“Things of the Night” — Looking for Ernest Hemingway
By Stuart Mitchner
Half a year into his presidency, on July 2, 1961, John F. Kennedy released a statement on the death of Ernest Hemingway. After mentioning the Nobel Prize-winning author’s “impact on the emotions and attitudes of the American people” and how he had “almost singlehandedly transformed the literature and the ways of thought of men and women in every country in the world,” Kennedy declared that Hemingway “ended his life as he began it — in the heartland of America to which he brought renown and from which he drew his art.”
The connection between Hemingway and Kennedy is sealed not only by the presence of the writer’s papers and effects at the Kennedy Presidential Library but by the fact that both men died of gun shots to the head, the writer by his own hand, the president less than three years later by the hand of an assassin.
Why This Image?
The first time I saw the cover of Ernest Hemingway: Artifacts from a Life (Scribner 2018), I wanted to put it aside, out of sight. It troubled me, made me uneasy, the underlying question being not what did this man create but what happened to him? Instead of a more characteristic photograph that makes you think of his best work, you’re met with a strikingly uncharacteristic, undated, uncredited photograph that appears to come from the 1930s when he was actually on his way to fame and fortune, having already produced the first stories, The Sun Also Rises, and A Farewell to Arms.
Given what you know and value of Hemingway at his best, the more you see of this deeply unhappy face, the more it moves you. What is he trying to say? What is he afraid of? Who or what is he mourning? That baleful stare won’t let you go, there’s no denying it, no looking away. Round and round you go asking yourself unanswerable questions until you feel like Nick Adams at the end of “The Killers,” fretting over the impending fate of a doomed man and being told “You better not think about it.”
Look Behind Him
Think about it anyway. Think about the design of the cover. The names in bold are the John F. Kennedy Library, the editor Michael Katakis, the authors of the foreword and afterword, Hemingway’s son Patrick and grandson Seán. Now look closely at the backdrop of the photograph, the faint words on the magnified typescript framing the author’s unhappy face. You need to have the book in your hands, the cover image up close in order to make out the typed words “lonely … explained … night … courage … kill them … breaks everyone …” Even then, however well you know Hemingway’s work, the passage may not make sense. It’s like puzzling out a cryptogram in which the key words are “kill” and “breaks.” In fact, the passage obscured by Hemingway’s face can be found in a long paragraph near the end of the 34th chapter of A Farewell to Arms that includes the sentences F. Scott Fitzgerald admired when he read the manuscript, telling Hemingway it was “one of the most beautiful pages in all English literature” and urging him to save it for the end of the novel, several chapters later.
There and Gone
Hemingway rewrote the ending of A Farewell to Arms more than 30 times, perhaps at least once with Fitzgerald’s suggestion in mind, until he knew that the passage had to stay where it was even though it came and went so suddenly, there and gone at an unlikely moment in the narration, when the lovers Frederic and Catherine “were never lonely and never afraid when we were together. I know that the night is not the same as the day: that all things are different, that the things of the night cannot be explained in the day, because they do not then exist, and the night can be a dreadful time for lonely people once their loneliness has started. But with Catherine there was almost no difference in the night except that it was an even better time. If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills 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.”
Reading over the sentences Fitzgerald admired, which I put in italics, you can understand the choice Hemingway makes at the end. Catherine has died giving birth and the baby is dead. Rather than lamenting a world that breaks and kills, better to remain tight-lipped and hard-boiled: “It was like saying good-by to a statue. After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain.”
“Things of the Night”
Hemingway finished A Farewell to Arms in January 1929 in Key West, where he wrote again about “the things of the night” in “A Clean Well-Lighted Place,” one of the works Hemingway biographer Carlos Baker is referring to when he observes, “The return to Key West once more released Ernest’s literary energy.”
I wanted to write more about Hemingway after last week’s column on Bob Dylan and Key West, this being the month of his birth, July 21, and death, July 2. The sadly diminished image of him on the cover of Artifacts from a Life is hard to match with a writer who could be as funny as Hemingway, and as full of life and spirit, and whose dialogue often has a comic verve, whether at its darkest in “The Killers,” or in the back and forth between the two waiters in “A Clean Well-Lighted Place” when the subject is the old man who “tried to commit suicide last week” and never wants to go home.
“He stays up because he likes it.”
“He’s lonely. I’m not lonely. I have a wife waiting in bed for me.”
“He had a wife once too.”
“A wife would be no good to him now.”
“His niece looks after him.”
“I know. You said she cut him down.”
“I wouldn’t want to be that old. An old man is a nasty thing.”
“Not always. This old man is clean. He drinks without spilling. Even now, drunk. Look at him.”
After the younger waiter finally shoos the old man out of the bar (they watch him “go down the street, a very old man walking unsteadily but with dignity”), the two are back at it on the question of why the younger waiter didn’t let the old man stay and drink; when he says the old man can “buy a bottle and drink it at home,” the older waiter says, “It’s not the same.”
“‘No it’s not,’” agreed the waiter with a wife. He did not wish to be unjust. He was only in a hurry.
“‘And you? You have no fear of going home before your usual hour?’”
“‘Are you trying to insult me?’”
“‘No, hombre, only to make a joke.’”
The story ends in a region similar to the one Fitzgerald singled out in A Farewell to Arms, the place James Joyce may have had in mind when he said Hemingway “has reduced the veil between literature and life, which is what every writer strives to do.” After saying good night to the waiter with a wife, the older waiter “continued the conversation with himself. It is the light of course but it is necessary that the place be clean and pleasant …. What did he fear? It was not fear or dread. It was a nothing that he knew too well. It was all a nothing and a man was nothing too. It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order.” The story ends in the waiter’s mind: “Now, without thinking further, he would go home to his room. He would lie in the bed and finally, with daylight, he would go to sleep. After all, he said to himself, it is probably only insomnia. Many must have it.”
Of “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” Joyce said, “It is masterly. Indeed, it is one of the best short stories ever written.”
When you first read the story, at 19, it leaves you in a happy-sad daze, thinking how good Hemingway must have felt when he finished it, and how sad inside he must have been to know what he had to know to write it.
Nothing Can Hurt You
In Writers at Work (Viking Compass 1969), when George Plimpton asks Hemingway what he’d consider “the best intellectual training for the would-be writer,” he says 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 interview, Hemingway talks 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.”