'Hemingway' faces hard facts

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D.J. Tice, Star Tribune
·6 min read
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My baby-boom generation may have been last in which young American males burdened with even far-fetched literary pretensions almost inevitably went through a Hemingway period.

Such dreamers clumsily styled their prose, their outlook on life and their tastes after the world-famous author and adventurer.

I last wrote about this idolatry — and about how Ernest Hemingway's flamboyant, tough-guy persona saved many a bookish boy of my era from feeling like a sissy — for another newspaper, on the occasion of what would have been Hemingway's 100th birthday. That was in 1999, in the waning months of the century indelibly described by this native of the Chicago suburbs, who went on to wander the globe and produce defining portraits in words of the "Movable Feast" of Paris, the "Snows of Kilimanjaro" in Africa, the running of the bulls in Spain and the lush, tragic islands of the Gulf Stream.

The occasion for excavating these thoughts is of course documentary film historian Ken Burns' marvelous decision to make Hemingway the latest chapter in his epic library of films exploring essential events, people and passions of the American journey. "Hemingway," airing this week on PBS, focuses on the astounding and confusing conflict between the triumph and beauty of the author's writing and the tragic ugliness of much of his private life.

Creative geniuses often have been troubled souls — or simply jerks. But their enduring work balances the harm they do. Millions of drunken brutes have plagued the earth without leaving a single masterpiece behind. So here's hoping the main effect of Burns' man-in-full biography is to reignite interest in Hemingway's art.

At the turn of century, I noted that Hemingway's once-oversized reputation had been diminished. Only two of his books had made a much-publicized list of "the greatest 100 novels of the 20th century" and neither was in top 40. At the end of his own life, in 1961, the Nobel Prize winner would have been ranked a good deal higher.

Yet Hemingway's fall from grace is itself a kind of tribute to his significance. Few other major authors of the past — Fitzgerald, Austen, Twain, Dickens — are out of favor today in the same sense as Hemingway, not so much ignored as disapproved.

This is because Hemingway, more than most novelists, really stood for something emphatic and challenging — for a distinctive approach to living that is not the fashion today. Hemingway, the man and the artist, embodied as well as any real-life individual an earlier ideal of the stoic male hero, the hard-drinking, tough-minded soldier of fortune living lustily (in every sense) without betraying much emotion.

The irony is this: While scorning Hemingway's persona, the secular ethos of our own era fully embraces the core of his philosophy, if not his courage in accepting its implications.

Hemingway was a modernist moral revolutionary. Rejecting bitterly the prosperous Protestant propriety of his post-Victorian upbringing, he denounced its conventional sentiments and values. "I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious and sacrifice," he wrote. "Abstract words … were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers. …"

Hemingway sought meaning in facts, not moral ideals. But he understood that traditional ethics would have to be replaced, not merely rejected. His art and carefully crafted persona constituted an effort to construct an alternative ethical system, a code of conduct that could give purpose and dignity to a brief, godless, painful and ultimately meaningless existence.

"It was all a nothing," he wrote, "and a man was nothing too. It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order."

In search of cleanness and order, Hemingway preached a religion of experience. A zeal for macho adventures — big-game hunting, deep-sea fishing, bullfighting, war — was essential to feeling the pang of life fully. So was savoring physical pleasure. No other writer lavished so much attention on everything his characters ate and drank and saw and smelled.

Above all, existence took on dignity in Hemingway's world through dedication to craft. An almost saintly aura surrounds any Hemingway character who displays the correct devotion to professional skills — doctors, bullfighters, fishermen, hunters, soldiers, writers.

Hemingway abundantly displayed artistic devotion himself. Before he was 30 (according even to the "best of the century" list), Hemingway had written two of American literature's finest novels, "The Sun Also Rises" and "A Farewell to Arms" — bitter laments of the First World War. Later (in addition to "Death in the Afternoon," the best thing ever written about bullfighting, and other very good and pretty books) he added a stirring saga of the Spanish Civil War, "For Whom the Bell Tolls," and "The Old Man and the Sea" — a last poignant stab at greatness dramatizing how "a man can be destroyed but not defeated."

Hemingway was, of course, among the most original prose stylists ever. His extravagantly simple, understated descriptive technique is irresistible to parodists. I once wrote a Hemingway parody myself. Readers may be relieved to learn that I've misplaced everything except the title: "The Old Man Rises in the Afternoon."

Truth is, what might be called the cleanness and order of Hemingway's prose has influenced everyone writing English since his time, generally for the better. His aim, Hemingway said, was to convey experience directly to readers, not to tell them about an event but to give just the right details — the little beads of water that run along a suddenly taut fishing line — and cause its sensations to "become part of his or her experience and seem actually to have happened."

Sadly, Hemingway, though perhaps not defeated, destroyed himself. He did it with alcohol, ruined marriages, friendships poisoned by professional jealousy, bitter feuds. In the end he did it with a shotgun.

It has long been easy (and profitable) to find fault with Hemingway. His swaggering male pride and condescension to women in life and fiction naturally make him a villain in our age. The cult of experience and stoicism ultimately offer little solace (as Hemingway learned himself) when advancing age dulls the senses and sharpens the reality of inevitable (and probably unadventurous) death.

But Hemingway's belief that work and craft give life nobility stands the test of time. His transporting prose, his way of seeing, is a lasting gift to our language and culture.

Hemingway's self-conscious heroism was also authentic in one way. He embraced the implications of modern skepticism and atheism — that it makes life "a nothing" unless one can impose order and cleanness upon it. He couldn't, in the end, but at least he faced facts.

D.J. Tice is at Doug.Tice@startribune.com.