Hemingway and revolution and literary politics

Thursday, November 17, 2015
F: 2 a.m. It’s only two, and my rule is, not earlier than three, but since a combination of problems has me up anyway, we might as well try to accomplish something. Okay with you, Papa?
EH: It isn’t keeping me up – and as you said, you’re going to be up anyway. And you can always quit if need be.
F: True. You remember where you left off, and where you wanted to resume?
EH: Glance back.
F: You and revolution and literary politics.
EH: You know, after I went to Spain, I was a marked man in J. Edgar Hoover’s book. Even though I didn’t exactly fight for the Spanish Republic, my sympathies were clear enough. I even gave public speeches on the republic’s behalf – ad it was death with the State Department and the FBI to be what they later called “premature anti-fascists.” Once you got Hoover on your trail, you never got rid of him. He might not do anything, but you couldn’t count on that, and meanwhile they were always watching. It’s damn ironic, because in the early 30s, before I went to Spain, the fashionable left was accusing me of being politically irrelevant.

[Interesting – as I type this up at 5:30 I am reminded, as I go along, of tangents not taken. It is as if Papa were reviewing his list of things he meant to include but didn’t.]
As I said, they couldn’t believe I could be a sincere friend of the poor, and an intelligent critic of the system I had been observing for 15 years, including a couple of influential early years [meaning, years that were influential in shaping him] very much an inside observer, and still want to write about bullfighting and African safaris. They figured me as a case of arrested development.
F: Those couple of years as inside observer, I know but not everybody will, means the time in 1922 and 1923 when you were writing feature stories for the Toronto Star, and travelling to economic summits with Lincoln Steffens and Paul Mowrer and that crowd [of foreign correspondents].
EH: Right. I got a concentrated education on economics and politics from Steffens in those years, and of course from the events themselves. The result is that before I was 25, before I came back to Europe in 1924 having decided to devote my time full time to becoming a published author, no more journalism to interrupt things, I knew the way the world was, not the way the establishment pretended it was and tried to believe it was.
F: That’s your early work.
EH: It certainly was. In Our Time is about nothing, thematically, if it is not about violence. War, police, sport, whatever venue, it had the same common thread – the violent upheaval showed in every aspect of life. But the theme somehow didn’t come through.
F: I know what you mean, but that doesn’t say it. I think you mean, people saw that you were writing about violence but they took that to mean that you approved of it, which is why you were writing about it. That was my assumption about The Sun Also Rises, until I realized it wasn’t true. It’s why your mother loathed it, and your father advised you that you could find wholesome and uplifting subjects if you looked for them. It’s why you didn’t get the Nobel Prize a dozen years before you finally did.
EH: Yes, and that ably assists the conversation. The establishment assumed I had no politics. But that is because they didn’t read what I wrote, but read it and silently interpreted it as they did so, running it through their filter of who Hemingway presumably was.
F: But it’s true that some of them saw through your hard-shell [I meant hard-boiled] routine. [James] Joyce and Sylvia Beach did.
EH: Okay, so what?
F: So they assumed you were trying to show how tough you were by writing about violence, and they took it to be a form of braggadocio.
EH: But you have the material to know better.
F: I wish I could find where you wrote that after you came back from Greece in 1923 or 1922, whichever it was, you pondered how to fight what you had seen, and you decided “cold as a snake,” you said, to do it by writing.
EH: Few people noticed it, and fewer believed it, but it’s true. I realize it has the flavor of self-dramatization about it, but that’s what happened. And did I ever write meaningless fluff designed to lure people to go to sleep, everything was fine?
F: I’m too tired to continue now, but I hope we can continue right here.
EH: No reason not to.
F: 4:45 a.m. I wish I had had you along to entertain me on many a miserable night, Papa. Okay, so to continue –
EH: It is one thing to want to see revolutionary change in the world, and a very different thing to know how to bring it about. You see an evil, and you know it is evil, you either hate it and burn, or you close your eyes and try not to let it get to you, but either way, if you could do something, you would, but there’s nothing to be done.
F: I remember that passage in Islands in the Stream where Thomas Hudson remembers passing a poor couple on the streets and his wife wanting to do something, and he asks her what, and she gives them $20, or whatever it was – a lot of money for the time – and the woman is very grateful – and the next day they see that the woman has bought a dog.
EH: Demonstrating not that a charitable impulse is wrong, of course, but that anything one person can do is likely to be totally ineffective, because the woman herself doesn’t know anything better to do than buy something. And who says she was wrong? How much good could a one-time $20 do? It was just an illustration of the gap between the size of the problem of the world and the ability of any one person to do something.
F: I know what people will say to that, so I’ll say it on their behalf: So what is the take-away? That there’s nothing we can do, so it’s okay to do nothing?
EH: As it happens, that is an excellent response, not because it has logic on its side but because it shows the difference between what I did and how the establishment responded. The take-away, as you call it, is that I described the situation. That is all. I didn’t prescribe and I didn’t proscribe. I did in that little vignette what I did everywhere – I described the reality in as clear a way as I could, and that’s that. I couldn’t help what you might make of it. I couldn’t tell you what the situation logically required. I couldn’t say, “aha, if we follow this set of policy prescriptions, we’ll get this fixed.” (Even if I had, who would I have been kidding? Neither I as author nor you as reader would have been in a position to put such policies into effect.)
There is a huge difference between doing what you can – which is sometimes nothing at all – and pretending to do something by proclaiming what you would want done, and denouncing those who stand in the way of it, and threatening to put them against the wall and shoot them in the name of the revolution. I did what I could do as one man. When I was in Cuba I paid the best wages, and treated my employees like family, and did what little I could for the people I came into contact with. I didn’t pretend I could change much else. As an author – from the first real stories I learned to write in Paris – I worked as hard as I could to show people what was going on around them. That isn’t the same thing as pretending to lead a revolution, or to be one of the indignant intelligentsia that were going to be the vanguard for the proletariat and all that.
I worked to tell the truth in a way that would lead the reader to respond, not just to sight-see. I went to create an effect, not to preach. You learned that in one of our exchanges, a couple of years ago, and before you learned it, you – an intelligent man, a lifelong reader, a would-be writer – hadn’t learned it! That is, you read but you did not comprehend, because my stories only make sense when the reader participates.
F: Should I copy that exchange here? It’s in Afterlife Conversations with Hemingway.
EH: No need. Summarize what you learned.
F: It was the story “Indian Camp,” and the point of the story wasn’t the same as the purpose of the story.
EH: That’s a very good way to put it. Not everybody distinguishes between the two.
F: The point was what happened to young Nick. The purpose was to recapture what it was like to experience the world the way young Nick did.
EH: Yes it was. And if you didn’t get the purpose, the point was sort of flat or even puzzling, in terms of “why did Hemingway tell that story?”
F: That is true – I came to see – with most of your stories, maybe all of them.
EH: I wasn’t painting pictures for tourists. I was administering reality for people to grasp if they could. Of course that isn’t all I was doing. After all, you write primarily for yourself, because you have to write if you can, but you want to accomplish something, too.
Now, even though you’ve done this in two pieces, typing it up won’t be any easier, so we’ll stop now and resume next time.
F: All right, Papa. I wish I could do this better, longer.
EH: A little at a time, and we’ll get there. Of course it would be better if you were in shape, but we’ll play it as it is.
F: Till next time, then.

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