Books: An American Storyteller

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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 Her-esheimer, 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 seems 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 Osterling, 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 Hand, 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."

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