A Hemingway Surprise

In the early photographs, Hemingway has a bold expression—stepping forward, saying “This is me”—accompanied by a squint that holds the camera at a certain distance. The attitude stops short of an available emotion. Toward the end of his career he would grow used to hearing himself demoted for an excess of surface and showmanship, as if his identification with the roles of celebrity, sportsman, and revolutionist, the friend of boxers and movie stars, implied a distrust of literature itself. This criticism was a plausible half-truth. At heart, he was a listener, and to a large extent a mimic, with the intellect to judge and sift the voices that he heard. Of all the moderns, Hemingway was the foremost defender of revision as a proof of serious craft. The more you could throw away, he said, the surer you could be that something of substance was there to begin with.

As the wonderful exhibition at the Morgan Library makes clear, with its generous sample of photographs, books, corrected proof pages, and letters to and from the writer, Hemingway was already ambitious for fame in his teenage years in Oak Park, Illinois. His adolescent pieces show a strong pull toward genre fiction of the “boy’s adventure” type. (In his Paris Review interview with George Plimpton, he would rank “the good Kipling” and Captain Marryat alongside Thoreau, Twain, Turgenev, Mozart, Bruegel, and Cézanne among the artists he had “learned the most from.”) A fondness for boyish subject matter and excitement would never leave him; you can see it in the keyed-up manly dialogue and fast melodrama of his play The Fifth Column.

But though Hemingway disliked “the trauma theory of literature,” especially as applied to himself, a particular grown-up experience seems to have formed him as much as any experience after childhood can do that for a writer. He was wounded in an Austrian trench mortar attack on July 8, 1918. His stories about soldiers who are recovering from battle injuries—“In Another Country,” “Now I Lay Me,” and “A Way You’ll Never Be,” all of them extraordinary work—introduced and brought to perfection a style that nothing in English had prepared his readers for.

In the last of these stories, Nick Adams (as usual a stand-in for the author) rides his bicycle past the scene of a battle and “saw what had happened by the position of the dead.” This opening is followed by a one-sentence paragraph: “They lay alone or in clumps in the high grass of the field and along the road, their pockets out, and over them were flies and around each body or group of bodies were the scattered papers.” The next paragraph is a straightforward panorama of the dead, their weapons and debris—most of it done with semicolons, occasionally jostled by a comma splice to break the rhythm—the juddering syntax here keeping time with the hurried motions of the soldiers digging in. Already in these stories of the 1920s, what we are seeing is a discipline peculiar to Hemingway—a method of description that becomes a record of repressed emotion. The force of absent things and feelings is made more powerful by a minimal rendering of present details.

James Joyce, in stories from Dubliners like “An Encounter” or “After the Race,” may have supplied a clue to the method, but Hemingway pushed it further, and the documents at the Morgan all frame a question: How did he do it? His advance was partly owing to a canny choice of mentors: Joyce, Ezra Pound, and Gertrude Stein. With a pedagogic sense of purpose, Stein above all took an early interest in his work, and responded to a sheaf of novice stories with a note of severe encouragement that mattered greatly to Hemingway: “Begin over again and concentrate.”

Of his patience and the reward for his new beginning, a vivid illustration may be found in the manuscript revisions of the story “Indian Camp.” Nick Adams’s father, who is a doctor, has brought him along to deliver a baby. The Indian woman has been in labor for two days, and his father cuts her open, gets the baby to start breathing, stitches her up, and moves to inform the “proud father” only to discover that he has slit his throat. The man’s helplessness to relieve her screams, and perhaps horror and mortification at the sight of the doctor’s work, have been too much for him. A nervous stretch of dialogue between Nick and his father tries to absorb the shock:
“Is dying hard, Daddy?” 
“No, I think it’s pretty easy, Nick. It all depends.”
Somewhere in this part, Hemingway had set to work on sentences to describe Nick’s fear: “He was not afraid of anything definite as yet. But he was getting very frightened afraid. Then all suddenly he was afraid of dying.” There is visible art in the substitution of “afraid” for “frightened”—taking the stronger and more grown-up word to repeat the fear—and in the deflection of the cliché “all of a sudden”; but the interesting thing when you look at the published story is that none of this passage was used. The narrator, as a knowing and explaining presence, has dissolved, first into the passage of straight dialogue and finally into a more indirect report of Nick’s very different afterthoughts. As he returns home with his father, the story closes in a dramatic non sequitur matched to a psychological truth: “In the early morning on the lake sitting in the stern of the boat with his father rowing, he felt quite sure that he would never die.”

Among other instances of a similar paring down are some draft pages of “Big Two-Hearted River” and a specimen of the four thousand words with which The Sun Also Rises had originally begun—two entire chapters that were cut on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s advice. Hemingway had been too intrusive with his opinions of people and his worldly wisdom, and the effect was overbearing, a trespass against the reader’s freedom to trust the author at his own pace. In later years he mainly erred when he showed he loved the sound of his voice—a traceable weakness in Green Hills of Africa, and in some of his letters, with their profusion of nicknames for friends and cronies, wives and lovers. But he knew that Fitzgerald’s was the sound advice of a fellow artist, and he adopted a smaller suggestion from the same source to cut an “inside” boxing anecdote from the story “Fifty Grand.”

In Our Time (1925), the sequence of paragraph-sketches and stories in which “Indian Camp” first appeared, had been the basis of his reputation in Paris and New York, where he was known as an avant-garde writer. The Sun Also Rises (1926), written in six weeks in a rush of self-confidence he would never equal, brought him a larger fame. Edmund Wilson wrote on January 7, 1927, in a letter displayed at the Morgan: “I think your book is a knockout—perhaps the best piece of fiction that any American of this new crop has done.”

Within a few years, still in his early thirties, Hemingway was being sought by a scarcely younger generation for advice as a master of fiction. His reading list for Arnold Samuels, a visitor to Key West in the spring of 1934, shows a mixture of classical touchstones and near-contemporary favorites that is touchingly personal: two stories by Stephen Crane, “The Blue Hotel” and “The Open Boat,” get an honorary place beside Flaubert and Dostoevsky and Henry James. Also on the list are Somerset Maugham, Of Human Bondage; George Moore, Hail and Farewell; W.H. Hudson, Far Away and Long Ago; and E.E. Cummings, The Enormous Room.

By the mid-1930s, Hemingway was admired by writers of English prose with a fealty most unusual in the arts. A letter from John Steinbeck praises “The Butterfly and the Tank,” a story of the Spanish civil war published in 1938 in Esquire, but Steinbeck must have been looking for an excuse to write his letter. The story is hardly even a story but rather an anecdote, given in Hemingway’s person as something that happened to him: a homosexual, in an access of high spirits, uses a “flit gun” to spray with cologne a waiter at Chicote’s in Madrid (“a place sort of like The Stork, without the music and the debutantes”) and in retaliation is shot dead. The magic, for Steinbeck, must have been that Hemingway was the one who saw it and told it.

This was much the effect of, say, things that happened to and were told by Lord Byron in 1818. There was glamour in the very idea of such an author, and there was something else: an adaptation to the uses of writing as a transcription of the glamour. This degree of charismatic attraction has rarely been seen in literature, and it can occur only when an author and audience are agreed on the worth of anything that happens to one of us.

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