The life and works of Ernest Hemingway have fascinated, inspired, and confounded writers, scholars, and students in the 56 years since his death. Although his prose may strike readers as simplistic on the surface, they reveal treasure troves of stylistic genius, Romantic influence, sophisticated – if problematic – social and political commentary, and radical ways in which a writer can interact with their audience. Although Hemingway has featured on fewer literature curriculums and lists of important authors in the last several years, his works remain best sellers and vignettes of his life are mainstays of popular culture. Most writers who have given audiences influential works also happen to be fraught with controversy; Hemingway is no different.
He is, perhaps, one of the more basic examples of this phenomenon. As the twentieth century marched into the twenty-first, Hemingway’s lifestyle and works – in which he wove together machismo, admiration for violent pastimes, and alcoholism – struck many as archaic and out of line with increasingly progressive social values. Why, then, does Hemingway still maintain his place of importance within the world of literature and continue to provide a certain standard of masculine achievement? This essay will address the ways in which Hemingway is still a significant literary and cultural figure, especially with regard to his stylistic contributions to literature and the ways in which the image he crafted for himself are both amplified and contradicted in some of his writings.
Prior to researching the exact literary significance of Ernest Hemingway, I had read both his memoir A Moveable Feast (posthumously published in 1964), about his time in Paris in the 1920s, and The Paris Wife by Paula McClain, a fictional account of the same time period as told by Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley. Additionally, I had seen depictions of Hemingway on screen in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris and the HBO film Hemingway and Gellhorn, a telling of the writer’s adventures with his third wife over the course of the 1930s and 40s. I would say I had a basic understanding of parts of the man’s life, but I certainly do not have a firm grasp on most of his major or minor works. I approached this essay with the knowledge that Hemingway is the quintessential man’s man: he saw the beauty in the struggle of war, recognized the parallels between war and the confrontation between man and animal (such as with bullfighting or hunting), and had specific views about interactions between the sexes. He enjoyed boxing, safaris, hunting and fishing, drinking, and trying to convey a life experiences vividly but with few words. Lastly, I knew his works are important in the same way that Fitzgerald’s and Shakespeare’s works are important: the names are instantly familiar but it’s difficult to immediately articulate exactly the ways in which they’ve positively contributed to the canon of Western literature – other than the fact that they wrote good stories.
I began my search by entering the question, “Why is Ernest Hemingway important?” into the Google search engine and received numerous hits – mostly personal blogs gushing over Hemingway, why men are no longer “real men”, and how Papa (Hemingway’s nickname) would be ashamed. There were a few more journalistic pieces among the hits, though – namely from the Los Angeles Times, the Guardian, and the academic journal American Literature. I read four articles which all had different takes on Hemingway’s significance. After reading these essays, I composed the following paragraphs which synthesize the various ways in which Hemingway has been influential.
For the fiftieth anniversary of Hemingway’s death in 2011, several writers at the Los Angeles Times penned essays about Hemingway and addressed his hold on Western culture. David Ulin posited that, although Hemingway’s stories are certainly captivating, their narrative content isn’t necessarily the radical element of his writings. Instead, Hemingway’s brevity, conciseness, and exploration of enduring themes like love, sexuality, loss, and adventure are the primary reason for his place in the literary canon (Ulin, web). Despite the fact that the world has changed immensely since Hemingway’s suicide, his style is still prevalent among many writers. Reed Johnson, also writing for the LA Times, suggests one need look no further than J.D. Salinger, Norman Mailer, Chuck Palahniuk, and Hunter S. Thomson to see the echoes of Hemingway’s style, which was certainly unique when he was first published in the 1920s (Johnson, web). Although the nature and public perception of war (which is one of the themes Hemingway explored extensively) has changed dramatically in the last few decades, Hemingway’s literary heirs see the mirrors of the struggle of war in every day interactions in an effort to define masculinity in a different arena (ibid).
Bearing that concept in mind, Rob Woodward of The Guardian points out that female scholars had been loath to engage with Hemingway’s pieces until some of his unfinished manuscripts were published in the decades after his death. Novels like The Garden of Eden, which explores androgyny and polyamorous relationships, reveal a more nuanced side of Hemingway that is sensitive to the fact that there really is no essentialist gender expression (Woodward, web). With the study of such new pieces come new scholarly and literary treatments of Hemingway’s older works. Both Woodward and Jackson Benson put forth that Hemingway crafted a certain public persona – one heavily concerned with boozing, brawling, and hunting – that drastically diverged from the subtleties of his personal life (Benson, 355). New theoretical frames of reference in concert with previously unpublished Hemingway manuscripts have allowed scholars and audiences to explore new dimensions of the writer’s work and kept his work relevant for new generations (ibid).
While the assumptions I approached this project with were not incorrect, they were certainly one dimensional. While the most recent scholarship on Hemingway’s writings do not absolve his work of their inherently sexist motifs, it is important to understand that there was a distinction between the image he crafted for himself and his own personal thoughts and actions. Further, like any other exploration of an author, it is imperative to bear the writer’s historical and socio-cultural context in mind when considering their works. Hemingway’s stories offer both a look into the past and a mirror for more modern stylistic literary trends. One can both critique his more problematic stances and themes while enjoying his prose and narrative. Considering the ways in which Hemingway has influenced newer generations of writers and arose as a significant figure in pop culture, he will remain among the prominent literary personalities for years to come.
- Benson, Jackson. “Ernest Hemingway: The Life as Fiction and the Fiction as Life.” American Literature (1989). 354-358.
- Johnson, Reed. “Rethinking Hemingway 50 Years After His Death.” Los Angeles Times, July 2, 2011. http://articles.latimes.com/2011/jul/02/entertainment/la-et-hemingway-20110702/2
- Ulin, David L. “Under the Influence of Hemingway.” Los Angeles Times, July 3, 2011. http://articles.latimes.com/2011/jul/03/entertainment/la-ca-david-ulin-20110703/2
- Woodward, Rob. “The Importance of Being Ernest.” The Guardian, March 26, 2008. https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2008/mar/26/robwoodardblog