober moments they seem to know it.

For this reason they feel especially upset whenever Robert Cohn appears. Cohn still upholds a romantic view of life, and since he affirms it with stubborn persistence, he acts like a goad upon his wiser contemporaries. As the narrator, Barnes must account for the challenge he presents them and the decisive turn it takes in later chapters…. [Tokens] of virility delight [Cohn] and he often confuses them with actual manliness. (p. 128)

Cohn's romanticism explains his key position in the parable. He is the last chivalric hero, the last defender of an outworn faith, and his function is to illustrate its present folly—to show us, through the absurdity of his behavior, that romantic love is dead, that one of the great guiding codes of the past no longer operates…. [For] this generation boredom has become more plausible than love….

Of course, there is much that is traditional in the satire on Cohn. Like the many victims of romantic literature, from Don Quixote to Tom Sawyer, he lives by what he reads and neglects reality at his own and others' peril. But Barnes and his friends have no alternative to Cohn's beliefs. There is nothing here, for example, like the neat balance between sense and sensibility in Jane Austen's world. Granted that Barnes is sensible enough, that he sees life clearly and that we are meant to contrast his private grief with Cohn's public suffering, his self-restraint with Cohn's deliberate self-exposure. Yet, emasculation aside, Barnes has no way to measure or control the state of love; and though he recognizes this with his mind and tries to act accordingly, he seems no different from Cohn in his deepest feelings…. No, at best he is a restrained romantic, a man who carries himself well in the face of love's impossibilities, but who seems to share with Cohn a common (if hidden) weakness. (p. 129)

With a man's felt hat on her boyish bob, and with her familiar reference to men as fellow "chaps," [Brett] completes the distortion of sexual roles which seems to characterize the period. For the war, which has unmanned Barnes and his contemporaries, has turned Brett into the freewheeling equal of any man…. [She] survives the colossal violence, the disruption of her personal life, and the exposure to mass promiscuity, to confront a moral and emotional vacuum among her postwar lovers. With this evidence of male default all around her, she steps off the romantic pedestal, moves freely through the bars of Paris, and stands confidently there beside her newfound equals…. But when men no longer command respect, and women replace their natural warmth with masculine freedom and mobility, there can be no serious love. (p. 130)

[The cripples who appear in Book I] are all disaffiliates, all men and women who have cut themselves off from conventional society and who have made Paris their permanent playground. Jake Barnes has introduced them, and we have been able to test them against his stoic attitudes toward life in a moral wasteland. Yet such life is finally unbearable, as we have also seen whenever Jake and Brett are alone together, or whenever Jake is alone with his thoughts. (p. 131)

[In a footnote, Spilka states: Hemingway's preoccupation with death has been explained in various ways…. Yet chiefly the risk of death lends moral seriousness to a private code which lacks it. The risk is arbitrary; when a man elects to meet it, his beliefs take on subjective weight and he is able to give meaning to his private life. In this sense, he moves forever on a kind of imaginative frontier, where the opposition is always Nature, in some token form, where the stakes are always manliness and self-respect, and where death invests the scene with tragic implications. In The Sun Also Rises, Romero lives on such a frontier, and for Barnes and his friends he provides an example of just these values.] (n., p. 133)

[The encounter between Cohn and Pedro] is the highpoint of the parable, for in the Code Hero, the Romantic Hero has finally met his match. As the clash between them shows, there is a difference between physical and moral victory, between chivalric stubbornness and real self-respect. Thus Pedro fights to repair an affront to his dignity; though he is badly beaten, his spirit is untouched by his opponent, whereas Cohn's spirit is completely smashed. From the beginning Cohn has based his manhood on skill at boxing, or upon a woman's love, never upon internal strength; but now, when neither skill nor love supports him, he has bludgeoned his way to his own emptiness…. [Where] Cohn expends and degrades himself for his beloved, Romero pays tribute without self-loss. His manhood is a thing independent of women, and for this reason he holds special attractions for Jake Barnes.

By now it seems apparent that Cohn and Pedro are extremes for which Barnes is the unhappy medium. His resemblance to Pedro is clear enough: they share the same code, they both believe that a man's dignity depends on his own resources. His resemblance to Cohn is more subtle, but at this stage of the book it becomes grossly evident. Appropriately enough, the exposure comes through the knockout blow from Cohn, which dredges up a strange prewar experience:

Walking across the square to the hotel everything looked new and changed…. I felt as I felt once coming home from an out-of-town football game. I was carrying a suitcase with my football things in it…. It was like that crossing the square. It was like that going up the stairs in the hotel. Going up the stairs took a long time, and I had the feeling that I was carrying my suitcase.

Barnes seems to have regressed here to his youthful football days. As he moves on up the stairs to see Cohn, who has been asking for him, he still carries his "phantom suitcase" with him; and when he enters Cohn's room, he even sets it down. Cohn himself has just returned from the fight with Romero: "There he was, face down on the bed, crying. He had on a white polo shirt, the kind he'd worn at Princeton." In other words, Cohn has also regressed to his abject college days: they are both emotional adolescents, about the same age as the nineteen-year-old Romero, who is the only real man among them. Of course, these facts are not spelled out for us, except through the polo shirt and the phantom suitcase, which remind us (inadvertently) of one of those dreamlike fantasies by … Franz Kafka, in which trunks and youthful clothes are symbols of arrested development. Yet there has already been some helpful spelling out in Book I…. [Cohn], urged to say what comes into his head first,… replies, "I think I'd rather play football again with what I know about handling myself, now." (pp. 134-35)

