Conversations with Hemingway (11)

Sunday, May 9, 2010

7:30 AM. A lot of communicating, yesterday — 23 pages of journal. I don’t really know where to go with this today, but I have the sense, still, that you do, Papa. I have the continuing sense  that you have your own point of view, of your life from the inside, that you want to get over.

That’s right. And it isn’t just vanity, or scratching an itch. Those things can motivate over here, don’t let anybody tell you they can’t, for people are people whether they have a body or not. But I am working with you on another level — as you would put it — to bring forward another project.

Oh, I sort of get that feeling too — something like what Joseph and others did.

You gave up on the project a little prematurely. You didn’t get everything you needed in one six-month spurt, and the outline of the wasn’t clear to you because it couldn’t yet be clear to you.

I’m beginning to see that. But at the time I was thinking of putting out a product that could give me some money to live on — so that I wouldn’t have to go back to work at a job. Now, it’s different. At least unless everything blows up, I seem to have enough to get by. I live frugally and am grateful for my time.

You see that your partner [Bob Friedman] sees this work a little differently than before. The outline of its possibility is beginning to be clearer to him. Not just a series of talks with dead people who might really be just the result of the author’s imagination, but investigations into the nature of things.

Well, I did set out, in November 2005, to write about guidance and healing.

And you haven’t left that path. In fact, you continue to whittle down your interests until those two activities are central. You don’t even obsess over writing fiction much anymore!

Yeah, well, let’s talk about fiction. Yours.

The first thing to remember is that I had to be practical. If I didn’t want to be stuck writing for newspapers, I had to be able to sell what I wrote. But if I wanted to be happy with what I wrote, I had to keep writing the best I could, not like Fitzgerald did later, whoring for easy money. If I’d done that it would have destroyed me. If I could even have done it.

Now, in those days there were the magazines, and that was where the money was that would keep me going, and it was where I could keep my name in front of the public — publicizing myself and getting paid for it. The things I wrote that had no market, I sold or more or less gave away and considered to be writing exercises, developing my skill. Not everything that I wrote had to sell, just enough to keep me going and hopefully to get a little ahead.

As you know, I did my stint at journalism, and that paid the bills for a while and helped me to hone my skills. In Our Time wasn’t straight fact, but it certainly owed its existence to reportage.

But nonfiction couldn’t get at what I wanted to get it, and if it could have, there would have been no market for it. Let’s look at that. What you are doing, right here, is not fiction, but it reports on facts — depends upon the existence of facts — not universally admitted even in your day. You are pioneering something, you see. Could I have done something similar in the 1920s or 30s or 40s or 50s? Even if I’d wanted to, if I’d known how, if I’d believed in it, could I have done anything similar and had it accepted as anything but fiction? And, there would have been no market for it as fiction, and I had to have an income.

Nonfiction in my day depended upon what everyone could accept as fact. It’s always that way, it’s just that different times accept different kinds of facts. In my day, the market for exploration beyond the physical was very small and not at all respectable.

Notice, I am saying exploration. Sensationalization is another thing. I’m talking about sincere attempts to get it down into print.

I wrote fiction, mainly, because it had a market and so I could afford to use it. But I wrote it in order to portray life, as deeply and carefully and importantly as I could see. You can’t see inside someone in any way that can be verified or accepted as factual, so if you’re going to do that, you do it as fiction, and you try to help people see what they might never see without your efforts.

As you’re giving me that, I do see it, and it seems clear and obvious enough, though I don’t know that I ever happened to see it before.

That’s what I mean. You take “My Old Man,” for instance. Why do you think you love that story? And why did you think it was autobiographical until you realized that it couldn’t be?

I don’t know why, I just know that I do. It’s so compact.

Think of “Soldier’s Home” or “In Another Country.” Short, both of them. Why do you love them?

I guess because they set out an emotion so clearly.

That’s exactly what they do. Nothing else matters to any of them but that. And why did you find others of my stories so inexplicable?

Yes, I think I see. If I didn’t feel the emotion — if I didn’t emotionally understand the story — it just left me puzzled or irritated, or both.

And there you have in a nutshell the history of the literary criticism of Ernest Hemingway’s works! If they didn’t get it, they assumed the fault was in me. They’d have liked to fault my craftsmanship but the stories they could get showed that I knew what I was doing. So instead they faulted me. My values. My pretensions. My posing. My being out of touch with the real world of politics or whatever trend they believed in and clung to.

And if they didn’t believe in the emotion —

Then they assumed I was faking, or was imagining something that couldn’t exist. And if the story and characters would have brought them to an emotional understanding they didn’t want to come to, they said the characters and situations couldn’t be real. Harry Morgan was half nature myth!

You must have gotten awfully tired of people misunderstanding or rejecting what you were doing, and having platforms to announce that misunderstanding on, and convince others.

A man has to go his own way, you know that, but he likes to have a sense that he isn’t alone; that there are others who at least sympathize with what he’s doing. I didn’t even have my own family, most of them. I especially would have wanted my father to see what I was doing and approve of it, but maybe if he had, I couldn’t have developed the same way. Maybe I would have become vulnerable to criticism. Or maybe it would have made things easier, who knows? Maybe I wouldn’t have had so prickly a relationship with anybody who might criticize me and misunderstand me where I needed support.

Would you have admitted that you needed support?

Depends on who, when, where and why. Might as well throw in what and how, I suppose. On Times Square to a crowd of people, no. To a woman, indirectly, maybe. To myself in the middle of the night, never.

Now, to go back to what it was that I was doing. I was showing emotion by not talking about it. I was bringing it in between the lines, forcing the reader to get into a certain place if he was going to get the point. And I was doing it, at the same time, in a new way because it couldn’t be done in the old way. (I don’t mean to say that I’d thought this through; I was following the scent.) All the hearts and flowers wouldn’t have helped the reader see what had been said. They would have prevented it. So, I stripped it down. Got rid of the ornamentals. Streamlined it. And the result looked different according to the eyes you brought to it. If you were wedded to the literary traditions and social conventions of the previous century, it looked crude, rough, deliberately uncivilized. Looked like a stunt, or a publicity stunt, or an attempt to shock for the sake of shocking. If you were my father, it looked like deliberately choosing to concentrate on the seamy side of life — like a boy in Sunday clothes deliberately stomping through a mud puddle.

But if you were open to new forms, it could be exciting. Then it was a question of how the subject matter took you. If you didn’t like it, I was misusing my talents. If you did, I was telling the truth. And then, when I’d made my name and the form wasn’t strange anymore, then if you still didn’t like it, I was imitating myself, or was caught in my own mythology, or was unable to break into new ground, or was deaf to the new social consciousness that had rendered my concerns quaint and obsolete. And if you did like it, I was still telling truth.

I thought Maxwell Perkins made a good point when he explained your use of four-letter words — to Owen Wister, I think — as entirely congruent with your style, in that you rarely used a simile.

Max always understood me. We came into this world to work together. Not our only reasons, but that was one, for each of us. That’s why people think of us together.

Thanks, papa. Enough for now, I think.

Keep at it, a little at a time every day, and you’ll get there.

Thanks. I intend it.

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