Ernest Hemingway is known as the author of a number of miscellaneous novels and short stories, as well as two books on blood sports. His best-known works, however, are two ‘novels of love and war’, A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls, and his significant development, such as it is (for only in a very special sense can he be said to develop at all), may best be seen by a comparison of those two works. Hemingway, in practice and in art, strips living of all superficial complication.
The war made clear to him the primordial in mankind, and he sees this primordial as always dominant. He is interested in people who come to grips with physical life. So, vigorous struggle, sex, and death are his principal themes. In The Sun Also Rises (1926), his first novel, he shows a group who have been mentally and physically injured by the war. They cannot readjust themselves to the changed tempo of peacetime. Their disabilities cannot check their passion for physical excitement – a passion as constant and as emphatic as it was when they were going through war experiences.
Lesser emotions pall when there has been close and unremitting contact with death in its violent forms. Death in the Afternoon explains Hemingway’s obsession for bull-fighting, which to him is not a sport but an art where death can be seen given, avoided, refused and accepted for a nominal price of admission. To Hemingway, death is the ultimate and triumphant reality (Meyers 1977). He is therefore interested in danger, in activities which test man to the limit, in situations in which death is present in palpable form.
Such is Hemingway’s art inheritance from the war. This primary concern with death does not, however, cast a shadow of pessimism. Hemingway has evidently often thought, “How good the mere living! ” He is a Kipling in his emphasis on vigorous and strenuous action. The joys of being young and healthy, the joys of fishing and hunting, the joys of making love – these are the concerns of the primordial man as much as are fighting and killing. Many of Hemingway’s stories are therefore wholly cheerful, and none of them are wholly tragic.
Ernest Hemingway, like Mark Twain and Stephen Crane, was a journalist and war correspondent before he became a writer, and this valuable experience enabled him to describe-with unusual authority-the bloody conflicts and exotic settings that appear in his work. In boyhood he had hunted and fished with Indians in the wilds of northern Michigan. All his powers are assembled in A Farewell to Arms. If the love plot were removed, the book would practically be autobiography. For it follows closely Hemingway’s own experiences as officer in charge of an ambulance unit on the Italian front.
But with the imagined love plot woven into his actual chain of observations and impressions, the book attains a purpose and a body which add greatly to its strength. Hemingway is not a sentimentalist like Dreiser. The persons in A Farewell to Arms are not pitied; indignation at the horror of war did not stir Hemingway to write the book. It is a record of life and love and war, of man placed where all that civilization has achieved topples and crashes down. A Farewell to Arms is just a record of this, and the reader is left to supply whatever terror and pity he might wish.
But, if any criticism is to be significant, as far as Hemingway is concerned, it must concern itself with the central fact that Hemingway is first and above all an artist. William McFee once said of Joseph Conrad that, though he was perhaps not the greatest novelist, he was “incomparably the greatest artist who ever wrote a novel” (Ross 1961). The distinction which McFee rightly makes here is equally illuminating for Ernest Hemingway, because such a distinction points out the outstanding quality of an artist – that he is, by the fact of his artistry, unique.
The unique quality of the artist stems from the primary artistic function which is to see and it is the individuality, the originality, perhaps even the personality of his perceptions which give to Hemingway, as to every artist, his quality. But to see an object, a place, a time or a person, requires a formed image, a whole whose parts are integrated with a central concept. To see is to impart form to inchoate material.
But to see thus, in a unique, formed whole, requires an extraordinary discipline on the part of the craftsman for he must rigidly exclude the didactic, the accidental and the irrelevant. All of Hemingway’s major works became successful films: A Farewell to Arms (1932), For Whom the Bell Tolls’-sold to Paramount for $100,000 plus royalties (1943), To Have and Have Not (1944), The Killers (1946), The Macomber Affair (1947), The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952), The Sun Also Rises (1957), The Old Man and the Sea (1958), the second A Farewell to Arms (1958) and Islands in the Stream (1977) (Laurence 1981).
These movies helped to make him a millionaire; and his well-publicized friendships with Marlene Dietrich, and with Ingrid Bergman and Gary Cooper (who starred in these films and personified his heroic characters), enhanced his glamorous legend. The Hemingway image has continued with his granddaughters, who have recently achieved fame as models and movie stars. Hemingway’s ambition was “to write what I’ve seen and known in the best and simplest way” (Gunnk 1972). His classic style, stripped of adjectives, is bare, sharp and direct.
