The great writer and what he never wrote
Ernest Hemingway's works are seldom taught in university, one professor told me, because there is nothing to say about them. I suppose this means Hemingway's lean style, his attempts to describe life as experienced rather than as filtered through literary allusions, and his focus on behaviour and honour under pressure—as opposed to intellectual subtleties—leave little around which academics can spin theses.
Yet Hemingway may be the most popular serious writer of the twentieth century. His books seldom top critics' or scholars' lists but they do continue to sell year after year.
The life and character of the man known as Papa Hemingway is even more familiar than his writing. Everyone knows that Hemingway was a great aficionado of bullfighting, hunting and fishing. That he was preoccupied with war and death, serving the Italian army in World War I, reporting on the Spanish Civil War, and chasing Nazi boats in the Caribbean during World War II. That he was part of the legendary artistic crowd in Paris in the 1920s along with other expatriate literary lights like F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound and Morley Callaghan who famously knocked him down in a boxing match. That he was married four times. That when his health deteriorated he took his own life with a shotgun blast.
It's all so virile. Macho. His writing is often referred to as tersely descriptive with staccato, clipped dialogue and characters affecting tough masculinity. His style is called simple and deliberate, every word written as if carved in granite.
Yet his prose is among the most sensitive and beautifully understated, often having the power to completely transport the reader to the place and situation of his characters. It's the art that hides art. Many have copied his seemingly uncomplicated style but have learned through their failure how very difficult it is to create the illusion of simplicity.
For me, Hemingway is a phenomenologist (a term he probably would have disparaged). He experiences the world as it appears and feels, then writes about it in such a way as to have the reader experience it the same way—the surface sensation, the taste, the just-right view, the feel on the back of the neck, the urgency, the peace, the restless thoughts. All without seeming to make an effort to do so. It all goes down like a drink of water but you eventually realize you've been moved by a powerful liquor.
He's the master of forcing the reader to read between the lines, whether the reader wants to or not. In Death in the Afternoon, he notes: "If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about, 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."
Quirky stories changed everything
Ernest Hemingway was born and raised in Illinois, U.S.A., and worked as a writer for newspapers both before and after the first war, including stints in Kansas and Toronto.
He gained his early reputation though as a writer of short stories that appeared quirky and abrupt to readers then, but have been imitated ever since and now seem perfectly natural. His first widely available collection of stories was In Our Time (1925) published while he was a foreign correspondent in Paris. In retrospect the stories of In Our Time have been hailed as having changed American short story writing forever.
Hemingway's first longer-form writing to be published was The Torrents of Spring (1926), a slender parody of Sherwood Anderson, once his idol and others of the "great race" of writers of the time. He wrote the novella, supposedly in ten days, to get out of a publishing contract. Fitzgerald, a deft hand at satire himself, called the book a masterpiece but it's been mainly forgotten in light of Hemingway's greater works that followed. Today a reader of The Torrents of Spring would likely find parts quite funny but miss much of what was being parodied.
The big works
Around this time Hemingway also completed his first acclaimed novel The Sun Also Rises (1926) about a foreign correspondent in Paris, like himself, who takes time out to visit the bullfights in Spain with other members of the so-called "lost generation". This is the work that brought him to prominence. Like most of his books from this time on, it was eventually adapted for movies with middling success. (It's hard to replicate his writing style on screen.)
The Sun Also Rises was followed by another story collection, Men Without Women (1927), containing his famous story "The Killers", and another novel, A Farewell to Arms (1929)—a doomed wartime love story that confirmed his reputation as the preeminent writer of his generation. Farewell was quickly made into a Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes film, the first of several adaptations, and both The Sun Also Rises and "The Killers" eventually got their multiple adaptations.
Death in the Afternoon (1932) is a non-fictional account of bullfighting, while Green Hills of Africa (1935) is an attempt to present an actual hunting expedition with his wife as if it were the subject of a novel. (Think of it as an early effort to create what a few decades later would be called the "new journalism".)
