Ernest Hemingway typing at the lodge where he wrote. (Handout )
For much of the 1980s, beginning when I was in college, I used to read a Hemingway book a year. The point was not self-improvement but rather a kind of exploration: What was it, exactly, about his writing that I'd missed? I had read "The Sun Also Rises" in high school and had admired its spare portrayal of 1920s expatriate life. But I'd also thought of it as more than a little stilted, even melodramatic in its way.
Of all the great American between-the-wars writers — "the three kings," as Richard Ford referred to Hemingway, Faulkner and Fitzgerald in a 1983 essay, although I'd also include John Dos Passos in their company — the one who most spoke to me was Faulkner, with his flowing sea of language, his sense of the past, of history, as a living thing. Next to him, Hemingway seemed flat, two-dimensional. Where was his appeal? If only I kept reading, I might find out.
I worked through my share of the novels: "A Farewell to Arms," "For Whom the Bell Tolls." I was compelled, in places, yet still felt distant. Then, on a train from New York to Chicago, I discovered the 1925 collection "In Our Time," Hemingway's American debut. The 15 stories here include some of his most iconic: "Big Two-Hearted River," "The Three-Day Blow," "The Doctor and the Doctor's Wife." These works helped rewire American short fiction with their bluntness, their lack of affect, their insistence that we read between the lines.
"If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about," Hemingway observed in "Death in the Afternoon," his 1932 study of bullfighting, "he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them." That's a revolutionary idea, with its recognition that writing and reading are a collaboration. And yet, for all that "In Our Time" offers, the book stands out for me by remaining — along with "The Old Man and the Sea" and some of the nonfiction — one of the few by Hemingway that I truly love.
Hemingway shot himself to death on July 2, 1961, 50 years ago this weekend, but questions about his legacy resonate. In part, this has to do with the contradictory nature of his character: innovator and reactionary, self-mythologizer and cliché, purveyor of both a new way of seeing and some of the most garish stereotypes of masculinity, with his fixations on big-game hunting, booze and war.
Although he wrote almost to the end (and he's published posthumously at a rate rivaled only by L. Ron Hubbard and Jack Kerouac), he had produced most of his important work by 1940, when "For Whom the Bell Tolls" appeared. He was a personality — along with Fitzgerald and some others, I'd suggest, an early example of the writer as celebrity, as famous for who he was as for what he wrote — and yet, half a century after his death, he is misunderstood, if we think of him at all.
The world has changed: How many readers, in the aftermath of Vietnam or the last slogging decade in Iraq and Afghanistan, still consider war a noble gesture, a crucible? How many, in an era when we blog or tweet with equal weight our deepest secrets and least significant interactions, have any use for Hemingway's stylized reserve? Even back when I was actively reading him, he seemed a writer of another time. Twenty-five years later, that moment too feels archaic, like so much ancient history, leaving me to wonder what, if anything, Hemingway can still mean.
I raised this issue recently with a number of writer friends on Facebook, and what I got back was illuminating. Some made jokes, while others mentioned the experiences of their children. (Apparently, Hemingway is still assigned in high school, if less often than he used to be.) One friend referred to her own high school struggles with "For Whom the Bell Tolls" — after which, she noted, she never read Hemingway again. Most interesting, though, were the half-dozen or so responses that addressed the work directly, not as a matter of content so much as one of style. Even those who didn't consider Hemingway a favorite cited his stripped-down approach, his intent to reinvent the language, his commitment not to tell.