The first thought to enter Cohn's mind here has been suppressed by Barnes for a long time, but in Book II the knockout blow releases it: more than anything else, he too would like to "play football again," to prevent that kick to his head from happening, or that smash to the jaw from Cohn, or that sexual wound which explains either blow. For the truth about Barnes seems obvious now: he has always been an emotional adolescent. Like Nick Adams, he has grown up in a society which has little use for manliness; as an expression of that society, the war has robbed him of his dignity as a man and has thus exposed him to indignities with women. We must understand here that the war, the early football game, and the fight with Cohn have this in common: they all involve ugly, senseless, or impersonal forms of violence, in which a man has little chance to set the terms of his own integrity. Hence for Hemingway they represent the kinds of degradation which can occur at any point in modern society…. [The] whole confluence of events now points to the social meaning of Jake's wound, for just as Cohn has reduced him to a dazed adolescent, so has Brett reduced him to a slavish pimp…. Barnes has no integrity to rely on; he can only serve her as Cohn has served her, like a sick romantic steer. (p. 135)

These are decadent times in the bull ring, marred by false aesthetics; Romero alone has "the old thing," the old "purity of line through the maximum of exposure": his corruption by Brett will complete the decadence. But mainly the young fighter means something more personal to Barnes. In the bull ring he combines grace, control and sincerity with manliness; in the fight with Cohn he proves his integrity where skill is lacking. His values are exactly those of the hunter in "Francis Macomber," or of the fisherman in The Old Man and the Sea. As one of these few remaining images of independent manhood, he offers Barnes the comfort of vicarious redemption. (p. 136)

[When] Brett refuses to let her hair grow long for Pedro, it means that her role in life is fixed: she can no longer reclaim her lost womanhood; she can no longer live with a fine man without destroying him. This seems to kill the illusion which is behind Jake's suffering throughout the novel: namely, that if he hadn't been wounded, if he had somehow survived the war with his manhood intact, then he and Brett would have become true lovers. The closing lines confirm his total disillusionment:

"Oh, Jake," Brett said, "we could have had such a damned good time together."

Ahead was a mounted policeman in khaki directing traffic. He raised his baton. The car slowed suddenly pressing Brett against me.

"Yes," I said, "Isn't it pretty to think so?"

"Pretty" is a romantic word which means here "foolish to consider what could never have happened," and not "what can't happen now." The signal for this interpretation comes from the policeman who directs traffic between Brett's speech and Barnes reply. With his khaki clothes and his preventive baton, he stands for the war and the society which made it, for the force which stops the lovers' car, and which robs them of their normal sexual roles. As Barnes now sees, love itself is dead for their generation. Even without his wound, he would still be unmanly, and Brett unable to let her hair grow long.

Yet according to the opening epigraphs, if one generation is lost and another comes, the earth abides forever; and according to Hemingway himself, the abiding earth is the novel's hero. Perhaps he is wrong on this point, or at least misleading. There are no joyous hymns to the seasons in this novel, no celebrations of fertility and change. The scenic descriptions are accurate enough, but rather flat; there is no deep feeling in them, only fondness, for the author takes less delight in nature than in outdoor sports. He is more concerned, that is, with baiting hooks and catching trout than with the Irati River and more pleased with the grace and skill of the bullfighter than with the bull's magnificence. In fact, it is the bullfighter who seems to abide in the novel, for surely the bulls are dead like the trout before them, having fulfilled their roles as beloved opponents. But Romero is very much alive as the novel ends. When he leaves the hotel in Madrid, he "pays the bill" for his affair with Brett, which means that he has earned all its benefits. He also dominates the final conversation between the lovers, and so dominates the closing section. We learn here that his sexual initiation has been completed and his independence assured. From now on, he can work out his life alone, moving again and again through his passes in the ring, gaining strength, order, and purpose as he meets his own conditions. He provides no literal prescription to follow here, no call to bullfighting as the answer to Barnes' problems; but he does provide an image of integrity, against which Barnes and his generation are weighed and found wanting. In this sense, Pedro is the real hero of the parable, the final moral touchstone, the man whose code gives meaning to a world where love and religion are defunct, where the proofs of manhood are difficult and scarce, and where every man must learn to define his own moral conditions and then live up to them. (pp. 136-38)

Mark Spilka, "The Death of Love in 'The Sun Also Rises'," in Twelve Original Essays on Great Novels, edited by Charles Shapiro (reprinted by permission of The Wayne State University Press; copyright © 1958 by The Wayne State University Press), Wayne State University Press, 1958 (and reprinted in Hemingway: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Robert P. Weeks, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1962, pp. 127-38).

Leon Edel

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Hemingway has not created a Style: he has rather created the artful illusion of a Style, for he is a clever artist and there is a great deal of cleverness in all that he has done. He has conjured up an effect of Style by a process of evasion, very much as he sets up an aura of emotion—by walking directly away from emotion!

