Happy Birthday, Hemingway!
Posted on Jul 18, 2013
By Allen Barra
Hemingway’s admirers praise him for economy of language; Brophy lashes him for “splashing over his pages the half-literate vocabulary of a Victorian provincial sporting journalist.” (But did she really read Victorian provincial sporting journalists?) Faulkner also made fun of the terseness of Hemingway’s prose when he jibed: “Hemingway never sent a reader scurrying to a dictionary.”
But I couldn’t care less about Stein’s dictums, and I don’t necessarily need a dictionary to enjoy fiction. Nor do I think one must be a sucker for bells, balls and bulls to appreciate Hemingway. More than anyone, he cleaned out the stuffy conventions and pretentions of British English that still clogged American writing in the early 1920s. His importance was not, as is often said, in influencing the prose style of the next generation but in clearing the path so they could better find their own voices. John Steinbeck, J.D. Salinger, John O’Hara, James Jones and Nelson Algren, to name some of the most obvious, would have happened without Hemingway, but they probably would not have been so good. Norman Mailer, who never truly succeeded at finding his own voice in fiction, was nonetheless inspired by Papa’s ethos to become the greatest American writer of the next generation.
No matter what Hemingway’s influence on future generations, we will never again be subject to what Hotchner called “an affliction common to my generation: Hemingway awe.” There will still be untold college papers and literary essays that try to resolve such questions as why the most archetypically American novelist never set a novel in his own country, or whether it was that manly All-American hunting and fishing or the piano lessons from his hated mother that most contributed to his development. Or why a most quintessentially macho figure in American letters had so many close female friends, from the lesbian Gertrude Stein, whose literary opinion he valued above all others, to his pal (but never lover) Marlene Dietrich, who said of him, “He is gentle, as all real men are gentle.”
Or perhaps the most intriguing question of all: Who was the greater writer, Hemingway or Fitzgerald? My answer is Hemingway. He had a steel-trap efficiency as an author and a greater range in his short fiction and nonfiction. But Fitzgerald came nearer to greatness as a novelist. His work deepened as he got older. Hemingway ended his career as he had begun, as an inspired adolescent. He burned with a hard gem-like flame for perhaps 10 years, and what he wrote beyond that span relied on the momentum of his extravagant influence.
We will always need them both, though, as the twin beacons of romance (Fitzgerald) and adventure (Hemingway) of the Jazz Age, the Lost Generation or whatever we choose to call it.
Philip Kaufman found himself drawing closer to Hemingway while filming “Hemingway & Gellhorn.” “My reservations about him—the macho posturing, the bullying, the tendency late in life toward self-parody—all fell away,” he told me. “What I most felt was the energy and the possibilities of life he made me feel when I was young.
“He offered the conversation of his time, and, who knows, maybe for times to come.”
And if it’s not that, what the hell is posterity anyway?
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