On Ernest Hemingway's First Forty-Nine

Hemingway may not be for me. I’ll probably try a novel just to be certain but, after three-hundred pages of essays on bullfighting and almost five-hundred of short stories, I don’t think the great man is my cup of tea. It’s the language. My dad mentioned that Hemingway was extremely spare. I’d heard that before and it fits cozily. Where many writers ooze with gratuitous detail – the quality of the light, feeling of the fabric, arrangement of leaves, sound of the mud underfoot, metaphysical characteristics of the fire, contemplation of the river – Hemingway writes simply that “it was a good camp.” He chooses a detail or two or none and allows the reader to fill in the blanks. That’s no problem: I love writers who deploy plain language, particularly George Orwell and Joan Didion. There’s something meditative, mystical, beautiful about tracing the limits of a complex idea or elusive emotion without slathering it over with complex syntax or four-syllable monstrosities.

But Hemingway is different. His phrases are sparse, but the pages are also peppered with long run-ons that turn back on themselves and wind about commas and colons. That sort of sentence is intensely familiar to anyone with an eye on literary journals in the writing of many aspiring essayists. The following is an example:

“Fantasies of how becoming a big-time famous author would transform every aspect of my life evolved with age, but the gist remained the same; books would be my ticket to international star status and all the trimmings—beauty, dangerous boyfriends, a killer wardrobe and enviable hair.”

The worst of both worlds: the long and multivarious sentence with all its layered clauses, but without Hemingway’s tight control of detail.

Still, Hemingway can be too sparse for my taste. The simplicity extends beyond the language to the stories themselves. Two stories cover twenty-odd pages in which Hemingway’s recurring character, Nick Adams, hikes to and fishes in a stream. The extent of the inner monologue is brief statements such as “Nick was hungry.” Hemingway dubbed this scarcity of detail his “iceberg theory.” Most of a story lies below the water line. In some ways, Hemingway’s iceberg is a welcome departure from the explosive inner monologue of a Saul Bellow that can and often does chew up a dozen pages on end with little happening outside of the character’s head. But the stories often ask too much.

Is there an immense mass below the surface or is the author just asking me to imagine one because he didn’t put it there himself? I’m inclined to trust that Hemingway buried something elusive and worthwhile but I read the stories and wonder if I only trust because the essay was published under his name. If it were someone else would I buy that line? I’m not sure I would.

But Hemingway writes in the introduction to his collection:

“In going where you have to go, and doing what you have to do, and seeing what you have to see, you dull and blunt the instrument you write with. But I would rather have it bent and dull and know I had to put it on the grindstone again and hammer it into shape and put a whetstone to it, and know that I had something to write about than to have it bright and shining and nothing to say, or smooth and well-oiled in the closet but unused.”

He notes in the following paragraph that he would like time for more stories; “I know some pretty good ones.” Putting aside the possibility of insincere self-deprecation, Hemingway notes that his stories are not inventions, profound and enduring, but simple things that he knows. They make “pretty good” stories, if not spectacular fugues. Hemingway writes quite plainly of his matter-of-fact nature: things to do and see, recorded as done and seen. That’s an admirable outlook. He writes the stories as they are, not as he can make them with all his skill and knowledge. The process might be my cup of tea even if the end product isn’t.