What I am trying to suggest is that the famous Hemingway Style is not "organic." And any style worthy of the name must be, as the much-worn, but nevertheless truthful mot, that Style is the man, testifies. Is Hemingway's Style the man? At the risk of a pun, I would answer no, it is the mannerism! It is an artifice, a series of charming tricks, a group of cleverness. Gertrude Stein taught Hemingway that one can obtain wry effects by assembling incongruities, and Hemingway really learned how to juxtapose these with high skill. (pp. 169-70)

What of the substance?… [His] is a world of superficial action and almost wholly without reflection—such reflection as there is tends to be on a rather crude and simplified level. It will be argued that all this is a large part of life and thus has validity in fiction. Of course. It is my contention merely that such surface writing, dressed out in prose mannerisms, does not constitute a Style and that the present emphasis on this quality in Hemingway tends, in effect, to minimize the hollowness of his total production. Hemingway has created a world of Robinson Crusoes, living on lonely islands, with bottle and gun for companions, and an occasional woman to go with the drinks. (p. 170)

He has contrived, with great cleverness, some very good novels. He is at his happiest, in reality, in the short story. The short story by its very nature demands simplification; characters need not be developed, plot and drama need not be created—a mood, a nostalgia, a moment of experience, suffice. Hemingway is an artist of the small space, the limited view. And I am not sure that what I have called "evasion" in his work will not be borne out if we search for its roots in his life, from which, after all, an artist's work always springs. To be able to cope with emotion only by indirection, or to write prose which seeks surface expressly to avoid texture—is this not a little like escaping from life by big-game hunting or watching violence in a bull ring or daydreaming through long hours of fishing? These are all fascinating pursuits for our hours of leisure or when given a proper perspective and taken in proper proportion (unless indeed one earns one's living by fighting bulls or is a career-fisherman). When they become a substitute for other forms of life—and granted that they themselves are part of life and partake of it—they can become an evasion of life. (pp. 170-71)

Leon Edel, "The Art of Evasion," in Folio (copyright 1955 by the Department of English, Indiana State University; reprinted by permission of the author and Folio), Spring, 1955 (and reprinted in Hemingway: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Robert P. Weeks, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1962, pp. 169-71).

Tony Tanner

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One could easily list the particular moments that Hemingway chooses to focus on in his short stories and nearly always they will be found to be moments of crisis, tension and passion. This is not to say that they are epiphanies in Joyce's sense, but rather that they deal with moments of pain, shock, strain, test, moments of emotional heightening of some kind. It may be an ageing courageous bull fighter facing and succumbing to his last bull, it may be a man listening to his wife say that she is leaving him to go off with a woman: the subject matter varies widely, the emotional pitch of the characters is almost uniformly high. And it is at such moments that the details of the encompassing world seem saturated with relevance in an unusually intense way. They do not become symbolic, it is a weakness in the later Hemingway that he pushes them too far in that direction: they can be full of mute menace (as rain, for instance, always is in his stories): but usually they function as the recipients of the characters' intense attention. The character's emotion and the surrounding concrete details interpermeate. In A Farewell to Arms there are at least three detailed accounts of meals, detailed to an extent which would be boring if they were simply meals taken by habit for sustenance. But they occur—immediately before the hero is bombed; while he and Catherine are enjoying a snatched few moments of ecstasy away from the war; and while he is waiting to hear the result of her fatal delivery. In the first case the vividness is retrospective: the moment frozen and etched in the memory before the shattering upheaval. In the other two cases the mundane minutiae are included because the intensity of the hero's emotions has so sharpened his sensory faculties that details are elevated from the mundane to the significant. It is as though anything he touches or smells or sees becomes a temporary reflector, even container, of his emotion. The scrupulous registration of details will give the most accurate morphology of the feeling…. What the hero of For Whom the Bell Tolls ponders to himself is in some way relevant to [all Hemingway's major characters]: 'I know a few things now. I wonder if you only learn them now because you are over-sensitized because of the shortness of the time?' Most of Hemingway's characters (and a very large number of major characters in American fiction) exhibit this 'over-sensitization' in the face of the world. In Robert Jordan's own case it is the danger of his mission and the love of Maria that sensitize him, prompting his senses to an almost awed alertness and efficient clarity…. The book abounds in … brilliantly perceived particulars: it is because the sights, smells, sounds and tastes are recorded with such resonant accuracy that the book has such a rich surface texture. It is because it contains little more than that that it lacks any overarching structure. It is interesting to see how Hemingway tries to give his material an externally derived historical significance which the book in fact belies: 'that bridge can be the point on which the future of the human race can turn' argues Jordan to himself to invest his task with a sense of purpose. But Hemingway's and Hemingway's heroes' interest lies elsewhere. They are not interested in the capillary movements of history, in progress, in the slow erosions and rehabilitations of time, in the fall and survival of societies. They are committed to their own moment-by-moment experience and what Jordan says of his relationship with Maria could be said by all of them of their relationship with the world: he intends to 'make up in intensity what the relation will lack in duration and continuity'. And they would agree that if your senses are properly attuned and at work 'it is possible to live as full a life in seventy hours as in seventy years'. And because of this belief in the great truth and value of the intense momentary sensory experience the Hemingway hero is committed to 'the now'. 'You have it now and that is all your whole life is; now. There is nothing else than now. There is neither yesterday, certainly, nor is there any tomorrow.' Such an attitude is at bottom indifferent (though not hostile) to the large palpable social historical stirrings around it…. And of course it is this elevation of intensity over continuity, the 'now' over history, and the evidence of the senses over the constructs of the mind that determines the whole point of view and strategy of Hemingway's prose and explains his essential preoccupation with what we might call the 'oversensitized hero'. (pp. 231-34)

