What Hemingway Means in the 21st Century
David Barnes on the Masculinity and Baggage of Ernest Hemingway at 100 Years
In the playwright Simon Gray’s literary diary The Last Cigarette, there’s a moment where he struggles to recall the name of a particular figure. Gray keeps returning to the image of a strutting, bare-chested, big-bellied man on a boat, holding up a huge dead fish. He has “a grey beard, a square bullish face, something stupid about it, and aggressive.” Who is it, Gray asks himself, who is this obnoxious, swaggering figure? “Hemingway!,” he finally remembers.
For many writers, talking about Ernest Hemingway is like talking about an embarrassing ancestor. Hemingway comes burdened with baggage, lots of it; pugilistic metaphors and hard-drinking aphorisms, an obsession with a pure and “clean” prose, a brittle misogyny and a vainglorious narcissism. And then there are all the dead animals. There they are, heaping up behind the great man’s hulking physique: Key West marlin, and bulls, and elephants, and antelope, and lions.
When I visited the Hemingway collections at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston some years ago, I was shown to a room at the top of the building where I could work on my first day of research. It was a replica of Hemingway’s room in the Finca Vigia in Cuba, complete with lion-skin rug, the lion’s head staring upward in an aspect of roaring animosity. On the side was a drinks cabinet with a row of bottles.
Out of the window, I could look out on the waterfront and the Massachusetts Bay beyond, the sun glancing on the sea, nuggets of gold in the expanse of blue. But on the second day, I had to move downstairs, to a more nondescript space, lit with bright, clinical overhead lights. Here I could begin my research properly, no longer distracted by the gorgeous view and the lion skin.
It struck me at the time as an apt metaphor for the writer’s life and legacy; the collection of images marked in our minds as “Hemingway” were, for want of a better phrase, a kind of showroom. Up there, lion-skins and antelope heads jostled with guns and martinis. The real work was in sifting through the complex and confusing remnants the great writer had left downstairs, in the archives.
This year marks the one-hundredth anniversary of Hemingway’s first published work, Three Stories and Ten Poems, printed privately in Paris in 1923. Already, the stories in the collection showed a writer with a recognizable style; two of the three stories, “Out of Season” and “My Old Man” would reappear in In Our Time (1925), the collection that made Hemingway’s literary name.
In the stories, the elements of the Hemingway style were finding their place: an unflinching eye for detail, the ability to stage quiet tragedy in spare, crystalline prose. In “Up in Michigan,” for example, Hemingway’s description of a sexual assault is framed by the simple, direct, descriptive language of place and atmosphere. The story ends with an effective depiction of the “cold mist coming up through the woods from the bay”: Hemingway’s Midwestern spaces take on the violence, despair and hopelessness of the human relationships that exist around and inside them.
Yet the volume, as its title suggests, also contains ten poems with varied subjects—from a verse about Theodore Roosevelt (“all the legends that he started in his life/ Live on and prosper”) to the imagistic “Along with Youth,” which sees Hemingway recollecting childhood through a montage of objects and memories.
As with some of the other poems, “Along with Youth” recalls the early work of T.S. Eliot, where disparate and seemingly unrelated images are juxtaposed: compare the porcupine skins, stuffed owls, and canoes of “Along with Youth” to the street lamps, crabs, and geraniums of “Rhapsody on a Windy Night,” say. But in “Champs d’Honneur,” one of three explicit war poems (Hemingway served on the Italian front in 1918), the young writer sounds like Wilfred Owen at his most viscerally effective, describing the soldiers who “pitch and cough and twitch” in a gas attack.
All this is to say that if the mature Hemingway style seems almost fully formed in the stories, the oddness and variety of the writing in the poems is surprising. Hemingway was never one thing—not at the beginning, nor later when he was famous and rich, and his full, white-bearded face gazed up from the cover of Time magazine.
I, too have struggled with Hemingway. And even to put it in those terms—the language of struggle or battle—risks succumbing to the mythology he created. For Hemingway, to engage with a writer was to submit yourself to a boxing bout. He was famously quoted as saying that he had already “beat” Turgenev and Maupassant in the ring, and “fought two draws” with Stendhal (he conceded he would be no match for Tolstoy). This pugilistic language seems at odds with the delicacy of his literary style.
In the early days of reading him, I marveled at the beauty of those sculpted sentences; it seemed at the time as if I was handling fine bone china. Sometimes the prose was so spare it seemed to disappear, and I was left trudging through endless midwestern woods, or dry Spanish plains.