He emphasizes dialogue rather than description, sensations rather than thought, and achieves an astonishing Immediacy: an “exaltation of the instant. ” As Wallace Stevens remarked: “Most people don’t think of Hemingway as a poet, but obviously he is a poet and I should say, offhand, the most significant of living poets, so far as the subject of extraordinary actuality is concerned. ” Hemingway’s influences, his gift of evoking a sense of place, are matched only by D. H.
Lawrence. Despite the reservations of reviewers, the technique and style of Hemingway’s books, which were translated into more than thirty-five languages, had a profound effect on modern European writers. For he offered a way of seeing and recording experience which matched his contemporaries’ belief that art is a means of telling the truth. Sartre and Camus, as well as Elio Vittorini and Giuseppe Berto, Wolfgang Borchert and Heinrich Boll, were strongly influenced by his work.
Camus liked to emphasize his own place in the French tradition and said he would give a hundred Hemingways for a Stendhal or a Benjamin Constant, but Sartre defined his friend’s debt to the American master: “The comparison with Hemingway seems more fruitful [than with Kafka], The relationship between the two styles is obvious. Both men write in the same short sentences. Each sentence refuses to exploit the momentum accumulated by preceding ones. Each is a new beginning. Each is like a snapshot of a gesture or object. For each new gesture and word there is a new and corresponding sentence….
Even in Death in the Afternoon, which is not a novel, Hemingway retains that abrupt style of narration that shoots each separate sentence out of the void with a sort of respiratory spasm. His style is himself…. What our author [Camus] borrows from Hemingway is thus the discontinuity between the clipped phrases that imitate the discontinuity of time” (Fleming 1985). Hemingway, who was first published in Russia in 1934 and praised as an active anti-Fascist, soon became the favourite foreign author of both the intellectuals and the masses.
More than a million copies of his works have appeared in the Soviet Union. He has received a poetic tribute from Yevgeny Yevtushenko and critical appreciation in several essays by Ivan Kashkeen, who presents the most appealing social and political aspects of Hemingway to Russian readers: “The struggle of the common people for a decent existence, their simple and straightforward attitude towards life and death serve as a model for Hemingway’s more complex and contradictory characters” (Asselineau 1965).
He also states the reasons why Hemingway is attractive to younger writers: “The fact that he can look at life without blinking; that his manner is all his own; that he is ruthlessly exacting on himself, making no allowances, and straightforward in self-appraisal; that his hero keeps himself in check, and is ever ready to fight nature, danger, fear, even death, and is prepared to join other people at the most perilous moments in their struggle for a common cause.
” Hemingway’s life and work, which taught a generation of men to speak in stoical accents, have also had a profound influence on a school of hard-boiled American writers-Dashiell Hammett, James Farrell, John O’Hara, Nelson Algren, James Jones and Norman Mailer-who were affected not only by his style and technique, but also by his horrific content and his heroic code that seemed to represent the essence of American values.
Ralph Ellison has described the psychological and aesthetic effect of Hemingway’s life and language, and explained why he was an even more important model for him than the black novelist Richard Wright: “Because he appreciated the things of this earth which I love…. Because he wrote with such precision…. Because all that he wrote was involved with a spirit beyond the tragic…. Because Hemingway was a greater artist than Wright….
Because Hemingway loved the American language and the joy of writing…. Because he was in many ways the true father-as-artist of so many of us who came to writing during the late thirties” (Lawrence 1973). In much written about him during the 1950s Hemingway the hero merged imperceptibly with Hemingway the sage, thus restoring to him one of the artist’s most venerable functions, one radically diminished for serious writers since at least the time of Flaubert.
Modern writers might still aspire to transform the consciousness of their race, but because of their art’s increasingly private and “difficult” nature, and especially because powerful competing modes of communication had usurped some of their functions and much of their audience, they no longer enjoyed the cultural pre-eminence they once did (Donaldson 1977). As a novelist Hemingway subscribed to Flaubert’s specification of a restrained, indirect, and subtle art, but this chafed that part of him which wanted more in the way of public influence.
His solution – arrogating to himself the role of mentor in his public personality – used the competing media for his own purposes. Paradoxically, however, because he was an artist whose literary genius was universally recognized, his stature as a sage was considerably augmented. Performing one of the artist’s traditional roles, but in the untraditional way of speaking outside his art, he prescribed modes of consciousness and implied by example how his admirers could live their lives as successfully as he had his. And his culture, granting the validity of his special insight because he was an artist, eagerly welcomed these prescriptions.