Abstract concepts only have any meaning for Hemingway if they are translated into sensory particulars. Hemingway's prose is based, among other things, on a 'nausea of untruth' and for him the only verifiable truth is the evidence of the senses. Hence his prose is calculated to resist any tendency towards abstract words which somehow suggest that qualities and meanings have a super-personal life of their own, irrespective of individual incarnation and sensory recognition. Hemingway denies the Platonic idea of 'Courage'—but there is a certain smell to a brave man, an unmistakable odour to his actions which he will testify to and describe by comparing it to other natural sensations. This, of course, avoids any theoretic analysis of the quality, and it is this avoidance of analytic explanation which is one of the striking aspects of Hemingway's style. Meticulous description takes its place…. For Hemingway … description is definition. (pp. 234-35)

[For] Hemingway, Existence is an incomprehensible void inhabited by concrete particulars perceptible to the senses. In place of vague consoling speculations about the meaning of the infinite nothingness which surrounds human life, the Hemingway hero prefers to overcome his horror of vacancy by a ritual of orderliness and cleanliness in small things. In the living, in the writing. Only this will give him any meaning…. No spillage, no sloppiness, no outcry or mess [at the point of death]: rather, a continuing attachment to that essential ritual of meticulousness in practical details which compose the only aspect of life on which the Hemingway hero can pin his faith. You don't know where you're going, but you shut the door cleanly behind you. Under the circumstances—the circumstances of vanished belief—it is all you can do.

Death is the dissolution into nothingness. As the dying writer in 'Snows of Kilimanjaro' discovers: 'And just then it occurred to him that he was going to die. It came with a rush; not as a rush of water nor of wind; but of a sudden evil-smelling emptiness….' The moment of death, for the Hemingway hero, is the testing moment when he is agonizingly poised between the wondrous plenitude of the world and the oncoming smell of black emptiness. The only way he can maintain himself is by orienting himself in the world just as he had done during his life…. [As Jordan awaits death] he regains control of himself. 'He was completely integrated now and he took a good long look at everything. Then he looked up at the sky. There were big white clouds in it. He touched the palm of his hand against the pine needles where he lay and he touched the bark of the pine trunk that he lay behind.'

That last act of communion is one of the most moving things in Hemingway: the senses taking their farewell from all the truth they have ever known; the wounded individual, his dignity unimpaired, preparing himself for the slide into nothingness with a final feel of the earth. Jordan takes death 'straight', without religion, his attitude to life summed up with poignant simplicity as he says to himself: 'It is only missing it that's bad.' This is all far more eloquent than the slangy metaphysics of the justifiably outraged hero of A Farewell to Arms: 'They threw you in and told you the rules and the first time they caught you off base they killed you.' In thinking like this the hero has detached himself from the only certainties, the certainties of the senses. He speaks more profoundly than he realizes when, earlier in the book, he decides: 'I was not made to think.' Thought has a way of spiralling up and away from our concrete surroundings. That is why at various key points in The Old Man and the Sea the fisherman fights against the onset of thought…. A basic distinction must be made between the ordinary intelligence which interprets difficulties, formulates intentions, and modifies actions, etc.; and the sort of vague speculation, metaphysical or theological, etc., which the fisherman is countering. It is, of course, only this latter form of thought which the Heming-way hero tries to avoid…. The point is that for the Hemingway hero only concrete things are 'true' and only practical tasks efficiently undertaken and rigorously seen through offer any meaning and salvation: salvation from the crippling and undermining sense of nothingness which is his perpetual nightmare…. Life, for Hemingway, is all too often a 'spectacle with unexplained horrors': think of the amount of sheer physical suffering and human damage and cruelly capricious disaster there is in his work. The ambition, the necessary thing, is to try and make it, momentarily at least, 'something that was going on with a definite end'. (pp. 236-39)

[In The Sun Also Rises] Jake is meditating to himself on the meaning of the world. 'Perhaps as you went along you did learn something. I did not care what it was all about. All I wanted to know was how to live in it. Maybe if you found out how to live in it you learned from that what it was all about.' That last sentence reveals more of a philosophy than is at first apparent. It points not only to the particular Hemingway ethic—'grace under pressure'—but also suggests that the only meaning to be found lies in the relationship of man to the environment he is immersed in. And to learn how to live in it it is essential first of all to learn how to look at it. (p. 240)

Hemingway makes use of … Nick's 'first chastity of mind' [in the Nick Adams stories] which wonderingly notes the details without being tempted away into the blurring habits of theorizing. If there is a symbolic 'first man in the world' hidden inside the name 'Adams' it is only because Nick retains that essential integrity of the senses even when confronted with the most brutal disillusioning scenes. He is the ideal Hemingway 'eye' and if, for example, you look at the first few paragraphs of 'A Way You'll Never Be', which offer a scrupulously and horrifyingly detailed picture of a battlefield, you will notice that they are prefaced by the phrase 'Nicholas Adams saw'. The essential virtue of this sort of eye is best expressed in Jordan's admonition to himself while he awaits his death. 'Keep it accurate, he said. Quite accurate.' Accurate in the parts, we might add, accurate as far as the senses can honestly testify. No further. The rest is nada.

