- Historic Sites
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
Without seeing Gertrude Stein’s collection of paintings, without listening to the infatuated conversation about painting at her flat, Hemingway might not have become Hemingway at all. As Stein was jealously to charge in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Hemingway was a sedulous ape, an all too adept pupil of other people’s ideas and methods. But her comparative indifference to the subject matter of painting and the way she took off from painting to emphasize for psychological purposes the authority of the eye gave Hemingway the advantage over her.
Stein’s genius was for conversation and especially for listening to other people’s conversation. What fascinated her in the “new” painting by Cézanne and Matisse was the fact that something, anything, could be done by a temperament sufficiently self-willed—the slashing lines and thickly encrusted colors, Matisse in particular with his use of color as line, the thick, joyously rhythmical color building up an impression totally sufficient to the design that would satisfy the eye. Every image is made up of minute particulars. Every particular is realized by the maximum concentration and toil. The world is built up from such particulars. As the cubists soon proved, an object is a form made up of inherent forms. We go from cube to cube, atom to atom, as nature did in the long creation of every living thing that makes up the whole.
Hemingway’s approach to understanding painting was more diffident than Stein’s but actually closer to sensuos content and to his own delight in method. The difference between the two can he seen even in their handwriting. Her letters were tall, sprawling, intensely mental with the large, telltale spaces between words that were so characteristic of her reflective mind. His letters were close, carefully and slowly shaped. They remind me of Nick Adams making camp in "Big Two-Hearted River,” another demonstration of Hemingway's planned, anxiously careful, tidy assemblage of words as objects: “He started a fire with some chunks of pine he got with the ax from a stump. Over the fire he stuck a wire grill, pushing the four legs down into the ground with his boot. Nick put the frying pan on the grill over the flames. He was hungrier. The beans and spaghetti warmed. Nick stirred them and mixed them together. They began to bubble, making little bubbles that rose with difficulty to the surface. There was a good smell. Nick got out a bottle of tomato catchup and cut four slices of bread. The little bubbles were coming faster now. Nick sat down beside the fire and lifted the frying pan off.”