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Happy Birthday, Hemingway!

Posted on Jul 18, 2013
Flickr/Robert Burdock

By Allen Barra

Pauline Kael, reviewing the film “Islands in the Stream” (1977), wrote, “There may be a time for a Hemingway revival, but this isn’t it. His themes don’t link with our preoccupations, and … the movie version of his posthumous novel, seems to belong to another age.”

Thirty-six years later, as we approach what would be Hemingway’s 114th birthday Sunday, his image is more vibrant now than in the last years of his life. The same could be said for his friend and drinking partner, F. Scott Fitzgerald. 

This year belongs to Fitzgerald, with Baz Luhrmann’s glittery and successful film version of “The Great Gatsby” catapulting the novel onto best-seller lists.

The previous couple of years, however, were an unofficial Hemingway celebration, with books about him continuing to be a light industry. “The Letters of Ernest Hemingway, 1907-1922” was published by Cambridge University Press; soon we will have a complete set of volumes containing his entire correspondence. (Hemingway would never have seen the point in this. As he told a biographer of Fitzgerald’s, “I write letters because it is fun to get letters back, not for posterity. What the hell is posterity anyway?”)

“Hemingway’s Laboratory—The Paris in Our Time” by Milton Cohen, a study of the writer’s early prose experiments, was published in May 2012 by the University of Alabama Press. That summer marked the paperback release of Paul Hendrickson’s critically acclaimed “Hemingway’s Boat: Everything He Loved in Life and Lost.”

And, who’d have thought it, Hemingway in the 21st century has re-emerged as a pop (Papa?) icon. Just about everything Hemingway wrote, from his novels to eight collections of short stories to several memoirs and works of journalism, is still in print. That’s more than 25 volumes. Can that be said about any other serious American author?

Character actor Corey Stoll did a terrific turn as the mid-1920s Hemingway in Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” in 2011, with English actor Tom Hiddelston contributing a letter-perfect Scott Fitzgerald. Allen, who won an Oscar for the screenplay, did his homework. Every line out of Stoll’s mouth sounds like the distilled Hemingway of our collective memory:

“It was a good book because it was an honest book, and that’s what war does to men. And there’s nothing fine and noble about dying in the mud unless you die gracefully. And then it’s not only noble but brave,” he says.

And, “No subject is terrible if the story is true, if the prose is clean and honest, and if it affirms courage and grace under pressure.”

Last summer, HBO’s “Hemingway & Gellhorn,” directed by Philip Kaufman, received 15 Emmy nominations. The most in-depth film portrait of the writer featured ferocious performances by Clive Owen as Hemingway and Nicole Kidman as his third wife, the great war correspondent Martha Gellhorn.

All the books about Hemingway have told us everything except why we continue to care so much. 

With the exception of his first novel, “The Sun Also Rises,” which still reads with the freshness of an open wound, I can no longer read the big books on which Hemingway’s reputation has so long rested. “A Farewell to Arms” and “For Whom the Bell Tolls” seem stilted, stagey and Hollywood-cornball melodramatic. (I applauded the scene in “Silver Linings Playbook” when Bradley Cooper throws a copy of “A Farewell to Arms” out the window because “She dies. I mean, the world’s hard enough as it is, guys. Can’t someone say, hey let’s be positive? Let’s have a good ending to the story?”) 

Like most people I know, I find all of Hemingway’s later novels unreadable. And not just the later works. “To Have and Have Not,” published in 1937, didn’t survive a rereading. According to film director Howard Hawks, Hemingway confessed that he wrote it only “because I needed the money.” Hawks supposedly told Hemingway, “I can take the worst piece of crap you ever wrote and make a good movie out of it.” Hemingway’s worst piece of crap, Hawks decided, was “To Have and Have Not.”

I agree. The novel is dishonest hackwork; Hawks’ film with Bogart and Bacall was first-rate hackwork.

How it must have galled Hemingway over the last 17 years of his life that when the title “To Have and Have Not” was mentioned, it was not his words people remembered but those written for Lauren Bacall by Jules Furthman and, of all people, William Faulkner—particularly “Anyone got a match?” and “You know how to whistle don’t you? You put your lips together and blow.” (Hemingway might have taken some solace in 1948 when John Huston pilfered the ending of “To Have and Have Not” for “Key Largo.”)

The reputation of “The Old Man and the Sea” (1952) hasn’t fared much better than the marlin the old man drags back to shore. Dwight Macdonald scored easy points when he said it was “written in that fake, biblical prose which Pearl Buck used in ‘The Good Earth,’ a style which seems to have a maligned fascination for the middlebrows—Miss Buck also got a Nobel Prize out of it.” Macdonald knew very well that at his worst, Hemingway was in a higher class than Buck and that “The Old Man and the Sea” isn’t Hemingway at his worst.

“Across the River and Into the Trees” (1950) and “Islands in the Stream” (published posthumously in 1970) are worthy of comparison with Buck, and I’m not sure Hemingway comes out ahead. His later fiction is pretty much summed up by a remark he made about John O’Hara, recorded in A.E. Hotchner’s “Papa Hemingway” (1955). When Hemingway first read O’Hara, “It looked like he could hit. … Then, instead of swinging away, for no reason he started beating out bunts.”

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