Ruminations

My Friend, Hem

In a fit of boredom, I picked up the only Hemingway book we had in our house, The Sun Also Rises, commonly known as "the one about the bulls." I was surprised to find Hemingway's work to be nothing like I had heard it described to me. I had always been told he was pithy and direct, writing with a journalist's pace and focus on the facts. Instead, I found him to be reticent, terse, terrified of adjectives. Whereas most popular writers dedicate great space to describing scenes, Hem chose to waste pages and pages on myopic "action." A man goes up the stairs and down the stairs and to the bar and up and down the stairs again. The stairs and the bar and the hotel lobby he passes through are never described. In an inversion of the writer's motto, Hem chooses to tell, not show.

Well, even that is misleading, because Hem is also averse to stating facts. In his biography, A Moveable Feast, which I read the same day I finished the one about the bulls, Hem describes his belief that an author should know the most important detail of a story and write with the power of this knowledge, but remove the detail from the text so the reader is left with gaping, but carefully crafted, holes they are forced to fill with their own emotion. Sun is all about life after the brutality of the Great War and yet war is never mentioned. 

Hem was very much into withholding, both in the literal and Freudian sense, and yet almost all of his novels were roman a clefs, meaning they were closely modeled after the author's lived reality. The "heros," if you can call them that, of both Sun and A Farewell to Arms are clearly fictionalizations of Hem himself. They are taciturn, masculine, and very observant. The secondary characters are stylized after Hem's real life friends on the West Bank of Paris. In Sun, for example, Hem writes about a man who is petulant and immature, the only one of the group not to have fought in that never-mentioned war. This character has much in common with Hem's flesh and blood frenemy Scott Fitzgerald who, like his fictional counterpart, attended Princeton and avoided the draft.

Farewell, widely considered the greatest novel to arise from the ashes of World War I, tells the remarkable and very true story of Hem's time as an ambulance driver in the Italian army. Fred, Farewell's protagonist, is injured and falls in love with his nurse, just like the author. But whereas Fred's romance was successful and his love lasting, Hem's caretaker sent him her Dear John letter within weeks of his return to America.

Hem's personal attitudes toward women seep into his narratives as well. In his memoir of his time in Paris, Hem portrays his first wife, Hadley, as a lovely and loving spouse. She is supportive of his dreams to the point she seems to have none of her own. She never says anything that contradicts her husband and the most sustained conversation Hem records is one in which Hadley dreams they will grow their hair to be the same length, a conversation that is replicated almost in full between Fred and Catherine Barkley in Farewell. Catherine the character is even more submissive, constantly telling her wounded lover that all she wishes is to please him, to be the perfect wife. The only woman who dares shake this framework is Blake, the scandalous British "Lady" who breaks Jake's heart in Sun. But Blake's liberated attitude, though entrancing to every man she meets, is not an asset. It is written to be a byproduct of the war, a defense mechanism, and one that will ultimately ruin her. 

Hem is rightfully considered a champion of American literature, but he should never be mistaken for a crusader for the English language. Hem pioneered a new style that stood, quite literally, in stark constract to the lush, loose works of his peers, and in doing so reinvgorated American fiction. But he also chose to sample from only the smallest sections of our big, broad dictionary, thereby limiting both his imagination and our own. 

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