This explains, from another angle, why so much of Hemingway's prose is restricted to scenery and environment, for this is the one known and knowable quantity in any situation: this the unprejudiced eye can quite properly assimilate, whereas there are no senses which can so surely annotate the dubious internality of the people involved in the scene. Hemingway wrote in The Green Hills of Africa: 'But if I ever write anything about this it will just be landscape painting until I know something about it. Your first seeing of a country is a very valuable one.' The scenery—the first seeing: a lot of what is really good in Hemingway is based on these two factors. It is interesting to recall that both of Hemingway's last ageing heroes [the colonel and the fisherman] indulge in reveries connected with a feeling for 'place'…. Given Hemingway's philosophy it follows that for him only concrete things, perceptible manifestations of nature, have certain value: 'the earth abideth forever' is the most important phrase from Ecclesiastes which prefaces The Sun Also Rises. Thus when any Hemingway hero starts to indulge his memory it instinctively seeks back, not for episodic continuity or vague congenial atmospherics, but simply for things the senses had registered and then stored away…. (pp. 242-43)

Only what the isolated self can do on its own is valuable, only what the isolated ego can perceive for itself is true. To have any significant experience the Hemingway hero must, in one sense or another, for one reason or another (a wound for instance), be 'beyond all people'. Any peace he makes with the world will be personal rather than social, not communal but 'separate'. (p. 246)

[Hemingway's] prose makes permanent the attentive wonder of the senses: it mimes out the whole process, impression by impression…. This pursuit of the exact progress of the senses is everywhere in evidence in Hemingway, even in his earliest work, as for example in the story 'The Three-Day Blow'. 'They stood together, looking out across the country, down over the orchard, beyond the road, across the lower fields and the woods of the point to the lake.' Out, down, beyond, across—as the eye shifts its direction and focus, the prose follows it. As a result the prose very often has recourse to the words 'then' and 'and', and participles: these become important structural factors. They serve to thrust the reader much closer to the actual moment. (p. 247)

Hemingway's practice of unravelling the instant, of hugging the details of a sequence with his whole attention, is not merely the developed habit of a graphic news reporter, no matter how much Hemingway owes to his early journalism. It is a reflection of his faith in the ultimate veracity of the attuned and operating senses and the unsurpassable value of the registered 'now'. As Jordan realizes: 'Now, it has a funny sound to be a whole world and your life.' A moment is 'a whole world': this is why Hemingway explores its geography with such delicate care. Perhaps we can understand why Hemingway's prose always works to extract and arrest the significant fragments from the endless continuum of sense impressions which constitutes experience. His unflagging efforts to discover and hold 'the real thing, the sequence of motion and fact which made the emotion' constitute a creed and not a gimmick. Hemingway's style has been called 'matter-of-fact' as though its laconic understatement was its main achievement: but we could more accurately rephrase that and say his style was after the facts of matter, those items of the material world which prompted and provoked the attention of his characters. In this he could be compared with Thoreau who, we recall, also made it his aim to 'front only the essential facts', to ascertain 'the case that is'. And it is surely significant that in Hemingway's later work the facts tended to become fabulous, to expand into myth—just as Thoreau asserted they would do if seen properly. (pp. 247-48)

Hemingway valued perception more than inflated self-generated excitement in writing: his interest was not in the subjective self which makes a world of its own, but in the objective world which makes and moves the outward-looking self. This is not to say that he was a mere positivist with no values or illusions to mobilize his attention: the aim is rather to continually check what we believe in against what we can see. (pp. 248-49)

His concern, then, with edge, clarity, distinct contours, and accuracy is profoundly connected with his whole attitude towards life. It is no mere coincidence that we can find the best clues to Hemingway's ideal of 'style' in his descriptions of the bullfighter and the fisherman…. If we … bear in mind [the comments on bullfighting and] the old fisherman who does everything 'as cleanly as possible', who elevates 'precision' into an ethic and who asserts 'It is better to be lucky. But I would rather be exact'—then we have a sufficient vocabulary to discuss Hemingway's prose. Without any strain the bull and the fish can be seen as representative of the experience of the world which the artist has to confront and master—beautiful, powerful, and dangerous; sometimes fatal to the challenger, the man seeking to dominate through his 'craft'. Those who do manage to kill the bull, land the fish, must employ cleanliness and precision (we should here remember the old man in the café for whom these virtues were the sole source of consolation in life [in 'A Clean, Well-Lighted Place']: there must be no false histrionics, no mere flourishes, no eye-catching exhibitionism. Every gesture must be absolutely focused on the job in hand: every move must be unhurried, unhampered, and controlled. The beauty and vitality of a work of art will depend on the maximum exposure of the artist to experience, the linear clarity and purity with which he gradually asserts his control over the experience, and the exhilarating cleanliness and exactitude with which he finally demonstrates his mastery over his material in 'the kill'. The idea of maintaining a 'purity of line through the maximum exposure' applies equally to Hemingway's prose and Romero's bullfighting. (pp. 249-50)

[There is a] sort of journalism which when, for instance, writing up a train crash, selects one or two 'moving' details to achieve a quick front-page pathos. No one questions the truth of it, but somehow we feel our emotions are being too crudely roused, we resent the facility with which we are shocked, we feel that the very material which makes us feel sick is being cheapened by such improper synecdoche. For there is certainly a way of making the part stand for the whole which is debasing. Hemingway is not guilty of this, but there is that in his style which occasionally moves in that direction. It is a risk any writer must run if he refuses to avail himself of complex conceptual thought and the whole range of analysing, comparing, and placing powers which the fine intellect has at its disposal. It is an honourable risk, but the hazards are very real; not only for the artist trying to write, but also for the man trying to live. This is not the place to discuss Hemingway's code, his scale of values, his ethics: but if there is a simplifying tendency to them, if we feel human conduct cannot be so easily assessed and reduced as Hemingway's categories will allow, part of the reason must be that he tried to attend only to his senses. The disregard of mind not only sharpened those senses until they were a miraculously sensitive instrument, it also imposed a great strain on them, with the result that the range of his emotional response stayed small—either sensuous contentment (fun, ecstasy) or a sort of stunned shock and disillusioned horror which just manages to conceal itself behind the compacted concrete details of the prose. This combination of wonder and horror is very common in American literature. (pp. 252-53)

