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HEMINGWAY & FITZGERALD: THE COST OF BEING AMERICAN
The work of Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald virtually defined what it meant to be American in the first half of this century
April/May 1984 | Volume 35, Issue 3
With his gift for locating the most symbolic place for himself, Hemingway was bound to end up in Idaho. And this was not just for the hunting and fishing. At every stage of his life he found a frontier for himself appropriate to his needs as a sportsman and his ceremonial needs as a writer.
Most American writer-wanderers, like Melville the sailor and Mark Twain the mobile printer, correspondent, lecturer, went where they were forced to go to make a living. Hemingway for the most part chose where he wanted to go. That was the impression he managed to leave, although he actually spent his early summers “up in Michigan” because his family summered there. And right after the World War he was sent by the Toronto Star to report still more fighting between Turks and Greeks. But his conjunction of Michigan and the Balkans in his first book, In Our Time (1925), made these startling stories read as if he had chosen these experiences. There was a point to being Ernest Hemingway and to writing like Ernest Hemingway. Everything was under control like one of his sentences. He was an entirely free man. He had shaped his own career.
To summer up in Michigan was wonderful. It was also wonderful to sit in a café, when Paris was “the best town for a writer to be in” and, nursing a single café crème, to write the first Nick Adams stories in a blue-backed notebook with the stub of a pencil you shaved with a little pencil sharpener as you went along. (Sharpening a pencil with a knife was too wasteful.) Remembering how poor you had been, thirty years later in A Moveable Feast (1964), you also made the point that “wasteful” referred to other people’s prose, not E. Hemingway’s. And when and where else was poverty so easy to bear that a young couple with baby could live on five dollars a day and go skiing in Austria when a story was finished? It also helped to skip lunch, because on an empty stomach all sorts of hidden details in the Cézannes in the Luxembourg became sharper, easier to grasp for your writing when you were learning “to do the country like Cézanne.”
Any place Hemingway sojourned in, any place he passed through, somehow took on Hemingway’s attributes as an artist. He was the most extraordinary appropriator. He learned to omit many things for his famous style, but a trout stream in Michigan or a street in Paris came rhythmically to belong to Hemingway alone. Michigan became primitive, brutish, but above all naked, like the starkness of a Hemingway story. Paris was electric, crowded, but above all derisory like the characters and scenes in The Sun Also Rises (1926), the novel that made his fame. Hemingway the foreigner established an intimacy with Paris streets just by the loving repetition of certain names—rue Cardinal Lemoine, the place Contrescarpe. And there were always the knowing little references (“The dancing-club was a bal musette in the rue de la Montagne Sainte Geneviève”) that established Hemingway’s ability to make part of his page anything that he had first absorbed as a stranger in Paris.
He was ambitious, he was shrewd, he seemed to have worked out in advance just what he needed to get from a place, and he became contemptuous of others as soon as he had learned it. So much command of experience belonged to an imperial race. Straight out of high school he defied his Victorian parents, went to the Italian front as a Red Cross volunteer, and got himself gloriously wounded. What other solidly middle-class boy from one of “our best families in Oak Park” could at nineteen have won for himself such lasting images of war, fright, and death? And who but Hemingway would so indelibly have recorded his wounding as his moment of truth: "… then there was a flash, as when a blast-furnace door is swung open, and a roar that started white and went red and on and on in a rushing wind. I tried to breathe but my breath would not come and I felt myself rush bodily out of myself and out and out and out and all the time bodily in the wind. I went out swiftly, all of myself, and I knew I was dead and that it had all been a mistake to think you just died.”
From now on it was his war, war was his. Reading Tolstoy’s Sevastopol stories while hunting in Green Hills of Africa (1935) made him think of riding a bicycle down the Boulevard Sevastopol in the rain: "… and I thought about Tolstoi and what a great advantage an experience of war was to a writer. It was one of the major subjects and certainly one of the hardest to write truly of and those writers who had not seen it were always very jealous and tried to make it seem unimportant, or abnormal, or a disease as a subject, while, really, it was just something quite irreplaceable that they had missed.”