An American Storyteller

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Commander of the Chain
The postwar Hemingway settled into another good hotel, the Gritti in Venice, to write "the big book" about World War II (a draft is now finished). But a piece of gun wadding went into his eye during a duck hunt and started an infection that doctors feared was going to kill him. Wanting to get one more story out of himself, he put the big book aside and batted out Across the River and Into the Trees, which most critics found a middle-aged love fantasy with an admixture of bad-tempered military shoptalk. Said Hemingway about the critics: "I have moved through arithmetic, through plane geometry and algebra, and now I am in calculus. If they don't understand that, to hell with them."

It is impossible to overlook the adolescent in Hemingway--his bravado, his emotional friendships, his vague but all-important code, his deep sentimentality about the good, the true, the straight, the beautiful, and occasionally the unprintable. But to preserve something of the adolescent through three decades in a world of literary critics, parodizers and cocktail-party highbrows takes a certain admirable courage. Above all, Hemingway can laugh at himself. Typical of Hemingway making fun of Hemingway is El Ordine Militar, Nobile y Espirituoso de los Caballeros de Brusadelli--which means, more or less, the Military Order of the Noble and Spirited Knights of Brusadelli. It was founded by Hemingway in Italy, and named, as he explains in Across the River and Into the Trees, "after a particularly notorious multi-millionaire taxpaying profiteer of Milan, who had . . . accused his young wife, publicly and legally through due process of law, of having deprived him of his judgement through her extraordinary sexual demands." As Commander of the Great Chain of the Order, Hemingway distributed knighthoods to friends; after his recovery he returned to Cuba, and mailed reports to fellow members. A sample, written just after he had finished writing The Old Man and the Sea: "Your Cuban representative has not been able to do much for the Order in the last year due to the deplorable necessity of writing a book . . . The book will be published on Sept. 8th and all members of the Order will observe a moment of silence. The password will be: 'Don't cheer, boys. The poor readers are dying.'"

More Mature, Less Mannered.
How does Nobel Prizewinner Ernest Hemingway stand with his surviving readers? The Sun Also Rises, which offered an ironical threnody for the "lost generation," is today appealing mostly as a period piece. But even if Hemingway had stopped after the fine short stories written in the 1920s and A Farewell to Arms, he would have won a roomy place in American literature. Years later, when his style had become a fixture and when Hemingway prose occasionally dipped toward banality, the importance of the beginning was sometimes not considered. Much of his output of the '30s seems below par today, but For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940) was one of his best, and in The Old Man and the Sea he is better than he ever was, more mature and less mannered. Unlike most American writers, who seemed inexplicably to wither after their triumphs (e.g., Sinclair Lewis, Joseph Hergesheimer, Thomas Wolfe), Ernest Hemingway has continued to grow.

Almost from the beginning, critics have talked about Hemingway's obsession with death, all the dark and clinical tear and bleeding on the battlefields, in the bull rings, in the lunchroom where The Killers wait, with gloves on, for their victims. Yet somehow, in an atomic age, Hemingway seem much less macabre and violent than he did in the pacifist climate of the '30s. Hemingway still stands out from a pack of introspective and obscure writers with a dazzling simplicity, rarely politicking, never preaching, never using Freudian jargon.

Some, including 1949's Nobel Prizewinner William Faulkner, think that his world is too narrow. "[Hemingway] has no courage," Faulkner once said. "[He] has never crawled out on a limb. He has never been known to use a word that might cause the reader to check with a dictionary to see if it is properly used." Hemingway has indeed remained in the carefully delineated, cut-to-the-bone world of simple, palpable acts. But at his best, Hemingway has a sense of fate recalling Melville, an American heartiness recalling Mark Twain (who never used big dictionary words either). Hemingway can carve icebergs of prose; only a few words on paper convey much more beneath the surface. The taut, economical style contains more than meets the casual eye--the dignity of man and also his imperfection, the recognition that there is a right way and a wrong, the knowledge that the redeeming things of life are measured in the profound satisfactions that come from struggle. Said Dr. Anders Österling, Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy, in Stockholm this week: "Courage is Hemingway's central theme--the bearing of one who is put to the test and who steels himself to meet the cold cruelty of existence without, by so doing, repudiating the great and generous moments..."

John Donne provided Hemingway with the title of For Whom the Bell Tolls. "No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe," said Donne. Says Hemingway now: "A man both is and is not an island. Sometimes he has to be the strongest island there can be to be a part of the main. [I] am not good at stating metaphysics in a conversation, but I thought Santiago [the Old Man] was never alone because he had his friend and enemy the sea and the things that lived in the sea some of whom he loved and others that he hated."

His lifetime has brought Ernest Hemingwny recognition, distinction and reward that only death and passage of time bring to many others. Hemingway is satisfied. He would not change any of his life or of his writings--anyway, "not yet." He feels now as he did some years ago, and he is willing to rest on it: "You only have to do it once to get remembered by some people. But if you can do it year after year after year quite a lot of people remember and they tell their children and their children and their grandchildren remember, and if it's books they can read them. And if it's good enough it lasts forever."

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