Not my Papa

     Fifty years after he blew his brains out with his favorite shotgun, Ernest Hemingway’s reputation is lower in his own country than it’s been in the 85 years since he published his worst book, “The Torrents of Spring.”
     The reason for this has nothing to do with Hemingway’s writing. It has more to do with his personality and with what’s happened since first light in Idaho on July 2, 1961.
     Artists should be judged on their work, not their personalities, though that’s impossible to do today. I can’t do it myself. But regardless of what anyone thinks of Hemingway (feminists, Freudians, pacifists, animal-lovers, and above all, people who can’t write as well), it’s hard to deny that he changed English for the better.
     Look at the English language before Hemingway and after him. Hem knocked English on the head and gave it a good shaking. And it needed it.
     Hemingway made it impossible – for a while – to write the sickly sweet, dying-flower English that so many popular writers got away with – including, at times, our country’s greatest writer, Mark Twain.
     This fluff has crept back. But that ain’t Hemingway’s fault. It’s our fault.
     Hemingway said that journalism was great training for a writer – so long as he gets out in time. You have to master the craft before you can create art, and the craft starts with the simple declarative sentence. Then the next one. Until the story is over. And it stops.
     The story doesn’t end – tied up with a bow – it stops. It’s over.
     It’s a formula. You can learn it. But just because you’ve mastered a formula …
     Still, you have to master the formula. You have to be able to drive a nail straight, with one blow into the wood, until you can’t see the nail.
     Introductions, transitions and the dénouement have pretty much been done away with in straight reporting – except in wretched magazines that think they have a style, which includes pretty much all of them today, including The Atlantic, Esquire, Vanity Fair, and all the other gasping fish which are living off the reputations dead people gave them.
     Writers of fiction, who may and usually do consider themselves higher-class articles than simple journos, need not confine themselves to simple declarative sentences, of course – and we don’t demand it of them.
     Too bad for us.
     Hemingway said he wanted to write and tell stories “without tricks.”
     This was a backhand slam at Mr. William Faulkner, who was every bit the writer and storyteller Hemingway was.
     It was a backhand at John Dos Passos, who told a great story, though he couldn’t write dialogue to save his life.
     Hemingway sounds like he was a great guy in the 1920s, before he became famous. But Hemingway became less of a great guy as he became a Great Writer and a Great Man.
     That’s not our problem, though. That was Hemingway’s problem. And his friends’ problem.
     Hemingway wrote two awful books. They were not just bad books; they were character flaws. He wrote “The Torrents of Spring” in 1926 to get out of a book contract. It was a nasty and stupid parody of Sherwood Anderson, who already had written and published “Winesburg, Ohio.” Hemingway wrote “Torrents” so Boni & Liveright would reject it, and he could go to Scribner’s.
     Those were the days, for writers: when you could knock out a crappy book and throw it at a publisher to get out of a contract.
     Would that those days were still with us.
     But it was a mean trick to play on Anderson, who was a great short story writer, and far kinder to Hemingway than Hemingway was to him. If you want to see how well Anderson wrote, try his collection “Certain Things Last.”
     I think Hemingway was jealous.
     Hemingway’s other stinker was “Across the River and Into the Trees,” written for Scribner’s in 1950. Do yourself a favor and don’t read it. It’s infantile. But the one he wrote after that won him the Nobel Prize, which shows you never can count a good fastballer out.
     I’m not a Hemingway fanatic. But I doubt that anyone will ever write a novel better than “For Whom the Bell Tolls.”
     Hemingway didn’t have much of a sense of humor. You could count his written efforts at humor on your fingers, even if you’re missing a hand.
     He also had a certain poverty of spirit. Hemingway thought that other writers were for fighting. He wrote, ridiculously, that some writers lived and worked all their lives just so that another writer, later, could write one sentence.
     Hemingway thought he was that second writer. He presumably thought that Sherwood Anderson was the first kind of writer. But Anderson was a better man than Hemingway, and that – I am convinced, as I dodder toward death – is just as important, or more important, than being a good writer.
     Many great artists, including fellows such as Mozart, Beethoven, Plato and even some North Americans were grateful for the artists who came before them, and said so. How their attitudes, and Hemingway’s, influenced their art I leave for someone else to figure out.
     But Hemingway left his language in better shape than he found it. Not many people have done that. Even people who claim to dislike his writing live in Hemingway’s world, and if they’re not grateful for that it’s because they haven’t read enough.
     So here’s to Ernest Hemingway. I’m glad he lived, and sorry he felt so bad he had to end it that way.
     He wasn’t my Papa, and I’m glad for that, too.

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