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Vol. LXV, No. 27
Wednesday, July 6, 2011
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Book Review

Fifty Years Later: Hemingway’s Hymn to the Writer and His Craft

Stuart Mitchner

I thought the headline was a joke. A morbid April Fool shocker perpetuated by the Daily Mirror. Except it was July 2, not April 1. I stared at the battery of papers displayed at the newsstand on the corner of Sixth Avenue and Eighth Street. Ernest Hemingway’s face was grinning back at me under the massive black words,

HEMINGWAY KILLS HIMSELF.

The unreality of the thing reminded me of the front page headlines tourists could have made to order at Times Square souvenir shops. I seriously considered the possibility that the editor of the Mirror had done it again. After all, the same paper had infamously screwed up after Hemingway’s plane crashed in Africa, with its January 25, 1954 banner headline HEMINGWAY, WIFE, KILLED IN AIR CRASH.

The reality settled in when I saw the smaller headline on the front page of the New York Times, which had been careful not to jump to the same conclusion.

Hemingway Dead of Shotgun Wound;

Wife Says He Was Cleaning Weapon

I bought both papers. The Times did Hemingway justice with a full page of tributes that included a letter he wrote to a young writer who had sent him a story. It was a terrific letter (“I can’t help you, kid. You write better than I did when I was 19 …. I would as soon start it over at 19 any time”). The letter was signed, “Your friend.” If you happened to be a young writer, you felt that he was talking to you. It’s safe to say that quite a few young writers all over the world were feeling what you felt.

Natural Causes

A year later, on July 6, today’s date, came the news of William Faulkner’s death, which was of natural causes and delivered nothing like the shock of Hemingway’s. Even if Faulkner’s demise had been more dramatic or more ambiguous, it wouldn’t have had the same impact. Hemingway’s fame had movie-star dimensions and the manner of his death sensationally validated the great-white-hunter role he’d been playing. That Faulkner was the superior writer was accepted knowledge in most English Departments at the time. Dense, complex, eminently teachable works like Absalom, Absalom, Light in August, The Sound and the Fury, and the magnificent novella, The Bear, trumped A Farewell to Arms, The Sun Also Rises, and The Old Man and the Sea.

The Times did better by Faulkner (two pages), and President Kennedy’s statement even cited the Master: “Since Henry James, no writer has left behind such a vast and enduring monument to the strength of American literature.”

The hearts of young writers do not beat faster, however, at the thought of vast and enduring monuments. There’s too much of the cemetery in that summation of the man who at his best puts the prose equivalent of the aurora borealis on the page.

Kennedy’s statement on Hemingway’s death was stronger: “Few Americans have had a greater impact on the emotions and attitudes of the American people than Ernest Hemingway …. He almost singlehandedly transformed the literature and the ways of thought of men and women in every country in the world.”

Of course the Kennedy-Hemingway connection goes deeper, not only in a negative sense (both men dying violently of gunshot wounds to the head), but in perpetuity, since the Hemingway Papers are at the Kennedy Library.

A Writer’s Writer

The man who wrote the “I can’t help you kid” letter to the 19-year-old aspiring author was, needless to say, nothing like the almost robotic caricature in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, which is fun as long as you don’t think too much about it afterward. Whatever his subject — war, death, sex, bullfighting — Hemingway was a writer’s writer devoted to the act of writing and the development of his craft. When George Plimpton asked him what he’d consider “the best intellectual training for the would-be writer,” Hemingway replied that if the writer found “writing well … impossibly difficult,” he “should go out and hang himself,” after which “he should be cut down without mercy and forced by his own self to write as well as he can for the rest of his life.” In the same Paris Review interview, Hemingway is equally passionate about the life-sustaining virtue of working well: “You have started at six in the morning, say, and may go on until noon or be through before that. When you stop you are as empty, and at the same time never empty but filling, as when you have made love to someone you love. Nothing can hurt you, nothing can happen, nothing means anything until the next day when you do it again. It is the wait until the next day that is hard to get through.”

Real Writing

It happened for me on page 35 of The Old Man and the Sea, the big this-is-what-it’s-all-about moment where a 14-year-old who has been reading Mickey Spillane suddenly recognizes “the real thing.” I’d already sensed something out of the ordinary about the way Hemingway’s prose moved, about the clarity and absolute simplicity of it. The very look of the words on the page seemed to create a kind of typographic sculpture. The old man was out in his boat in the passage I’m talking about, the sun was getting brighter, and “the glare came on the water and then, as it rose clear, the flat sea sent it back at his eyes so that it hurt sharply and he rowed without looking into it.” Then this: “He looked down into the water and watched the lines that went straight down into the dark of the water.”

My sophomore English teacher probably would have questioned the repetition of “water.” At 14, what did I know? I just stared at the sentence and asked myself “How did he do it?” and “What did he do?” I knew it wasn’t just the old man looking down into the water. It was Hemingway, and he was looking down into the dark of the water. That was it. So simple. So right.

I forgot all about the sentence in the years that followed. It was more a marker than an event like the second chapter of The Great Gatsby or the description of Charles Bovary’s hat in the opening chapter of Madame Bovary.

Three years after Hemingway’s death, I read A Moveable Feast. The author’s pleasure in recalling how it had been to write the Nick Adams stories in various Paris cafes sent me back to “The Big Two-Hearted River.” From the first word to the last, the two-part story is like a hymn to the sacred process of writing. Back from the war in a post-traumatic trance, Nick is dealing with something on another level as he methodically rehabilitates himself, going down to the river he’d grown up fishing in, looking “down into the clear brown water, colored from the pebbly bottom,” watching “far down through the glassy convex surface of the pool,” looking “down into the pool from the bridge.”

I knew that I’d been there before. Just as Santiago would look down into the water in The Old Man and the Sea, Nick was doing the same thing 25 years earlier, and both times it was Hemingway gazing into the essence of his art, that element “where nothing can hurt you.” And it was Hemingway watching as “a big trout shot upstream in a long angle, only his shadow marking the angle, then lost his shadow as he came through the surface of the water, caught the sun, and then, as he went back into the stream under the surface, his shadow seemed to float down the stream with the current, unresisting, to his post under the bridge, where he tightened, facing up into the current.”

And Hemingway was the trout and its shadow and the current and he was Nick when his “heart tightened” and “He felt all the old feeling.”

It’s as Hemingway told Plimpton, “nothing means anything until the next day when you can do it again.”

And when you can’t do it again ….

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