Politics Magazine

Looking Back at Hemingway

Posted on the 02 July 2011 by Erictheblue

Fifty years ago today, Ernest Hemingway committed suicide at his home in Ketchum, Idaho.  The New Yorker has a collection of photographs of him here.  I don't want to make too much of it, but in my mind there are two Hemingways, and the photographs of him tend to fall easily into the one or the other class: there is the handsome young man, slim, disciplined, a friend to many other poor artists living in Paris in the 1920s; and then there is the over-sized, white-bearded celebrity author photographed beside some dead animals in Life.  He seems to have arrived at old age so quickly that the vigilant photographers failed to document the stages of middle-life.  Before Hemingway was 35 he had given us In Our Time, Men Without Women, Winner Take Nothing, The Sun Also Rises, and A Farewell to Arms.  If everything he wrote is of interest, that is mainly because he is the author of these five books, too.

On NPR this morning, Scott Simon described Hemingway as "a boxer, a boozer, a philanderer and a big-game hunter who wrote some of the most sublime prose of the English language:  short, sharp, piercing sentences that told stories about soldiers, lovers, hunters, bravery, fear and death."  One detects the two Hemingways in this one sentence, but I'm afraid that here, as elsewhere, the famous author overwhelms the artist.  Hemingway is one of our greatest writers but to speak of "short, sharp, piercing sentences" suggests one flight over from too high an altitude.  I don't know how exactly this distillation got going; George Will proved he's a subscriber by once comparing the "terse" style of George W Bush to Hemingway, thereby eliciting this contemptuous riposte from Norman Mailer.  Anyway, as a sample of Hemingway's "sublime prose," I offer here the opening to A Farewell to Arms:

In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains.  In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels.  Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees.  The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.

Read it aloud and see if you don't like the sound the words make.  The language is simultaneously poetic, charged, and simple--not one word of more than two syllables.  And the words are wedded to a theme, which is Hemingway's great theme (and that of the Book of Ecclesiastes).  In the first sentence, there are mountains; in the second, pebbles and boulders; in the third, dust; and, in the fourth, "dust" is repeated so as to achieve an almost choric effect: mountains, boulders, pebbles, dust, dust, dust.  The first mention of human activity is in the first sentence mentioning dust.

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