In celebration of Hemingway Days, Alternating Current staff give their thoughts on the inspiration, legacy, and legend of Ernest Hemingway.
At the beginning of my high school senior AP English class, our teacher handed us all our paperbacks for the year. I still remember the excitement of getting the stack of fresh books, new ideas, new worlds. How different that had been to my earlier English classes. I still have them all. Catch-22, Gatsby, Ethan Frome, A Doll’s House, The Stranger, Brave New World, Othello, Cry the Beloved Country, and from Ernest Hemingway: A Farewell to Arms. I think earlier I had read The Old Man and the Sea, probably because it was short enough to satisfy a book report quota. Reading it hadn’t left an impression. A Farewell to Arms changed that. I remember my classmates hating it, saying it was boring. I loved it. The quick chapters. The quick sentences. The voice. It was 1986, and the arms race was a serious thing. Approaching the age of military registration was a serious thing. Every generation before us had had its war. I was hungry to learn about the ideas of war, love, and disillusionment. I remember this book feeding that. I still think of this quote often and how it has functioned in my experience: “If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them. The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.”
I went on about a 20-year period without reading any Hemingway. I can’t remember what got me started on it again; maybe it was to try to recapture the attachment I still remembered to A Farewell to Arms. I began reading several of his books: The Sun Also Rises, A Moveable Feast, To Have and Have Not. I even re-read The Old Man and the Sea. They appealed to me approaching middle-age the same way Farewell had approaching adulthood. I love having discussions with my English-teaching girlfriend about his short stories. Debates about the motives behind Margot McComber’s fatal shot. Who was she aiming at? I love the power of what is left out, what is implied. I love hearing her talk about teaching “Hills Like White Elephants” to high school students and watching them work out what the man and the girl in the bar are talking about. I love how my daughter got to go to the Hemingway house at Key West, and she knew without asking that I would want a Hemingway poster. It’s on my wall now next to Malamud and waiting for Flannery O’Connor. I’m going to add her to the wall later this summer after visiting the Andalusia Farm. I love reading and writing and talking about reading and writing and sometimes drinking when doing all of those things and I love Hemingway.
— Al Kratz
“Hills Like White Elephants” was the first Hemingway short story I read, thanks to my grade 12 AP English teacher. Simultaneously, we were given Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.” I found myself in awe of the power short stories contained because most of my English/Literature education seldom gave them as much attention as their novel counterparts. While I enjoyed both of these remarkable pieces, something about Hemingway’s style strummed its chord louder. Having been an editor for my school’s newspaper, I was delighted to learn of his background in Journalism. I pretended this knowledge was some universal sign that I could pursue writing regardless of my college aspirations. Not long after graduation, I sought to get my hands on more of his works. To this day, a vintage copy of Hemingway’s First 49 Stories remains among my most cherished books.
I avoided reading Hemingway for years. It didn’t seem like a good idea to read books written by a macho-macho man who went on about fishing and hunting and other crap I didn’t give two fucks about. Then I read A Moveable Feast. I don’t remember when I first read that book, and I don’t remember why I did. I only know that it is one of the few books I have read again and again. I’ve underlined a few passages. The passage I always think of is when Hemingway goes on about how much he loved Hadley, how he wished he had died before he loved anyone but her. Then I read “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” for a literature course last year, and I fell in love with Hemingway all over again. I find flaws in everyone and everything. I cannot find any flaws in that story. I’ll keep reading that story and several of the others, not with a magnifying glass but with an envious writer’s mind that says, “Damn. Wish I had been there.”
— Misti Rainwater-Lites
Hemingway remains a style hero for me in many respects but mainly because, as a younger writer, I felt that telling a story with simplicity and brevity should be my ultimate goal. Sometimes in workshops or creative writing classes, we become tempted with ornamentation and grandiose diction as writers when all that’s needed is pure and simple truth. I think there’s a quote to the effect of Hemingway saying, “Write the truest sentence you know.” Even in fiction writing, to tell it straight makes it true and believable. There’s always beauty in that.
I was less inspired by Hemingway’s writing than I was by his life as a writer. At an early age — early 20s — A Moveable Feast and On Writing romanticized the notion of a writer, in a positive way. It wasn’t only the writer-as-expatriate, pounding the typewriter in Paris and then drinking the rest of the day away; more than this, it was seeing writing as work. (He always refers to it as “work.”) If nothing else, Hemingway teaches that writing is a job: you sit your ass down in a quiet room for hours, and you don’t get up until you’ve met the word count. Ironically, this “romanticized” notion of writing is hardly romantic, but it was (and is) for me. Hemingway taught, and continues to teach, me that writing is a gritty, working-class endeavor.
As a kid who grew up reading baroque prose and ornate fairytales, Hemingway’s brisk, minimalist style was a wild divergence from what I considered the norm. However, he’s also the author who’s most made me realize that sometimes the cruelest or greatest truths — which, if we’re honest, are often one and the same — can be delivered most effectively when they’re plain spoken.
There is little fresh to be said about Hemingway. I’ve read nearly everything of his, seen movies about him or his works, read praise and criticism, and I doubt I have any fresh notions. The thing you can’t deny about Hemingway is that he is something of the True North for American literature, and will be for likely another fifty or a hundred years. It’s rare to find someone without a stance on him because he’s the easy comparison, the touchstone, the archetype. As a young writer, I always sought to stake my territory somewhere between him and McCarthy; fertile, well-trod plains, those. But perhaps that’s why you find people bucking against Hemingway, anymore. It’s not just because the man darkly colors his letters — and he did, and does — it’s because, as writers, we all grow up in his shadow. Who doesn’t want to rebel against his own father, at least at some point?
Reading Hemingway now, I no longer see flawless works. I see mistakes. Bravado, flourish, rambling. But I also see intent. His books are good teachers for that, and whenever I struggle — whenever I’m really stuck — I turn to his words. A passage from A Farewell to Arms, his unsubtle lessons in The Garden of Eden, even his letters (of course his letters). Because they orient me. He is north. And that may not be the way I want to go, but it helps a hell of a lot in getting to where I want to be.
Originally published on 7/22/15.