I’m currently on an Ernest Hemingway kick, having finished For Whom the Bell Tells (1940) and The Old Man and the Sea (1951) in quick succession. The former is an amazing achievement in literary mastery that is inspiring the writing of this blog post. The latter was also immersive and enjoyable, but not really on that same level. I also have begun reading A Moveable Feast (1964) next (which I have read excerpts of before, but not the whole book).
Something in Hemingway’s work really speaks to me. I love the authenticity of his novels, the style, the subject matter, and yes: the toughness. I love that his protagonists are hard-nosed and critical. Salinger railed against phonies through Holden Caulfield, and it was great, but it came out sounding whiny, whereas Hemingway railed against phonies through his protagonists and it came out as heroic.
A lot of really intelligent people have an anti-Hemingway bias, which is something I guess I can understand to a point.
Maybe you have a general resentment against authors covered in high school English, whose books you read under duress. From that standpoint, my high school education failed me. I hadn’t read more than a short story or two of Hemingway’s upon entering college and didn’t realize my affinity until I read In Our Time (1925) in two English classes in the same semester. I would recommend giving him another chance, now that you’re an adult and can read books more critically.
Others protest against Hemingway’s style. The sentences are too short and simple, they say. The writing is plain Jane, too vanilla, they say. To that, I rebut with an excerpt from FWTBT, a couple of long sentences with experimental touches from one of the book’s fantastic sex scenes that is one of several examples of how Hemingway learned a lot about the power of repetition and inventing words from modernist sage Gertrude Stein:
Then there was the smell of heather crushed and the roughness of the bent stalks under her head and the sun bright on her closed eyes and all his life he would remember the curve of her throat wit her head pushed back into the heather roots and her lips that moved smally and by themselves and the fluttering of the lashes on the eyes tight closed against the sun and against everything, and for her everything was red, orange, gold-red from the sun on the closed eyes, and it all was that color, all of it, the filling, the possessing, the having, all of that color, all in a blindness of that color. For him it was a dark passage which led to nowhere, then to nowhere, then again to nowhere, once again to nowhere, always and forever to nowhere, heavy on the elbows in the earth to nowhere, dark, never any end to nowhere, hung on all the time always to unknowing nowhere, this time and again for always to nowhere, now not to be borne once again always and to nowhere, now beyond all bearing up, up, up and into nowhere, suddenly, scaldingly, holdingly all nowhere gone and time absolutely still and they were both there, time having stopped and he felt the earth move out and away from under them. (p. 159 in the Scribner paperback edition from 2003)
There is also the popular sentiment that Hemingway is woman-unfriendly. He’s too macho, the story goes. Now I get that if you really cannot stomach stories about wars — specifically the Spanish Civil War — then FWTBT is not for you. But the character Pilar is the most interesting and complex character in the novel, and arguably the most strong and wise. She is incredibly tough, sound of mind, and a great leader within the guerrilla band who is tasked to help Robert Jordan (our American protagonist) blow up a bridge. Like Brett Ashley in The Sun Also Rises (1926), Jordan’s love interest Maria has short hair.
I will concede that there are some unflattering depictions of women in other Hemingway stories and novels, but my theory is that he was not so much a misogynist as a man who thought everyone, man or woman, should have some traits which society deems “masculine.” And by the way, as a man who was into female-to-male sodomy in his personal life, it’s clear to see that Hemingway knew his feminine side as well.
If feminist perspectives of Hemingway interest you (or you’d like to read proof that Hemingway took it from his wife), I actually wrote essay on this very topic for an intro-level Gender & Women’s Studies class in college, which you can find here.
One last misconception about Hemingway I’ll go into is that his protagonists are seen as uniformly brave and confident, pretty one-dimensional. But in FWTBT, Robert Jordan is second-guessing himself on practically every page. This is a seriously tortured character. He is insecure about whether he is skilled enough to pull off his mission, whether he stacks up favorable with his late grandfather who he admired greatly, whether he would be accepted at his university teaching job upon returning to the U.S., and whether pretty much every decision he made every step of the way was the right thing to do. Jordan had no illusions about there being glory in war, and yet there he was doing what he believed was right in order to fight fascism in Spain.
On top of all that I’ve said, I want to credit Hemingway for writing a tremendous love story between Robert Jordan and Maria. So many novels take for granted that you will simply buy into whatever love story develops, but this one really earns it as we see our jaded wartime bachelor fall truly and deeply in love for the first time in his life under circumstances where the next day is not a guarantee, and where every moment counts a hundred fold because of the potential for death at any time. When a romance writer writes a love story, it’s par for the course, but when Hemingway writes it, it means so much more. I defy you not to tear up at the end of FWTBT, and I issue you the same challenge for A Farewell to Arms (1929).