In honor of Ernest Hemingway’s birthday, I thought it was time to write a reflection on my favorite writer and the one I credit for me to start taking my writing seriously. I also contributed to another excellent question and answer column at New Pop Lit about Papa, which has a lot of stellar contributions.
For many years, I Ernest Hemingway was a name I had heard–I recall at some point reading “The Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber” somewhere around middle school. I was too young to read much of anything carefully–instead I preferred Japanese manga or science fiction and fantasy novels.
I was turned on to Hemingway in high school when my English class read “Soldiers’ Home,” part of the unit on Modernism. As my teacher introduced Hemingway, I remember dismissing his meritorious and honorable service as an ambulance driver in the First World War. The lean, direct prose created the atmosphere of a returning soldier, clearly drawn from the author’s own experience returning to Oak Park after heavy action on the Italian Front. The protagonist, a war veteran named Krebs, tries to cope with the shock of coming home:
At first Krebs, who had been at Belleau Wood, Soissons, the Champagne, St. Mihiel, and in the Argonne did not want to talk about the war at all. Later he felt the need to talk but no one wanted to hear about it.
Later on in the story, we learn that Krebs has difficulty approaching or relating to women. Little has changed in his small Oklahoma home town. He turns to lying about his war experiences in order to cope with his boredom and apathy. He spends his days going to play pool or lounging about. The story ends much as it starts; Krebs does not break out of his ennui.
I was taken aback when I read this story. It was the first piece of fiction that hit me on a deep, emotional level. It conveys emotion in a way that the purple prose of many authors before and after Hemingway cannot.
As I learned more about him, I found that I could relate to him: Hemingway played football in high school, though not very well. I was a wrestler, but not a very good one. Hem spent his summers at his family’s lake house. My family does the same. I discovered him at a critical juncture in my writing. After reading “Soldier’s Home,” I did my best Hemingway imitation in a science fiction novel, about a man who lives in a Russian-occupied post-America. that ultimately broke me writing the genre (it remains, and probably will forever remain, unpublished). Writing about people and their relationships could be interesting, I thought. There was something to this “literary fiction” I dismissed for genre novels for too long.
In my AP lit course the next year I read For Whom the Bell Tolls as part of a self-selected novel unit. I had to write a paper about the book. My teacher at the time (who was not fond 0f me) announced that she did not like Hemingway. We had also read “Hills Like White Elephants”–probably the best example of the iceberg method of writing. For Whom the Bell Tolls became one of my favorite books. While the protagonist fights for the Spanish Republicans in their Civil War, the book does not moralize the political. It is a close examination of mortality and the uselessness, ultimately, of sectarian war. Robert Jordan’s guerillas and the Spanish Nationalists both lose, albeit in different ways.
That same year, I read The Sun Also Rises. While I did not quite get it on my first reading, it is now another one of my favorite books I try to read every year. Hemingway’s rendering of man-woman interactions is worth more than every single dating advice website–no surprise given that the story was drawn from the actual intrigues among his circle of friends. It is in many ways a writer’s novel in that it can seem like page after page of drunken debauchery and lengthy stretches of dialogue .
Like his narrator, Jake Barnes, Hemingway was an outsider in his early literary career. He did not have an advanced degree, unlike fellow Paris expatriates Ezra Pound and Archibald MacLeish. His clear language, while avant-garde compared to the flowery prose standards of the day (pre-Hem, that is) was and is readable compared to the nearly unreadable writings of Gertrude Stein and parts of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Even within the Modernist camp, he marked himself as an outsider, an often overlooked aspect of Hemingway’s artistic life, explored in much greater depth in Colin Wilson’s book The Outsider. Yet despite all of this, Ernest Hemingway broke into the mainstream and turned from niche expatriate writer of the Paris modernists to an American icon.
Hemingway drew me into his friends’ and contemporaries work. I count F. Scott Fitzgerald and Hem’s rival William Faulkner as two other favorite writers, as well as his mentor and lifetime friend Ezra Pound. I credit all of these authors as continuing sources of inspiration for my own writing. On this Hemingway Day, I encourage you all to read him. Hemingway is one of the most relevant and influential American novelists.