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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
Confronting danger everywhere, he made himself one with his time by running full tilt into everything that would bring a fresh emergency into his life. When he did not seek damage, it sought him. As a boy he fell and had a stick driven into the back of his throat, gouging out part of both tonsils. In 19I8, when he was a Red Cross worker in Italy distributing supplies to soldiers, a mortar shell exploded more than twenty fragments into his legs; he was then hit twice by machine-gun bullets while carrying a more seriously injured man to the rear. As a young writer in Paris during the twenties, he was clipped on the forehead by pieces of skylight that fell as he was standing under it. In Wyoming in 1930 his car turned over and his right arm was pinned back by the top of the windshield and badly fractured, the bone sticking through the muscle. Another time, his brother Leicester reports, Hemingway shot a shark with a pistol, but the bullets split into several small pieces of hot lead that ricocheted into the calves of both legs. In 1949, while duck shooting in the marshes near Venice, he got a bit of shell wadding blown into his eye, and a serious infection developed. In 1954 he crash-landed in Africa and then chartered a second plane, which crashed and burned; when he reached medical aid at Nairobi—just in time to read his obituaries—his internal organs had been wrenched out of place, his spine was injured, and he was bleeding from every orifice.
It is absurd to separate Hemingway from his work. He pushed his life at the reader, made his fascination with death and danger the central theme in his many pages about bullfighting, sport, and war, brought the reader closer to his own fascination with violence and terror as a central political drama. His great gift was to embody these repeated episodes of violence (so linked by some profound compulsion that we anticipated his shotgun suicide) in his works: in the Turks expelling the Creeks in the lacerating inner chapters of In Our Time, in the horns perforating the bullfighter in Death in the Afternoon (1932) so that all the internal organs were sliced through at once, in the very impotence of Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises (1926) and Colonel Cantwell in Across the River and Into the Trees (1950).
One could go on, as Hemingway certainly did, from the early story “Indian Camp," where the Indian husband in the upper bunk cuts his throat as the doctor in the bunk below performs a Cesarean on his wife with a jackknife and sews her up with nine-foot, tapered, gut leaders, to the ridiculously inflated episodes in the posthumous Islands in the Stream (1970), where Hemingway talked of going after German submarines all by himself. But the point is that Hemingway was a soul at war. He wins our assent because it is the “outside” world that is increasingly violent. Hemingway may have been as big a braggart and egotist as ever lived, but he had the stamp of a true artist. His emotions were prophetic; he knew that destruction is a god over our lives, that fear of death shapes us, that without any belief in immortality there can be no expectation of justice, so that the whole ghastly twentieth century is beginning to look like one unending chain of murder and retribution.
Hemingway’s greatest gift was to identify his own capacity for pain with the destructiveness at large in our time. The artist works by locating the world in himself. Hemingway did something more: he located in himself his century’s infatuation with technology, technique, instruments of every kind. His own sense of this was cold, proud know-how, professionally detached and above all concerned with applying a systematic, consistent method to everything he described. Obviously one attraction of sport, war, and bullfighting was that each called for maximum concentration on technique. Hemingway was clever and informed and quick to tell you what he knew. He always made a point of giving you, in the midst of a story, the exact name of a wine or the exact horsepower of a machine.
Hemingway liked to write from technical detail to detail. He had grown up in a world where men still traveled by horse, took care of their horses, repaired things themselves, walked everywhere, often grew or shot their own food. He believed in the work of his own hands, even to the point of usually writing by hand. It was this that led him to his great discovery of what painting could do for writers. Newspaper work for the Kansas City Star and the Toronto Star had taught him that to write professionally is to write to somebody else’s mind. As managing editors of newspapers said, you had to “reach the readers.” You must lay out all the facts in an assured, flat, knowing manner without the slightest suggestion of indecision or demonstrative emotion about what you know.
The young Hemingway saw the connection between this method of writing and the kind of painting he encountered in France, most intimately at Gertrude Stein’s flat, 27, rue de Fleurus. These modern works were spellbindingly the work of an artist’s own hand, of new theories of perception, of common physical materials. Nothing could have been more instantly pleasing to his imagination and his native sense of things. Painting was the decisive experience for an American abroad; Europe could seem one great painting. Painting stimulated a young reporter, already shrewdly aware of war and sport as the stuff of literature, to think of writing as a method.