[The swamp in 'Big Two-Hearted River'] is the dark barren place, the earthly terrain of nada, the opposite of the clean well-lighted place which, in this case, is not a café but simply the sun-drenched world offering its sharp and well-lit particulars to the disciple's reverent eye. It is this patch of dismal foreboding shadow in the story which gives a sort of retroactive enhancement to the concrete details of the world which Nick has been so lovingly appropriating with his sensitized attention…. Because of this ineradicable surrounding threat, Nick seeks to establish contact with the concrete world, by careful touch and by careful sight. In this way he manages to 'give concrete filling to the empty "mine"' in Hegel's terminology, i.e. he fills the mine of consciousness with the positive stuff of existence. By limiting himself to a sort of scrupulous sense-certainty Nick revitalizes his senses, he refurnishes his mind, he replenishes his consciousness with a rich concrete content which will keep the void at bay. And this is why he so carefully relishes and even prolongs, every sensation that nature offers him. 'Nick climbed out onto the meadow and stood, water running down his trousers and out of his shoes, his shoes squelchy. He went over and sat on the logs. He did not want to rush his sensations any.' [my italics] That last sentence is one of the most important in the whole of Hemingway. It explains the conduct of his main characters, it explains the structure of his prose, it even hints at his total philosophy. Our sensations of the phenomenological world are the most precious, the most truthful, the most necessary things we have. We must not rush them. That is why, to stress it again, Hemingway's prose is essentially outward-looking, close to the ground, acutely alert in the face of the texture and contours of the objective world, reverently sensitive in its notation of the perceptions of the senses…. Hemingway's syntax works to disentangle each precious single sense impression: it is if you like the syntax of sensation. His prose attempts to establish and preserve 'everything a human being can know at each moment of his existence and not an assembling of all his experiences' as Stein put it. By deliberately not hurrying his sensations Hemingway wonderfully attests reality and finds a way of orienting and stabilizing man in a world which is, after all, only a teeming flux surrounded by a gaping nothingness. (pp. 255-56)

A proper reverence for the world precedes intellectual understanding; indeed, attempts to understand it, to reduce it to reason, may lead to a loss of that reverence, a dulling of the sense of beauty. Similarly the concrete natural world is best seen and arranged according to its original topography: man's reworking interference, literally with machines and metaphorically with certain kinds of art, is ultimately a desecration. Ultimately man, civilized man, is the fallen part of a beautiful world. The old fisherman respects the great fish as 'more noble and more able', if less intelligent, than himself: he feels that 'Man is not much beside the great birds and beasts'. (p. 256)

Hemingway wanted to follow Huck into unspoiled mythical territories, but for the race as a whole that is no longer possible: as Clemens had felt before him. But Nick Adams, like Huck, has moments when he reachieves that fading rapport with nature, and then the prose of their creators sheds all complexity of thought and follows the naive, wondering eye as it enters into a reverent communion with the earth that abideth forever. (p. 257)

Tony Tanner, "Ernest Hemingway's Unhurried Sensations," in his The Wave of Wonder: Naivety and Reality in American Literature (© Cambridge University Press), Cambridge University Press, 1965, pp. 228-57.

Frank W. Shelton

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Hemingway's books may seem to lack entirely that most primary group to which every individual belongs, at least initially, the family.

However, with the posthumous publication of Islands in the Stream and The Nick Adams Stories, the importance of the family to Hemingway becomes increasingly clear. In Islands in the Stream, Thomas Hudson's loss of his sons in part causes his final deep despair. Placing the Nick Adams stories in chronological sequence, as the recent volume does, also highlights how so many of them deal, at least obliquely, with Nick's relationship with and attitude toward family and marriage.

As a child Nick is never closely tied to anyone for a long period of time. In the previously published stories, we see at best an ambivalent picture of Dr. Adams in "Indian Camp," although the newly published fragment, "Three Shots," emphasizes Dr. Adams' sympathy for Nick's fear of the woods. Other stories, especially "The Doctor and the Doctor's Wife" and "Ten Indians," suggest the inadequacy of both Nick's parents, particularly when one compares the coldness and constraint of the relationship between Nick and his father in the latter story to the warm, relaxed atmosphere surrounding the Garners, a true family unit. It is surely no accident that, in the stories of Nick's childhood, Hemingway never presents father, mother, and son all together at one time.

The inclusion in the posthumous volume of "The Last Good Country" is particularly relevant to the family theme. Certainly the most important addition in this story is Nick's sister, who plays a central role. With their father absent and mother untrustworthy, Littless and Nick "loved each other and they did not love the others. They always thought of everyone else in the family as the others." The type of family life they have experienced is suggested by Littless' comment, "'I'll go back whenever you tell me to. But I won't have fights. Haven't we seen enough fights in families'."… The close brother-sister relationship, despite the disparity in their ages, is extremely important to both of them, for in effect they constitute a family of two who must be self-sufficient. His sister's presence prevents the loneliness Nick fears if he is forced to flee by himself, and he is very solicitous of her welfare throughout. The hint of something unnatural in their relationship is a striking and unsettling element. Nick thinks: "He loved his sister very much and she loved him too much. But, he thought, I guess those things straighten out. At least I hope so."… This uneasiness is augmented by their fear of being caught, but in contrast to their apprehension is the sincere love and devotion they feel for one another. In the light of the strikingly inadequate family experiences Nick has had heretofore, this brother-sister relationship demonstrates the potential support close family relationships can provide.

