Why Hemingway wrote that way

Thursday, November 5, 2015
F: 4:25 a.m. Your move, Papa. I’m finding your letters (1926-1929) fascinating, as you know.
EH: That project [complete publication of his letters] is an example of the value of scholarship. To do the methodical work involved in locating, collating, editing so much material is a huge creative achievement, even though the creative end of it may not be obvious. In its own way it is doing what I did – it collects facts, sorts them, approximates a coherent picture of a whole subject, and thus creates a new understanding by concentrating what had been seemingly random facts into a newly comprehensible unit. That is science, and art, both.
You had thought, somebody could put together a representative sample of my letters written hastily and on the fly as showing me more from the inside, and such a collection would have its own value, even though it used no new material; the “new” would be the selection and the matrix of interpretation you put around it.

F: Yes, I’d thought of it as “Hemingway’s Emails,” because I can see how you used them to blow off steam without the need for endless careful revisioning and polishing, just as we do today. But you had no delete key, no easy cut and paste, and only those of us old enough to have used manual typewriters will be able to remember how we sometimes had to fight with them. I read your letters and I come to “damn this ribbon,” or “I can’t find the margin release,” or I see that you’re using a black / red ribbon and the damn thing is typing all in red or on the line between the two, and it makes me smile. They really could be hard to work with – to say nothing of writing using carbons and having to correct!
EH: One more generation – a few years more – and that physical reality will be another thing that will have to be painfully reconstructed, and imagined, and it won’t be reconstructed quite right except sometimes by a very few, and mostly not at all, like the day to day reality of living in times when people didn’t even have their own horse and carriage, but had to rent them if needed.
F: Or when even city families had their own cow for milk, as when Emerson was a boy.
EH: Every new generation lives under conditions different from the preceding generation, and as the pace of change accelerates, and the underlying conditions of life change, the everyday reality – which is where you’re going to find the real life of people at any given time – passes into history, or mostly doesn’t pass into history but passes into forgetfulness. It isn’t the great ideas or even the great events that change the world, so much as the revolutions in how people live, which changes how and what they are.
F: Have I led us on a side-trip by mentioning your letters?
EH: I’ve told you, any path leads to where you want to go, provided you’re heading in the right direction. This is easily tied to my life in Key West before I met Marty. [Martha Gellhorn, of course.]
F: Care to spell it out more explicitly?
EH: Like every generation, at least in the West since the 1700s, my generation was very much aware that it was on the very edge of massive change. [Both past and future.] Even the things that hadn’t yet changed were affected by everything that had changed around them, so it was an accelerating process. As change accelerated, the old pace of life that had seemed breathlessly fast compared to what had preceded it became, in time, left behind by an even faster pace of change. You can see it most easily in technology, but it happened just as definitely in intangibles like how people thought and what they thought about.
F: Santiago [in The Old Man and the Sea], in his dory way out on the ocean, thought about beisbol and Joe DiMaggio’s bone spur, whatever that was, and how other fishermen had radios.
EH: Exactly. Even the simplest, poorest lives are changed when everything around them changes. You aren’t going to hear about them, because society never writes about the poor, but – [he stopped short]
F: Yes, I was thinking that was a reckless generalization.
EH: And your thinking so brought my thought to a halt. All right, let’s put it this way, more carefully. Even Dos Passos or Steinbeck or I couldn’t tell you the lives of the poor as the poor experienced them. We could make the observations and imaginal effort to do so, and of course that was worthwhile, but it was the observations and imaginations of middle-class educated men. Jack London got much more close because he was of the poor, and had lived poor. Upton Sinclair was a sort of amphibian, shuttled between his rich relations and his life as the son of a poor drunk: He could tell you things. But mostly the poor have their lives unrecorded because they aren’t important to the world of letters. Books – especially in the world I was born into, and especially in countries other than America and England, but even there – were bought by the rich and the well-to-do and the aspiring middle class. So who do you suppose literature was written for? Who was scholarship aimed at? No, this isn’t entirely true, but it is more true than false, and the few people who expressed anything of real life were wildly popular or were nearly unpublished. That is, they were Charles Dickens or Mark Twain – showing life at various levels of society but from a solidly assumed middle-class outlook – or they were the Russians or, in English, what seemed, to timid middle-class America and England, people who were taking a perverse pleasure in playing in the mud.
F: Your mother, thinking The Sun Also Rises a filthy book pandering to people’s vulgar curiosity.
EH: My mother exemplified middle-class aspiring America. I never had to imagine that audience’s reactions to anything I was writing. Dad, on the other hand, was more open to reading about the way the rest of the world outside Oak Park’s daydream really was. He was a doctor, after all, and he had grown up near the raw side of life.
