- 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
Hemingway was naturally drawn to painting in France because it celebrated homely, natural materials—like the world he knew and wanted to write about. Although he was familiar with the pioneer collections of the Art Institute in Chicago, it was the double experience of writing English in France and of being daily stimulated by the streets, the bridges, the museums, by meeting leading modernist authors like Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, and Ford Madox Ford, that helped to form this cunningly obedient listener into the powerfully under-cutting stylist that he became. Stein said: “One of the things I have liked all these years is to be surrounded by people who know no English. It has left me more intensely alone with my eyes and my English.” That is what Hemingway felt; it is his marvelous representation of this vital early experience that makes his Paris in A Moveable Feast so beautiful, though the book is wicked in its attempt to destroy Stein, Ford, and Fitzgerald and a downright lie in his underhanded description of the collapse of his first marriage. He does not say that when he becaine famous he became insupportably arrogant. He was unknown, “poor and happy” in A Moveable Feast, but he became ferocious in the days of fame. Fame inflamed him more than liquor and turned Stein’s obedient little “ape” into an inferno of unrelenting ego. It did not make him happy. Looking at paintings at least took him out of himself.
French painting did more for Hemingway than reinforce his American passion for technique, for method, for instruments, for utensils. It gave him, as it did a whole generation of foreign artists in Paris, a sense of what Baudelaire called luxe, calme et volupté. Marc Chagall, another foreigner in Paris, said, “These colors and these forms must show, in the end, our dreams of human happiness.” Hemingway lived a life of danger, near-catastrophe, was inwardly ravaged by his attraction to danger and the boozy life he led in the company of sycophants all over the world; he became a victim of his own celebrity. He was attracted to the harmony in painting as he was influenced by the direction it gave his imagination.
Painting, far more than writing, suggests the actual texture of human happiness. Hemingway understood that; what excited him, as a writer, about painting was a promise of relief from civilization, a touch of the promised land. The Hemingway hero is usually alone in nature, and the landscape he sees (and will bring back in words) is in minute particulars unseen by anyone but him. Again and again in his work this often cruel writer shows himself to be an unabashed American romantic positively melting in the presence of beauty. The opening lines of A Farewell to Arms, for example, cast a spell. They don’t altogether make sense except as pure visual impressionism, repeated and echoing Hemingway’s own effort to get these “impressions” down: “In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.”
If Cézanne’s greatness lay in the removal of his subjects from the contingent world, this opening paragraph is an imitation of that removal. It is exclusively an impression from the outside, resting within the eye of the beholder. As an impression it is static, for it calls attention to the beholder’s effort to capture one detail after another rather than to the scene of war. As so often happens in Hemingway’s prose forays into war, bullfighting, marlin fishing, or hunting, there is an unnatural pause in the last sentence—“leaves, stirred by the breeze”—a forced transition made necessary by “painting” the scene in words. We positively see the writer at his easel.
What Gertrude Stein caught from painting—it was a literary idea—was the ability of the writer to call attention to each stroke. Hemingway said that writing is architecture, not interior decoration. When he turned from the obedient pupil into the world-famous Ernest Hemingway, he made a great point—in talking about his own writing through his contempt for other people’s writing—of saying that they were “unreadable.” Readable meant the reduction of the world to a line of glitteringly clear sentences. Ironically, Stein criticized his first writings as being inaccrochable, not hangable on a wall, not ready to be looked at. Nevertheless it was she, with her thousand-page soliloquies and meanderings, who turned out to be inaccrochable.