But there were things that were troubling, even in these early days of getting to know Hemingway. The Sun Also Rises seemed to play on anti-Semitic tropes in its portrayal of the character of Robert Cohn (the character is described as having a “hard, Jewish, stubborn streak”). There was often excessive consumption, particularly of booze. It feels as if there is always a chilled bottle of wine open, one Martini rolls into the next one, and the next. Then there are those dead animals. In a 1934 letter to his son Patrick from Kenya, Hemingway wrote that the hunting party had killed four lions and:
35 hyenas. 3 Buffalo bulls. About 8 Thompson gazelles, about Six Grant Gazelles, 3 Topi, 4 Eland, 6 Impalla, 2 Leopards, 5 Cheetah, a lot of Zebra for their hides. 3 Water buck, one cerval cat, 1 bush buck, 1 Roan Antelope, 3 wart hogs, 2 Klipspringers …
That’s not even touching on the problematic gender politics of Hemingway’s writing. As a male reader, I often felt Hemingway was judging me to be inadequate. Why wasn’t I boxing or shooting or watching bullfights or wrestling swordfish?
Yet this reading of Hemingway is, of course, partial and incomplete. The obsessive masculinism of Hemingway’s fiction is undercut, not just by Hemingway’s readers, but by the writer himself. His heroes are broken, wounded. Jake Barnes, for example, the protagonist of The Sun Also Rises, has sustained an unspecified genital injury in the First World War.
On the one hand, Jake is a typical Hemingway man, obsessed with bullfighting and hard-drinking. On the other, his gender and sexuality are consistently portrayed as ambiguous; as the critic Ira Elliott has argued, his groin injury leads him to identify with the marginal homosexual characters in the novel. Like them, he cannot perform the heteronormative roles society foists on him.
If Hemingway’s earlier work is, at the least, ambiguous on the issues of gender and sex, his posthumously published novel The Garden of Eden (1986) raised more questions. As Hemingway expert Debra Moddelmog puts it, the book was a “startling and sudden intensification” of these themes: gender fluidity, homosexuality, taboo sex. David and Catherine, the protagonists of that novel, cut their hair so that they look alike, and play at performing the opposite gender, Catherine as boy, David as girl.
The publication of The Garden of Eden, as Moddelmog points out, happened to coincide with the growth of queer theory within the academy: Judith Butler’s highly influential book Gender Trouble would come out four years later. Since then, there have been a proliferation of critical assessments of Hemingway’s attitude to gender and sexuality from Mark Spilka, Nancy Comley and Robert Scholes, Carl Eby, and others.
There is also a growing number of critics looking at Hemingway through an environmentalist lens. At first, it’s difficult to discern anything ecologically sensitive about Hemingway: isn’t the guy all about killing animals? Yet Hemingway’s interest in hunting and fishing went along with a sensitivity to the environment. Writing to his father in 1925 from Spain, he wrote that the “wonderful stream” he had previously visited was now devastated by logging: it made him “feel sick.”
And there is the ruined, “burned out” midwestern landscape of “Big Two-Hearted River” in In Our Time, with its grasshoppers “all black” from the impact of some ecological trauma. Even those dead, hunted animals are not as straightforward as they might seem; the critic Nina Baym’s influential essay “Actually, I felt sorry for the lion” argues for the importance of the lion’s point of view in “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.” When Brett Ashley sees the bull in The Sun Also Rises she exclaims: “My God, isn’t he beautiful?”; Hemingway’s bulls and lions are less antagonists than tragic protagonists in a ritual dance from which they cannot escape.
If Hemingway’s influence has been difficult for the literary world to live with, our changing readings of him have drawn attention to the protean, fluid quality of his work. Hemingway is a writer of paradox; a macho, masculine writer who questioned masculinity, a hunter who could run with the hunted, a naturalist who mourned the destruction of the very habitats he plundered for big game. He is a teacher who will teach you how to write until you can’t stand him anymore, and then, all the things you thought you knew about him will fall apart.
In his interview with the Paris Review in 1958, he said he left his writing desk each day with a sense of emptiness, but “at the same time never empty but filling, as when you have made love to someone you love.” “Nothing can hurt you,” he continued, “nothing can happen, nothing means anything” until the next time you set pen to paper.
A writer who feels like that about writing could take you anywhere with their prose, you sense. But at the same time, Hemingway’s words feel fragile, damaged; as if he knew he was drawing out pieces of his wounded self to the eager public. I still don’t know what to make of Hemingway, but these days, I’m happy to say I don’t really mind. In the 100 years since he started writing, Hemingway has come to mean so many different things: a future without someone talking about him seems impossible to imagine.