F: On the other hand you and your contemporaries didn’t mind putting your thumb in their eye.
EH: The pressure to push back against such invincible respectability could be irresistible. But it wasn’t just about shocking them because they were easily shocked. It was about helping them to become less easily shocked! Naturally they didn’t appreciate it, and maybe if they had we wouldn’t have tried so hard, but it was as much for their benefit as for ours that we tugged at the constraints on our literature that were causing it to present a false picture of the world as it was.
F: This is illuminating something that had been only half clear to me. You know what I’m referring to.
EH: Why did I fight to use certain words, and what did using those words accomplish that made them necessary? Why did I fight with Max to push the boundaries of the permissible as far as we could? That’s right. Just as I described invisible things by leading the reader to the place where he could intuit them (or miss the point), so I and we – Joyce, Pound, Dos, so many of us – were pushing against an invisible membrane of respectability that held our readers in a sterile pretend environment.
F: Not including at least a representative example of profanity in a scene that would be replete with profanity would to that extent prettify, falsify, what you were describing.
EH: Yes, but go carefully here. It wasn’t so much the description but what the description was intended to lead to. You understand? You have to think always about why authors write. Either they write to pander to the audience that exists, or they write to stretch that audience for its own good (and so the author can say what he has in him to be expressed). If the first, the words that censors objected to don’t matter, and would only interfere with the audience’s sleep. If the latter, though, those words precisely because they were objectionable to that comfortable audience in the context of “literature” were absolutely needed. It wasn’t about the bait but the fish. That is, it wasn’t about the words as written, exactly, so much as about what we hoped to provoke in the reader. If we could give them a livelier sense of the world we could perhaps give them a livelier sense of their own lives. I don’t say we did all this in any thought-out way.
F: I’m a little surprised to see that an hour is gone and I haven’t even refilled my coffee cup.
EH: And we have barely begun to scratch the surface of the topic. But, tomorrow is always another day.
F: Well, I’ve refilled my cup and we’re going well, why not continue?
EH: A little, then. What you need to understand is that I and my friends and my competitors and even the guys I couldn’t stand who were also working and weren’t phonies, were not social workers. We weren’t thinking we would promote specific reforms. Or rather, this is a big theme, at least another hour’s work. Let’s look at the difference between Dos and me, for instance, or Steinbeck and me, or Upton Sinclair and me for that matter. It actually does bear directly on what happened with Marty, and it explains what happened with To have and Have Not.
F: You got caught in a crossfire. [That is, an on-going political and ideological crossfire.]
EH: That’s one way of looking at it. And this goes into the whole communist thing, and the effect it had by trying to warp our literature in one direction while commercial pressures continued to warp it in another. Big subject, let’s not rush it.
F: All right, but that gives us a definite jumping-off point for next time. By the way, I was surprised, reading your letters from mid-1928, to see that you wanted [Democratic presidential nominee] Al Smith to win and thought he might. To me that tells me that either the political climate changed radically that summer (to result in Hoover’s landslide) or, more likely, you were letting your partisanship overwhelm your judgment, the way you often did betting on prize-fights. But I hadn’t thought about you in connection with politics, and I remember that your admired grandfather Hemingway said he never knowingly sat at the same meal with a Democrat. Putting your thumb in Oak Park’s eye, again?
EH: If I had been, I’d have done it much more prominently, as in letters to my mother! No, my politics were just very different from what people generally assume. I was always on the side of the poor and the – what shall we call them? – the unrepresented. Outsider that I was, I imagined Al Smith to be on their side too. It was only much later that we learned that he was a crook. And anyway, he was a city boy, a Catholic, a “wet,” a modern as opposed to the Neanderthals that headed the Republican Party. It’s true that Hoover was never a Neanderthal, but we knew the kind of man he would have to answer to, and we had had a belly full of them even before the great depression exploded their pretensions to knowing what they were doing.
F: At some point – oh, I was starting to say “we’re going to have to talk about your politics” but I see, that’s just what all this is about, in a way.
EH: Of course. But then, everything connects to everything else.
F: Well, it’s interesting, at least to me. So we can continue next time with writing and politics.
EH: That way of looking at it will lead you down sterile pathways. We’ll look at it from a little different angle.
F: Okay, Looking forward to it.

2 thoughts on “Why Hemingway wrote that way

  1. Frank, EH,

    Fascinating, exciting exchange that is so titillating I can’t wait for the next one. I guess I consider myself as part of that legacy of writers who tries to give voice to those without one and it thrills me to hear EH express that here in the literary context of all of them including Dos Passos, Steinbeck etc. and he a very unique voice.

    One question I have was what does Ernest mean when he says that reference to Marty, Martha Gellhorn and To Have and Have Not? They seemed so suited for each other – writers, adventurers, lovers. Not sure of the meaning here.

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