Advertisement

ENDPAPERS

The Writer Who Said What Hemingway Couldn't

April 09, 1989|JACKSON J. BENSON

John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway did not know each other personally, although they had a number of friends, such as the photographer Robert Capa, in common. Both writers were nearly silent about each other's work in public; however, as one might expect from their personalities, Steinbeck spoke very well in private of Hemingway's work, referring to him several times in letters as "in many ways . . . the finest writer of our time," whereas all of Hemingway's references in his letters are disparaging of Steinbeck as a popular and prolific writer. Perhaps this reaction came in response to the precipitous rise in Steinbeck's stock during the period from the publication of "In Dubious Battle" in 1936 to that of "The Grapes of Wrath" in 1939, at a time when Hemingway was writing little and was accused by many critics of not being sufficiently concerned with serious social issues. Until the late '40s, when Faulkner's reputation began its climb, there is no doubt that Hemingway considered Steinbeck his main rival for what he called the "championship."

The only correspondence between them was one letter from Steinbeck, who in 1939 wrote of his admiration for Hemingway's technique in the story "The Butterfly and the Tank." This expression of admiration appears to have led indirectly to the famous meeting in 1944 between the two at Tim Costello's restaurant in New York, arranged by mutual friends at Hemingway's request. Considering the younger writer's shyness, it is not surprising that only a few words were exchanged--Hemingway took center stage, and Steinbeck hung back as one of several observers.

Included in the party was John O'Hara, who had with him an antique walking stick that Steinbeck had given to him. As they were standing at the bar, Hemingway contended scornfully that O'Hara's stick was not really a blackthorn. When O'Hara protested that it was, the other novelist bet him $50 he could break it and proceeded to pull it down over the top of his head, splitting it in two. O'Hara was mortified, and Steinbeck, standing in the background, thought the whole incident stupid. For several years thereafer, Steinbeck held very ambivalent feelings about an author whose work he admired but whose behavior he detested. Later, when the rivalry between Hemingway and Faulkner became intense, the Californian commented in disgust that the two seemed to be "fighting over billing on a tombstone."

For his part, Hemingway continued to be unimpressed by the work of the younger novelist. The only recorded comment of a specific nature came to John in 1948, when his editor, Pascal Covici, passed on a remark heard by a third person: "Hemingway said he could not read Steinbeck anymore after the last scene in 'Grapes of Wrath' wherein the starving man seeks food at the breasts of the dying woman. Hemingway said that 'aside from anything else, that's hardly the solution to our economic problem.' " Steinbeck wrote back to Covici, "Mr. Hemingway's analysis is not quite valid, but very funny." The older writer may have been exercising his wit, but he also seems to have missed the point, since in his biological metaphor Steinbeck had presented what he thought was the solution to an economic system based on selfish possessiveness.

Again, as one might expect, Steinbeck had a somewhat better understanding of what Hemingway was saying in his fiction than the other way around, although his admiration was not uncritical. Hemingway's witticism at the expense of "The Grapes of Wrath" seems not to have embittered its author when, three years later, he wrote in the manuscript of "East of Eden":

"In my time, Ernest Hemingway wrote a certain kind of story better and more effectively than it had ever been done before. He was properly accepted and acclaimed. He was imitated almost slavishly by every young writer, including me, not only in America but in the world. He wrote a special kind of story out of a special kind of mind and about special moods and situations. When his method was accepted, no other method was admired. The method or style not only conditioned the stories but the thinking of his generation. Superb as his method is, there are many things which cannot be said using it. The result of his acceptance was that writers did not write about those things which could not be said in the Hemingway manner, and gradually they did not think them either."

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|