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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
His wounding was a shock that went straight into Hemingway’s great early stories and fables of the war: it taught him to make great set passages out of the body’s response to a particular blow. Mastery was in the moment’s triumph over danger and soon made him set up, in life as in art, one deliberate trial of himself after another. Hemingway seemed to make a point of seeking out violence. Clearly accident-prone, he retained his ability to turn every new accident into the confrontation of something or someone. In his bilious last years he was to say that it was good for a would-be writer to hang himself and “then… be cut down without mercy and forced by his own self to write as well as he can for the rest of his lite. At least he will have the story of the hanging to commence with.”
This need of risk, of the ultimate challenge, became something that only an international sportsman could buy for himself. In Green Hills of Africa he was still boasting to a chance acquaintance:
“And you know what you want?”
“Absolutely, and I get it all the time."
This was the mark of a special time and a particular ego. Only the florid buccaneers of the age of enterprise had talked that way. But Hemingway's crushing sense of self sought not wealth but fame—absolute distinction, to be top dog, the undoubted original and pacemaker for literary prose in his time. Writing was everything. And the journey that Hemingway actually undertook, the journey into the country of the dead, made possible a concentration of line and progression of effect so extraordinary that no matter how often we reread “The Battler,” “Fifty Grand, Big Two-Hearted River," they can still make us hold our breath. No other American “in our time" so captured the actual physical element. No one else so charged up the reader, for no one else was so charged up by the act of writing itself: “Nick walked back up the ties to where his pack lay in the cinders beside the railway track. He was happy. He adjusted the pack harness around the bundle, pulling straps tight, slung the pack on his back, got his arms through the shoulder straps and took some of the pull off his shoulders by leaning his forehead against the wide band of the tump-line. Still, it was too heavy. It was much too heavy.”
In such words, Hemingway made real and concrete the first essential in the act of writing. He put life back on the page, made us see, feel, and taste the gift of life in its unalloyed and irreducible reality. To read Hemingway was always to feel more alive.
Of all the many things Hemingway appropriated, the nearest was his own experience. How he hammered any triviality into place, kept it luminous with his particular gift for shining in his own light! This was what he hungered for beyond anything else. With his particular talent for saving and treasuring his experiences, for turning life into the economy of art, he brought into his sacred circle many small things insubstantial and fugitive. It was typical of him to call them “rain" and to celebrate rain as what did not vanish when secured in the style of Ernest Hemingway.
These small things bring us into a world dense but never thick like that of the great nineteenth-century novels—a world stark, each detail oddly magnified, so that the bombardment on our senses gives us a sense of being violated. Like many startling achievements of modernism, this can be felt first as pain. In A Farewell to Arms (1929) there is the confrontation on the bank of the Isonzo between the Italian battle police and the officers separated from their troops in the retreat at Caporetto. The scene excites a quiver of terror as the questioning of the hapless officers is followed by their immediate execution. It is night. The lights being flashed by the battle police into face after face bring to mind the unnaturally bright faces of the condemned being shot by the light of torches in Goya's etchings of the disasters of war:
They took me down behind the line of officers below the road toward a group of people in a field by the river bank. As we walked toward them shots were fired. I saw flashes of the rifles and heard the reports. We came up to the group. There were four officers standing together, with a man in front of them with a carabiniere on each side of him. A group of men were standing guarded by carabinieri. Four other carabinieri stood near the questioning officers, leaning on their carbines. They were wide-hatted carabinieri. The two who had me shoved me in with the group. … I looked at the man the officers were questioning. He was the fat gray-haired little lieutenant-colonel they had taken out of the column. The questioners had all the efficiency, coldness and command of themselves of Italians who are firing and are not being fired on.
He told them.
He told them.
“Why are you not with your regiment?”
He told them.
“Do you not know that an officer should be with his troops?"
That was all. Another officer spoke.
“It is you and such as you that have let the barbarians onto the sacred soil of the fatherland.”