For Whom the Bells Toll
In post-literary America, ringing praise for Ernest Hemingway
June 1, 1999
Jun 1, 1999
6 Min read time
On April 10 and 11, the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston honored the Ernest Hemingway's centennial. The two-day symposium brought out some of the leading lights of American and international letters-Nobel Laureates and Pulitzer Prize winners, writers like Tobias Wolff, Robert Stone, and Annie Proulx. More significant, though, were the non-writers in attendance: a sell-out crowd paid $125 apiece to fill the hall. The turn-out shows that in an America that is hardly literary-indeed, barely literate-Hemingway shines with the luster of a pop star, even 100 years after his birth.
Wendy Strothman, who heads up Houghton Mifflin, America's last major independent publishing house, launched the proceedings by underscoring its unlikeliness in this era of glitzy infotainment. "In contrast to last year's O. J. Simpson cast of characters and this year's Monica Lewinsky," she observed, "Hemingway's fame followed his books." The venerable bookshop maintained by Scribner's on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan since the days when it published Hemingway (along with Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe) may have recently become a Brookstone—the literature on its shelves replaced by such spiritual essentials as the world's most powerful hand-held vibrator and a barbecue fork with built-in thermometer. But the Hemingway mystique somehow manages to survive this, and other, onslaughts.
True, Hemingway's stature no longer equals its height during the 1950s, when, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. suggests, he was "arguably the most famous person on earth." Back then his face regularly appeared in magazines (three times on the cover of Life), testimony to his legendary stature as an adventurer, big game hunter, and drinker. Not to mention as a writer. Hemingway was not merely a writer but the writer of the first half of the century, the high prince of modernism. In sparse, direct language-so different from the opaque arabesques of, say, Henry James-he retooled the novelist's craft, repudiating inherited genteel manners to address primal questions with urgency. He set the standard for several generations that followed him, until his manly code of "death in the afternoon" itself became dated.
Since then, critics have had at him, and his reputation has correspondingly suffered. He's been called a racist, an anti-Semite, and a cultural imperialist. He is consistently bad on gender. As one panelist observed, "He wrote not about women but what men thought of women. Women ask questions that men answer, the woman plays the complete dummy and the man the all-knowing hero." But regardless of his cultural politics, the legacy of his work remains intact. Saul Bellow summed up that inheritance as "a preoccupation with the sensations of selfhood" through themes of moral character, honesty, sincerity, self-control, and above all personal courage. "People used to form themselves on the Hemingway code," Bellow recalled, as if speaking of the distant past. "The consistent question one asked was, 'Is he one of us?'"
Indeed, Hemingway's mythic status may have started with his books, but it transcended literature. By displaying physical virtues-hunting lions, fighting bulls, boxing-he slipped beneath the radar of mainstream America's none-too-secret loathing of the artist. True, he had to go to Europe to escape the restrictive conformities of his suburban Chicago home-Oak Park, the same place that spawned Frank Lloyd Wright-and "the hopeless separation of small towns in the middle west and any kind of intellectual awareness," in keynote speaker Nadine Gordimer's telling phrase. But the America he fled eventually came to embrace him, as much for his vigorous persona as for his words. In our popular culture, manliness excuses most faults.
Hence the intriguing connection to John Kennedy. Although the two men never met, the young politician saw in the older writer a cultural touchstone for his version of manly fellowship. Kennedy and his entourage freely employed Hemingway's definition of "grace under pressure," as a template for their own style and as the measure by which they sized up others. For Hemingway's part, he wrote upon Kennedy's inauguration that "it is good to have a brave man as President." The Hemingway vision provided a kind of personal road-map to a new generation that had outgrown the pieties of the World War era ("a war to make the world safe for democracy"), but found little to replace them. Courage, as Hemingway wrote about it, physical and moral, constituted the only reliable form of redemption in a social universe where virtue is divorced from ideology. Humphrey Bogart saying good-bye to Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca is the classic Hemingway hero, stoic and solitary, doing the right thing without inflated nobility, a lineage that carries through to Tom Hanks' character in Saving Private Ryan.
Aware of the importance of Hemingway to her husband and his generation, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis personally intervened with Hemingway's widow to secure the author's papers for the Kennedy Library.
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He is the last of his trade who will ever occupy such popular esteem. Norman Mailer? Tom Wolfe? John Grisham? Talents all, but not the stuff of personality cults. No American author will have access to the same kind of clout as Hemingway because literature has long been eclipsed as a source of social codes, replaced by talk shows and fashion magazines. With publishing now just another concentrated industry extracting a high rate of return on invested capital, editors are less willing to bet their chips on long-shot originals with unproven sales. At the outset of his career Hemingway spoke in just such a strikingly singular voice, challenging the reigning genteel orthodoxies as he wrote about taboo subjects like sexual impotency, venereal disease, and homosexuality. Today, were his point of departure equivalently radical, he'd face a tough time getting published. And even if he were, it's hard to believe that his protagonists would still seem admirable. The aristocratic values of Hemingway's silent warrior were esteemed by Kennedy; but in today's therapeutic culture an emotionally bottled-up figure is as likely to be pathological as heroic.
So what are we to make of Hemingway today? What utility does he as icon play in public discourse? The answer lies where he started out, with words. Hemingway's prose set a new standard of clarity and impact: he made the exotic familiar and the familiar exotic. Never more so than in his writing about war. Take this passage from his great story, "The Snows of Kilimanjaro":
He remembered long ago when Williamson had been hit by a stick bomb someone in a German patrol had thrown as he was coming in through the wire that night and, screaming, had begged every one to kill him....That night he was caught in the wire, with a flare lighting him up and his bowels spilled out into the wire, so when they brought him in, alive, they had to cut him loose. Shoot me, Harry. For Christ sake shoot me.
Contrast the visceral, unambiguous horror of that description with the brain-numbing obfuscation of America's leaders in the first weeks of the Yugoslav conflict: Clinton pledged not to send U.S. ground forces into a "hostile environment," which then became Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and National Security Adviser Sandy Berger promising not to use American troops to "invade" Kosovo or enter a "combat situation." Then that transmuted into the possibility that U.S. soldiers would be sent into a "permissive environment" which then had to be defined by Presidential Spokesman Joe Lockhart as either (a) "one where there is a political settlement" or (b) "an environment where the Serbs and Milosevic don't have the ability to impose their will."
One can only shudder in despair wishing Hemingway were still around. To the end he remained a story teller-no ordinary storyteller but one who, in his bravado, refused to make peace with the civilized duplicities that numb the soul. He portrayed a world where the best people-those who won't compromise with dishonor-speak truths directly from the heart. And suffer the consequences.
For this the popular culture embraced him as it has no other writer.
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June 01, 1999
6 Min read time