The stories of Nick's maturity shift in emphasis to his attitude toward marriage and possible voluntary association in a family unit he can himself originate. Leslie Fiedler feels Hemingway treats the whole idea of marriage unfavorably: "In Hemingway the rejection of the sentimental happy ending of marriage involves the acceptance of the sentimental happy beginning of innocent and inconsequential sex, camouflages the rejection of maturity and of fatherhood itself" [see CLC, Vol. 1]. Some of the Nick Adams stories appear to reject marriage and fatherhood, especially "Now I Lay Me," "In Another Country" and "Cross-Country Snow." But Fiedler errs in identifying Nick's opinions with Hemingway's. In particular the additional material in this volume and the chronological ordering of all the stories suggest that Nick's attitude is not constant but changes in the course of his career. Thus Nick's determination not to marry in "Now I Lay Me" can be seen as his extreme reaction to the tension in his parents' relationship. In the same light the major's extreme stance against marriage in "In Another Country" shows that his marriage must have been the most positive influence in his life.

When Nick returns from the war, he continues to avoid marriage and women. In "The End of Something" he rejects close ties with women in favor of male comradeship. In a newly published story, "Summer People," Nick definitely does not shun association with women; in fact he welcomes and needs Kate's company. But he remains determined not to marry, here because he wants to preserve the freedom he needs to be a writer. Getting married would permit another to make demands on him which might prevent his artistic fulfillment.

Of course Nick does marry, though his wife is only a shadowy presence in the later stories. Certainly he is the first to admit that marriage has meant the end of particular aspects of his life. In "On Writing" he realizes that "when he married he lost Bill Smith, Odgar, the Ghee, all the old gang…. He lost them because he admitted by marrying that something was more important than the fishing."… Yet Nick does not resent this loss. In fact he is able to remember with amusement "the horror he used to have of people getting married. It was funny. Probably it was because he had always been with older people, nonmarrying people."… [By] the time Nick has been married for some time, his previous adolescent attitude toward marriage has been replaced by a more mature acceptance of the institution and his need for it.

"Fathers and Sons," the final story both in the volume of Hemingway's collected stories and The Nick Adams Stories, shifts the focus back to Nick's relationship with his father and his own son. Nick, through the presence of his son, can forgive his father's failures, recognize his own share of the blame for those failures and reaffirm a love of and appreciation for him. Nick's son, who wants to visit the tomb of his grandfather, senses and communicates to his father a relationship spanning three generations.

Thus in the Nick Adams stories Hemingway clearly deals with the role the family should play in relation to the individual. Nick learns as he matures that individuals, in the face of a chaotic and brutal world, must band together for protection and emotional comfort. Family relationships can be the source of great pain, as Nick well knows, but through them the individual can prevent isolation and despair. (pp. 303-05)

Frank W. Shelton, "The Family in Hemingway's Nick Adams Stories," in Studies in Short Fiction (copyright 1974 by Newberry College), Summer, 1974, pp. 303-05.

John Berryman

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This short, almost desperate, and beautiful story ["A Clean, Well-Lighted Place"] is an unusually fine example of a very special kind of story which is not anecdotal at all. If you were asked by somebody, "What happens in this story?" you would have to reply, "Nothing." Now nothing is exactly what the story is about: Nothing, and the steps we take against Nothing. The fact that there is no plot is part of the story's meaning: in a world characterized by "Nothing," what significant action could take place? The two waiters are only very gradually distinguished from each other; their voices in the beginning are choric, just two men talking, any two men. Of the old man in the café we learn very little, and of the barman at the end, nothing. The older waiter is clearly the most important person in the story, but we do not really learn very much about him, either. You could hardly say that the story is about him. The part usually played by plot and characterization is left in this story largely to setting and atmosphere.

Hemingway's style is famous for its simplicity—short, common words, short sentences—and is said to be realistic or naturalistic. Is it realistic? "I am of those who like to stay late at the café," the older waiter says. "With all those who do not want to go to bed. With all those who need a light for the night." Surely this is elaborately rhetorical, nobody actually talks this way, and one of the reasons (though only one) for the Spanish setting of the story is the author's desire to achieve from time to time this highly poetic and unnatural tone (as he can do by pretending to be translating from Spanish into English) without its seeming inconsistent with the curt talk, rapid description, and coarse and bitter material of the story. Hemingway's style is very complicated; even where it appears simple, it is not very simple. Look at the first two sentences:

It was late and every one had left the café except an old man who sat in the shadow the leaves of the tree made against the electric light. In the day time the street was dusty, but at night the dew settled the dust and the old man liked to sit late because he was deaf and now at night it was quiet and he felt the difference.

