That Name

It has by now entered “everyday” English. Even if we have never read a single thing he wrote, we recognize that name. And anyone with a male – and perhaps “wayward” – writer in a family may fall back on it… sometimes humorously…

[Excerpt from Distances. On iPad for Kindle. Click to expand.]

…as my fictionalized mom and my aunt did there. To us my uncle was often – jokingly – “Hemingway.” Yesterday, I stumbled upon James Mellow’s 1992 biography of the actual Ernest Hemingway in a box full of old books:

[Photo by me, 2018.]

He was a literary giant for nearly four decades and has remained big since his 1961 death. To be honest, though, I find his life and his times more interesting reading than his books: hence the biography. Although I’ve been to his Key West, Florida house, the only one of his novels I’ve read cover to cover is – perhaps unsurprisingly – The Sun Also Rises.

He is now savaged especially for his writings being rooted in what is now labeled “toxic masculinity,” yet that is merely a new expression to assail a man now long dead. Women who knew him *personally* already had him pegged and got in shots over his “man’s man” outlook. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wife, Zelda, for one, once told Hemingway to his face: “Ernest, no one is as male as all that.”

While you certainly don’t read Hemingway as a guide on “how to be a man in the 21st century,” much of the criticism thrown at him also seems to fail to take fully into account that he lived at a time when mental health treatment was also in its infancy. His father suffered from depression and had committed suicide, and Ernest may have sought to keep depression at bay by working always to be physically active and socially extroverted: never stand still, never reflect too much on anything, never let the demons catch up to you, live at full speed. Nonetheless he would eventually die by suicide, too.

[Ernest Hemingway’s study, Key West. Photo by me, 2014.]

He had started out as a journalist, thus his fictional writing style came to reflect that. His prose is sharp and tight and doesn’t dwell too much on “character development.” Perhaps much like himself, The Sun characters are also usually rather “distant” and not given to excessive “self-examination.”

In the novel he fictionalizes a group of expatriate Americans (and British) of the 1920s, based on people he actually knew in Europe. Broadly speaking – this is a blog post – many Americans living there at that time often despised their U.S.: prohibitionist, anti-intellectual, sexually repressed, anti-foreigner, and just too plain conservative. Many reveled in what they considered the freedom of expression in all forms of post-war Europe and the interesting people they met, particularly in Paris. As hard as this is to believe in 2018, Paris in the 1920s was then also a very inexpensive place for young Americans to crash due to the favorable exchange rate.

The Sun Also Rises is said to be probably his best novel. Interestingly, too, it is his first. (Not something most writers wish for themselves.) As Mellow wrote:

[Photo and underlining by me, 2018.]

While imagining themselves liberated – particularly artistically – in Europe from the “suffocating” strictures of the U.S., Americans there were also often narrow-minded and by today’s standards perhaps even outright racists. Overwhelmingly white Protestants (Hemingway had converted to Roman Catholicism), black Americans in their minds merited “equal treatment” in theory, but they were still seen essentially as “the help” and they tended to mix with any they encountered in Europe “as equals” little more than they would have at home. (Black Americans usually returned the general disdain and preferred to be around Europeans who didn’t, they believed, look down on them in the same way. If you wanted to see “social fireworks,” white southerners and blacks blundering into each other in the same French restaurant or night club might have provided them.)

When in The Sun Hemingway wrote of his characters’ antipathy towards Jews, he was merely relating what he saw. Almost none would have supported Hitler’s eventual extermination effort, of course; but casual “chit-chat” anti-Semitism was commonplace in the era and Hemingway doesn’t attempt to hide it among his characters. Like blacks, Jews were essentially “outsiders.”

Vaguely left-wing and “idealist,” Casablanca’s down to earth – and fictional, remember – 1930s-40s “Rick Blaine” (Humphrey Bogart), was a rarity. And unlike café-owning “Rick,” most American expats didn’t actually work. Men or women, many drifted around the continent as if on a long-term “spring break,” living off (and often drinking) family money. As someone who pushed himself to be busy and who worked hard, Hemingway admired people who worked hard too; he disliked idle rich he met and The Sun is full of examples of that attitude.

So while much is made of his *considerable* personal shortcomings which tend also to find their ways into his writings, I prefer to read him as a “contemporary historical source” – in that case for life in that 1920s expat crowd: it could be ugly, bigoted stuff. Yet in The Sun Also Rises he immortalized them and their era in a fictionalized snapshot in a way no one else really did and history is now indebted to him for doing so. If you’ve never read it, it is still worth a read now nearly a century later.

Have a good weekend, wherever you are. 🙂