Hemingway reaches 100, dominating a U.S. century

The Argument

Now often neglected, he was a genius who forever changed the use of language -- and the search for human dignity.

July 18, 1999|By Joan Mellen | Joan Mellen,Special to the Sun

By paring English prose down to the bone, by creating a clean and lucid sentence, like the "Clean Well-Lighted Place" of his most famous story, Ernest Hemingway not only changed how Americans write. He excavated -- and explored -- hypocrisy in the novel. Banishing stray and invasive adjectives and adverbs, he at once changed how we perceive and how we think.

Hemingway insisted that writing emerge from perception of the physical world: "Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates," he wrote. The more generalizations he banished, the more profound became his vision. He is even more defiant at the close of "Death in the Afternoon," when he observes that "any part you make will represent the whole if it's made truly."

Yet, 100 years after his birth -- July 21, 1899 -- Hemingway is too often remembered for being famous, for the notoriety of his suicide. He is praised, faintly, for, as legendary New Yorker portraitist Lillian Ross put it recently, having stripped the sentence "of all camouflage and ornament." Hemingway is in danger of being consigned to the "journalistic." His contribution was of far greater moment.

"Description is revelation," America's most outstanding poet, Wallace Stevens, once wrote. He could have been speaking of Hemingway. What Hemingway revealed was how the absence of excess verbiage also challenged defensiveness, hypocrisy and self-absorption. Hemingway the man has been encapsulated in images of the white hunter on safari or the sycophant straining behind the fuchsia cape of the most suave bullfighter in the dusty arenas of Madrid and Valencia.

Hemingway the writer, in harsh and gritty prose decades before its time, challenged the narcissism that has invaded contemporary American fiction epidemically.

Description became his skeleton key to meaning. To no apparent purpose, he portrayed the seemingly meaningless round of daily life, as at the start of the fishing trip in "The Sun Also Rises": "It was baking hot in the square when we came out after lunch with our bags and the rod-case to go to Burguete. People were on top of the bus and others were climbing up a ladder. Bill went up and Robert sat beside Bill to save a place for me, and I went back in the hotel to get a couple of bottles of wine to take with us." The very precision adds suspense. Description becomes content. Hemingway reveals how life can gain its meaning from the moment.

His greatness resides in such stories as "Hills Like White Elephants," where the word "abortion" need never be mentioned, but is argued passionately, and "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber." He wrote two near perfect novels, the acknowledged masterpiece "The Sun Also Rises" and the underrated "A Farewell to Arms." "For Whom The Bell Tolls," published in 1940, seems less a Hemingway vision than George Orwell's "Homage to Catalonia," which is more honest politically and less sentimental.

Yet even in "For Whom the Bell Tolls," Hemingway celebrates the physical reality beyond human will. Here he describes the airplanes flown by Franco's fascists: "They are shaped like sharks, Robert Jordan thought. ... But these, wide-finned in silver, roaring, the light mist of their propellers in the sun, these do not move like sharks ... they move like mechanized doom." The fate of the community, the defeat of the Republican cause, is contained in the single image.

At his best, Hemingway pits his hero against the world. His wounded hero, Jake Barnes of "The Sun Also Rises," knows reality cannot be tamed, a view he shares with the author. Neither is so dim as to make demands on what defies human intervention.

"He is showing you what life is like," the great critic Edmund Wilson wrote in 1924. To observe what life is like becomes the point of existence. In "The Sun Also Rises" Hemingway's honorable characters appreciate landscapes, villages and people unlike themselves. "As we came to the edge of the rise, we saw the red roofs and white houses of Burguete ahead strung out on the plain. ... "

Place also becomes theme, as in the account of the soft peace of the town of San Sebastian where "even on a hot day" there is a "certain early-morning quality," and the trees "seem as though their leaves were never dry." A soldier has only one arm, which is all of war Hemingway need notice to make his point about its inhumanity.

In Hemingway, the account of an experience contains its meaning. The description of being wounded is being wounded: "I felt myself rush bodily out of myself and out and out and out and all the time bodily in the wind. ..." Background and foreground become indistinguishable, an innovation for which Hemingway deserves renewed acclaim.

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