Then we learn that this old man tried to kill himself last week, even though he has plenty of money; in short, he is in despair, and the phrase is used by one of the waiters. That is why he is drinking himself drunk, as he does every night. Even in themselves Hemingway's opening sentences are rather stylized—the rhythms are insistent, alliteration is employed (dew … dust … deaf … difference), even rhyme (night: quiet), and "late" is repeated in a choric way. But as the opening of this story, which is to come to a climax in a violent parody of the Lord's Prayer, clearly these sentences have already begun the symbolism which is the reason for the story's being. It is late, not only on this evening, and in this man's life, but in a tradition—a religious tradition, specifically the Christian tradition (we are in a Catholic country, Spain); so late that the tradition cannot support or console, and suicide invites. There is thus a second reason, besides the physical debility that awaits all of us at the end of life, for the old man's being deaf: he is deaf to the Christian promises, he cannot hear them. He is alone, isolated, sitting in the "shadow" left by nature in the modern artificial world. All the light desired in this story is artificial, as if nature had abandoned man, and anything he may want he has to get for himself—precariously and briefly. (pp. 217-18)

This is not just a sour joke, though it is that, too. We have to hear "Nothing" also as something very positive, the name given in this story to the modern condition of moral vacancy and meaninglessness which the old man feels, and so he tried to kill himself, and the older waiter feels, and so he suffers from insomnia: "It was a nothing that he knew too well. It was all a nothing and a man was nothing too. It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order. Some lived in it and never felt it but he knew it all was nada y pues nada y nada y pues nada" (nothing and then nothing and nothing and then nothing).

It is feeling this condition of nothingness, not the nothingness itself, which is Hemingway's real subject. His deep sympathy with the two sensitive men, the old man and the older waiter, is the story's strongest feeling. Neither is a passive victim. The old man has his "dignity"—a key word for Hemingway. When the younger waiter says, "An old man is a nasty thing," the older waiter, without sentimentalizing or denying the general truth of this (very unpleasant) remark, defends the honour of this particular old man with precise observation: "Not always. This old man is clean. He drinks without spilling. Even now, drunk. Look at him." And when the impatience of the younger waiter has pushed him out, he walks away "unsteadily but with dignity." It is not much, human dignity, in the face of the human condition of nothingness, but it is what we can have.

The older waiter's symbol for it is light—here a man-made device to hold off the darkness, not permanently, but as late as possible, and in public, as if man's essential loneliness were less intolerable where the forms of social life have to be observed, where one's dignity is called on. (The specific danger of being alone is, of course, suicide.) He formulates this, as it were, on behalf of the old man, and only gradually do we become aware that his plight is similar, he is an older waiter…. More and more distinctly he has become the story's spokesman, the younger waiter being unfitted for this role by his insensitivity (in one of his very rare value judgments, Hemingway implies that he is "stupid") and the old man by being too completely isolated. (pp. 218-19)

Light, cleanness, order, dignity: to hold the Nothing at bay. The reason these things are necessary is that everything else has failed. The parody of the Lord's Prayer has a deliberate effect of blasphemy, and thus explains why these symbols have been used—and why this story, for that matter, has come into existence. Notice how brilliantly the narrative is handled. Turning the light off in the café, he continues the conversation with himself. We are given no indication that he is moving, much less going somewhere else. The parody ends: "Hail nothing full of nothing, nothing is with thee. He smiled and stood before a bar with a shining steam pressure coffee machine." Without our knowledge he has been moving, while blaspheming, and the Lord's Prayer has brought him—where? Precisely where you cannot be with dignity, standing at a bar. Religion is a cheat. You might as well worship this sudden apparition, the shining steam pressure coffee machine, as the Christian God or nada.

When the barman asks what he wants, he answers, "Nada," meaning, "Nothing is all that is possible, so that is what I'll have." The barman does not understand, of course ("Otro loco más" is One more lunatic, another joker). The lack of understanding of the barman is the point of the end of the story. Insensitive, like the younger waiter, the barman leaves the older waiter isolated with his knowledge that all is nada…. The last two sentences of the story come like a lash, ranging him again, in his loneliness and desperate need for dignity, with the large class of human beings ("I am of those who …") who feel and suffer man's desertion by God—an invented God. (One of Hemingway's little poems takes a different tone with the same theme:

                   The Lord is my shepherd.
                   I shall not want
                   Him for long.)

This essential human ordeal is for all men, but it is only recognized, the story suggests, in age; so that this is what our journey is toward. This, miserably, is what wisdom is of: nada. Perhaps no story in English has ever been built so obsessively around one word (the volume of stories in which it originally appeared was called by Hemingway Winner Take Nothing).

The angry desolation of the story has its roots in Hemingway's disillusion during the First World War, best expressed shortly in a famous passage of his novel A Farewell to Arms. An Italian and the hero are talking, and the Italian says, "We won't talk about losing. There is enough talk about losing. What has been done this summer cannot have been done in vain." "I did not say anything. I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain…. I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it. There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity. Certain numbers were the same way and certain dates and these with the names of the places were all you could say and have them mean anthing. Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates." In the light of this passage, it is clearer why the older waiter has such difficulty in saying what it is that he hates—nada—and what it is that he sets against it—dignity—and why he has to use symbols to express his malignant dissatisfaction with the Christian universe. (pp. 220-21)

John Berryman, "Hemingway's 'A Clean, Well-Lighted Place'" (originally published in a different version in The Arts of Reading, edited by Ralph Ross, Allen Tate, and John Berryman, Thomas Y. Crowell, Inc., 1960), in his The Freedom of the Poet (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; copyright © 1940, 1944, 1945, 1947, 1948, 1949, 1956, 1959, 1961, 1964, 1966 by John Berryman; copyright © renewed 1972 by John Berryman; copyright © 1951, 1953, 1960, 1965, 1966, 1975, 1976, by Kate Berryman; copyright © renewed 1973, 1975, 1976 by Kate Berryman), Farrar, Straus, 1976, pp. 217-21.

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Hemingway, Ernest (Vol. 1)


Hemingway, Ernest (Vol. 13)