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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
“I beg your pardon," said the lieutenant-colonel.
“It is because of treachery such as yours that we have lost the fruits of victory.”
“Have you ever been in a retreat?" the lieutenant-colonel asked.
“Italy should never retreat.”
We stood there in the rain and listened to this. We were facing the officers and the prisoner stood in front and a little to one side of us.
“If you are going to shoot me,” the lieutenant-colonel said, “please shoot me at once without further questioning. The questioning is stupid.” He made the sign of the cross. The officers spoke together. One wrote something on a pad of paper.
“Abandoned his troops, ordered to be shot," he said.
The picture is very distinct—and so is the paragraphing. The “fat gray-haired little lieutenant-colonel" is on that page forever, saying with perfect contempt, “Please shoot me at once without further questioning. The questioning is stupid.”
Hemingway certainly learned to parody Italian. Spanish, and French with affection and respect. Stupido itself is a word of perfect contempt. Generations of students, brought up on modernism as the latest academic tradition, have by now learned to say reduction, foreshortening, irony in order to indicate that Hemingway makes us see, brings us close to, that scene by the river. The seeing is all-important; Hemingway learned many things from painters and from extraordinarily visual war scenes in Stendhal, Tolstoy, and Crane, that enabled him to get Caporetto just right. But the key to the scene is Hemingway’s need to show that while the questioning and the shooting are mistaken, totally unjust, as hideously wrong as anything can be, this is what stoical men "in our time" like the fat little lieutenant-colonel accept—because they will always be superior to the stupido.
Hemingway had many gifts. His greatest gift, the foundation of all his marvelous pictorial effects, was his sense of some enduring injustice, of some fundamental wrongness at the heart of things, to which an American can still rise, which he will endure (and describe) as a hero. Hemingway was an American from the Midwest, "the valley of democracy." He was brought up on the old American religion of the self-sufficient individual. He knew that the public world was pushing him and everyone else toward an abyss. But he still had a private code in the twenties that—as Lady Brett said in The Sun Also Rises about “deciding not to be a bitch”—became a sort of replacement for religion. When repeated often enough in the same tune of discovery, the code became the politics of himself and his friends. Of course this did not survive into the Hitler-Stalin era and still another world war. What, in the twenties, was pronounced with so much startled self-approval as a form of conduct was really a lean, war) style of writing—Hemingway’s style. This thrived on the disasters of war but somehow saved a few exceptional people from destruction. It was all the law and all the prophets.
Hemingway was born in the last year of the old century and fated to become one of the great expressers of enduring disorder in this century. His sense of incongruity was everything to him and came out as an uncanny intuition of stress, of the danger point, the intolerable pressure level in life personal and political. Women have their body fears and men have theirs; both relate to the sexual organs, to sexual vulnerability and respect. Such vulnerability is a universal condition, and only a Hemingway could simultaneously conceal and mythologize it. But in the transforming interaction between Hemingway's bruised psyche and his masculine need always to sound positive, something extraordinary did result. His self-disapproval at being vulnerable at all had to be hidden, but his shock at not being allowed always to have his own way made him see the world as inherently treacherous. His easy American claim to power—especially over his own life—was constantly being limited and denied. The self remained intact. But wary, very wary, it had premonitions of war after war. Hemingway was not just being cocky when he put down writers who had not seen battle. Phlegmatic types never suffered and understood as he did. Responding bitterly to accusations that he was “indifferent," Hemingway memorably responded in a letter: “These little punks who have never seen men street fighting, let alone a revolution.… Listen—they never even heard of the events that produced the heat of rage, hatred, indignation, and disillusion that formed or forged what they call indifference.”
Hemingway’s attraction to violence, to hunting and fishing, to war (he saw a lot of war, but was never a soldier), was not just a form of hell-raising and self-testing in the usual masculine way. It was a way of coming close to certain ordeals fundamental to his generation. From the beginning, because of his upbringing as a young Christian gentleman in a suffocatingly proper suburb of Chicago, Oak Park, "where the saloons end and the churches begin,” violence fascinated him. Like so many great modern writers, he was of solid bourgeois background, and therefore knew that, morally, the bourgeois world was helpless.