Liberal Arts Blog — Ernest Hemingway — Greatest American Writer of the 20th Century?
Liberal Arts Blog — Tuesday is the Joy of Literature, Language, Culture, and Religion Day
Today’s Topic: Ernest Hemingway (1899–1961) — Greatest American writer of the 20th century?
His parents considered his work “filth” and he hated them both with a passion. To him, his father, who committed suicide, was a coward and his mother a bully. Hemingway would win medals for bravery in both World War I and World War II and would cultivate a “macho” image as sportsman and fighter but he, too, would commit suicide as would three of his children (Ernest Jr, Ursula, and Leicester), his brother and sister, and his granddaughter super-model Margaux. So what? Does the biography of authors matter? I just watched the new PBS documentary on Hemingway and thought I’d do a little additional digging to learn more about the writer that, growing up in the 1960s, I once considered to be the greatest American writer of the 20th century. Experts — please chime in. Correct, elaborate, elucidate.
WRITING, LIVING, NOBILITY — four quotes
1. “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”
2. “The world breaks everyone, and afterward some are strong at the broken places.”
3. “There is nothing noble about being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.”
NB: “Courage is grace under pressure.”
HEMINGWAY’S STYLE: origins, his own “iceberg” theory, contrasts
1. “Use short sentences. Use short paragraphs. Use vigorous English. Be positive, not negative.” (The Kansas City Star Style Guide) He worked there from 1917 to 1918 and he would cite its influence for the rest of his life.
2. His “Iceberg theory”: “If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.”
3. His style contrasts sharply not only with the verbosity of Victorian prose but also the incomprehensibility of so much of the work of his contemporary modernists like Stein, Joyce, and Faulkner. His work could be appreciated by both high school students and Ezra Pound.
BIOGRAPHICAL NOTES — wives, wars, continents
1. Four wives: Hadley Richardson (1921–1927), Pauline Pfeiffer (1927–1940), Martha Gelhorn (1940–1945), Mary Welsh (1946–1961). All were extraordinary in different ways. Gelhorn was the most independent.
2. Three wars: World War I (became an ambulance driver because his poor eyesight prevented his enlisting), Spanish Civil War (he was at the Battle of the Ebro), World War II (broke journalist rules and led a band of partisans).
3. Three continents: he loved Spain (wrote a book on bullfighting) and Paris, but also loved Africa (“Green Hills of Africa”), and then there was North America (Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Key West, Cuba, Wyoming, Idaho).
NB: For sheer “machismo,” the only comparable historical figure that comes to mind is Theodore Roosevelt. And, perhaps not surprisingly, Hemingway picked as his African guide Philip Percival who had been TR’s guide two decades before. Percival would be the model for the character Robert Wilson in “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.”
So who was the greatest American writer of the 20th century? Why? Faulkner? Fitzgerald? Steinbeck? Nabokov? O’Connor? Morrison?
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