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By Drew Lichtenberg, Literary Manager
When it comes to 20th-century authors, Ernest Hemingway is perhaps the quickest to have been canonized into literary sainthood. After his tragic suicide in 1961, posthumous publications burnished his myth, but the cult of Hemingway grew out of his iconic, well-publicized life. Whether fishing in Cuba, hunting on African safari, or bullfighting in Spain, the man’s Byronesque biography—and the blurry border between his life and his fiction—delineate the outlines of a resonant archetype: the Twentieth Century Man. Hemingway’s works take us into a world, or so the story goes, where men were men, where they enjoyed doing things with their hands, and where discretion, especially of the emotional and romantic kind, was the better part of valor.
Reading Hemingway, however—especially those works published during his own lifetime, such as his first novel and masterpiece, The Sun Also Rises—all those images seem like just that: a public relations masterstroke that tells us little about the work or the man. In fact, Hemingway can be a surprisingly elusive, subversive, even tender writer, given to tweaking gender roles and expectations as much as upholding the patriarchy. And it is not too much to claim he gave the English language an entirely new grammar, a new way of seeing and being in the world.
Hemingway wrote The Sun Also Rises over six weeks in 1925, basing it closely on recent experiences in Spain with a circle of friends. As deleted materials make clear, however, Hemingway found the book through a strategy of deliberate simplification. Three titles were considered before he chose the gnomic winner and he originally deployed a convoluted structure, opening in medias res before flashing back. Most strikingly, in his original drafts Hemingway repeatedly interrupted the narration of his protagonist, “Hem,” addressing the reader directly and framing the work as metafictional memoir, an account of actual events that happened to the actual Hemingway.
Hemingway would reorder the structure in an unbroken linear stream, changing the names of characters and the details of events—all at the suggestion of F. Scott Fitzgerald, the author’s friend, champion and early reader. Most importantly, Hemingway went one step further, expunging any trace of direct address within the work, letting his characters and events speak plainly for themselves. By removing authorial judgment, Hemingway left the task of interpretation up to the reader, granting us a strange kind of autonomy and arriving at an oracular, emotionally resonant style all his own.
Take Robert Cohn. The book’s first sentence starts with him: “Robert Cohn was once middleweight boxing champion of Princeton,” and the first two chapters build a rich character portrait. We learn that he “cared nothing for boxing,” that he is Jewish, and that he is a would-be novelist and Anglophile. Chapter Two, in a classic example of Hemingway’s style, describes his literary adventures and the subsequent effect on his fiancée, Frances:
That winter Robert Cohn went over to America with his novel, and it was accepted by a fairly good publisher. His going made an awful row I heard, and I think that was where Frances lost him, because several women were nice to him in New York, and when he came back he was quite changed. He was more enthusiastic about America than ever, and he was not so simple, and he was not so nice.
The paragraph consists of three sentences totaling 76 words, 54 of them monosyllables. There are six commas and five uses of “and,” which give the sentences a swinging rhythmic cadence, one that comes to a thudding stop at the end of sentence two. It resumes, but the sentiment—and Robert Cohn—are both utterly different. Hemingway has somehow compressed the end of a love affair into the weighted silences lingering between three sentences, hovering within the words themselves. As we become familiar with Hemingway’s cryptic keywords—“nice” or “fine” for positive emotions, “rotten” or “sore” for bad ones, “tight” for malign drunkenness—Hemingway tunes our ears to the emotions within them, too large to be expressed in language.
Of our narrator (renamed Jake Barnes), Hemingway tells us practically nothing. All we know at first is that he is Cohn’s “tennis friend,” a journalist working in Paris for the New York Herald. As Cohn swells and recedes from the narrative, he is joined by a series of other masculine foils. The narrative, in fact, consists largely of Jake’s accounts of other people, laced through with his subtle but unmistakable laconicism. In an oblique strategy—the dramatic corollary to his sublimely repressed prose—Hemingway reveals the full picture of our narrator slowly, drip by drip, like a photo negative, through the implicit comparisons and contrasts evoked in his interactions with other figures. Like the ridiculously titled Count Mippipopolous, he has been wounded in war, though we never find out precisely how. Like Mike Campbell, he hates talking about his time in the service, preferring to drown his sorrows. Like the jolly Englishman Harvey Stone, he takes solace in simple, males-only rituals such as trout-fishing. Like Pedro Romero, the young Spanish bullfighter, he insists on confronting his fate with afición, or manly zeal. Like all of them, he is drawn hopelessly, like a moth to a flame, to Lady Brett Ashley: the charismatic, alcoholic, sexually liberated embodiment of the modern woman.
Hemingway structures the novel in four movements, alternating between the sexual competition and emasculation of Paris and Pamplona (the latter accompanied by the primeval bloodsport of bullfighting) and pastoral interludes in Burguete and San Sebastian. But the novel is borne aloft on a stream of verbal parallels, jokes half told over drinks in the café and character details that merge and converge. The work gradually takes on the character of a palimpsest, a text scraped clean over time, a record of suppressed desires and forgotten phrases, of lipstick traces and faded scars.
Gertrude Stein’s epitaph has come to define The Sun Also Rises: “You are all a lost generation.” But Hemingway included a second epitaph, an implicit rebuke to Stein: “One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh; but the earth abideth forever…The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to the place where he arose…” It is from Ecclesiastes. One recognizes the power of those King James iambs, that swinging, Hemingway-esque cadence. Taking the cultural detritus of postwar humanity, with its trite love affairs and barbaric old-world rituals, Hemingway fashioned something tragic and ironic, resolutely modern yet also ancient-seeming, prosaic but poetic, journalistic but also liturgical. One could almost say it qualifies him for sainthood.