Winner Take Nothing (1933) is a further story collection and To Have and Have Not (1937) is a novel awkwardly stitched together out of two stories and a novella. The novel, which mostly follows a fishing boat skipper who's drawn into smuggling between the Florida Keys and Cuba, is also experimental for Hemingway, playing with different narrative styles, shifting points of view and even some stream of consciousness, albeit not always successfully. Despite the book's lukewarm reception, it has been made into at least four movies—all with different names—the first of which in 1944 is famous for bringing Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall together, though the 1950 hookup of John Garfield and Patricia Neal under the title The Breaking Point is much closer to the book.
The Fifth Column (1938) is a play about the Spanish Civil War, written from within the war. It may be Hemingway's least satisfying work, both for readers and for the author who complained he should have reworked it as a novel. It was published at the time in a volume with what were called his first forty-nine short stories (including two of his most acclaimed stories—"The Snows of Kilimanjaro" and "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber"—getting their first book publication).
However, the play was republished posthumously along with four stories of the war, which had not been earlier available in any other collections. Although you seldom hear about them, these four are among his best stories and, sharing settings with The Fifth Column, make an effective set.
Hemingway's greatest work however may be his novel set in the same Spanish war. For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940) presents startlingly realistic scenes of conflict and romance, with unforgettable characters in an unforgettable environment. Another Cooper film, this time with Ingrid Bergman, was to follow quickly—one of the better adaptations of Hemingway.
Across the River and Into the Trees (1950), concerning a disgraced Second World World general reminiscing, was his most negatively reviewed novel, suffering from the lack of a gripping plot or sharp characters. But it was Hemingway, to his credit, trying something different once again, a more internal work of reflective middle age, and in recent years the novel has risen in reputation.
But his next, The Old Man and the Sea (1952), was hailed a masterpiece and led to Hemingway being awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1953 and the Nobel Prize for literature in 1954. It too has been adapted several times for film, most notably in 1958 while Hemingway was still around.
After Hemingway's death in 1961, his works continued to appear, as his unfinished manuscripts were edited and released by his heirs and publishers, along with reorganized collections of earlier works. A Moveable Feast (1964) engagingly recounts his Paris years. Islands in the Stream (1970) is an unpolished, though often rewarding, novel based partly on his Caribbean exploits.
The Dangerous Summer (1985) is a long, meandering magazine article written in 1959 and cut drastically to produce this posthumous book about a Spanish bullfighting season—third-rate Hemingway on a subject already covered (and much better) in The Sun Also Rises and Death in the Afternoon. (Don't blame Hemingway. He thought he was writing a throwaway piece of journalism that would never be seen again.)
The Garden of Eden (1986) is Hemingway's kinkiest novel and was obviously discarded by the master stylist before reaching a state he would have considered suitable for publication. It's interesting mainly for showing sexual ambiguity in the writer often regarded as a macho stereotype.
True at First Light (1999) may be seen as a sequel to Green Hills of Africa twenty years later, a fictionalized account of an extended hunting trip in Africa by Hemingway with a different wife, edited by his son from a previous wife, Patrick Hemingway. Acceptable but, as might be imagined, not quite up to the Green Hills standard. A longer, less edited version was published in 2005 with the title Under Kilimanjaro.
The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories (1964), The Nick Adams Stories (1972) and The Complete Stories of Ernest Hemingway (1987) are all collections containing previously published short stories. The Snows of Kilimanjaro collection is particularly recommended for its inclusion of such classic Hemingway pieces as the famous title story, "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place", "The Killers" and "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber", several of which have been adapted for films.
Every year, someone writes an article on how Hemingway's influence has waned or about how society has moved past Hemingway's subjects. And yet, every year his books continue to sell as much as any modern classics, if not more, and people are still interested in both the man and the myth.
Most importantly, the novel relationship he forged and developed with readers, forcing them into the creation of what he had to say—and what he never had to say in words—remains powerful for new as well as longtime Hemingway readers.