- 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 had the magnetic gift of fame, of arousing the attention of a great public with every word, that Stein bitterly missed. He had learned his lesson from her all too well. He had in fact learned to lasso the reader, to become the reader’s eyes and ears exactly as a Cézanne or a Matisse rivets attention, obliterates everything around it. This works better in Hemingway’s marvelous short stories, which are short and consistent, all “composition,” every inch of the canvas filled, than in his novels. There he often stops the action to do some scene painting and is swaggeringly self-indulgent, both in self-portraiture and as a maker of beautiful effects.
A picture is an action that must fill up its available space. Stein was fascinated by the concentration that is behind all true painting. She was always telling Hemingway, “Concentrate.” He certainly learned to concentrate. The interchapters of In Our Time , with a condemned man being carried to the gallows in a chair because he lost control of his sphincter muscles and German soldiers climbing right over a wall and being potted one two three—“We shot them. They all came just like that”—showed that Hemingway was concentrating all right, right on the reader. Hemingway influenced a whole generation of journalists to become pseudoartists, especially around Time, where every little article was called a “story,” and was rewritten and rewritten as if it were a paragraph by Flaubert instead of the usual Luceite overemphasizing the personal characteristics behind some big shot who had made the week’s cover story.
Eventually Hemingway’s influence began to influence Hemingway too much. The famous brushwork became bloated. But at his best he understood that a short story by its very compressiveness comes nearest a lyric poem or haiku in its total intactness. A novel is by tradition too discursive, epic, and widespread. Of all of Hemingway’s novels, The Sun Also Rises has the best chance of surviving, for it is more consistent in its tone, its scene, and even Hemingway’s scorn than A Farewell to Arms, which veers between the sheerest personal romanticism and Hemingway’s desire to give an essentially lyric cast to his observations of the Italian-Austrian front in World War I. More and more in his big books Hemingway used his well-developed style as a lyric diversion from his increasing sense of being closed in. The old rugged individualist had somehow known from the beginning that the coming century was going to be war on the individual. That was the dark and even ominous climate of feeling that he got so unforgettably into his great stories and especially into “Big Two-Hearted River.” This story sums up the Hemingway hero’s courage and despair, his furthest need and his deepest fear, in a way that also sums up the Western American’s virtually sexual encounter with nature, his adoration and awe, his sense of being too small for it, his abrupt, unfulfilled confrontation of what once seemed the greatest gift to man, but which somehow always threw him off.
Hemingway was always a deeply personal writer. The immediacy, sometimes the deliberate brutality, but above all his vulnerability to anxiety, rage, frustration, and despair, gave him a masterful closeness to his kaleidoscope of emotions. He was by turns so proud yet so often stricken a human creature that the reader again and again surrenders to him. For Hemingway makes you feel in painfully distinct human detail how much the world merely echoes the endless turmoil in the human heart:
“Ahead the river narrowed and went into a swamp. The river became smooth and deep and the swamp looked solid with cedar trees, their trunks close together, their branches solid. It would not be possible to walk through a swamp like that. The branches grew so low.
"… He did not feel like going on into the swamp. He looked down the river. A big cedar slanted all the way across the stream. Beyond that the river went into the swamp.
"… Nick did not want to go in there now. He felt a reaction against deep wading with the water deepening up under his armpits, to hook big trout in places impossible to land them. In the swamp the banks were bare, the big cedars came together overhead, the sun did not come through, except in patches; in the fast deep water, in the half light, the fishing would be tragic. In the swamp fishing was a tragic adventure. Nick did not want it. He did not want to go down the stream any further today.”
Hemingway was a painfully complex man, one who was indeed as gifted and, yes, as brave as he claimed to be. He did his work. He hauntingly intimated on paper some fundamental conflicts that, like all of us, he did not resolve in the flesh. Especially not in the flesh. Nor did he realize these conflicts in his novels as the great novelists have done. He was too immature and self-absorbed, in the fashion of so many gifted Americans maddened by the gap between their talent and their vulnerability.