Hemingway on literary criticism

Thursday, June 21, 2012

9:15 PM. So, Papa, The Dangerous Summer.

You have, in that book that is made out of my materials by surgery, the roots of an understanding that you haven’t yet come to. But — the accusation?

Well, I don’t know that I have one. Let’s see. You knew bullfighting, you knew bullfighters and were friends with them. You knew and liked Hotchner — so, what accusation could be made?

Do I have to frame the accusations against me myself?

Maybe this isn’t a subject where you are vulnerable to accusation.

Don’t be ridiculous. I am vulnerable to accusation on every side, at every point in my life, because if I am conceded to be sincere and accurate, I cannot easily be a phony and inaccurate elsewhere. I’d say the accusation is that I was opinionated but not knowledgeable, that I thought I was more important than those around me did, that I was in some way pitiful in my ignorance of who I really was.

Is such an accusation worth answering?

It may or may not be worth answering, but you can’t answer someone who doesn’t want to be persuaded, and you can’t very easily prove a negative.

Let me say only this. The friendships are known. The erudition in Death is evident. The respect from my contemporaries is known. It is the professional critics and the academics who mistrusted me, and this was not because they weren’t outdoorsmen but because they could not speak my language. Had they been able to read me, and read my writing, as I lived it and wrote it, many misunderstandings would not have arisen.

Can you say some more about that?

If you read the Bible as a science text, you are going to go astray. If you read fiction as disguised biography or history, you are going to go astray. Now, I know why they were often tempted to do so, but it is still a mistake.

Take The Sun Also Rises. It is easy enough for people to find the originals from whom I had created characters. But what does not seem to occur to them is that I felt under no compulsion to have these characters do only what they are originating models did or might have done. In other words, a novel is not the place for settling scores, or setting the record straight, or even for re-working quarrels so that you get the last word. That’s not what a novel is for and the novelist who tries using it for that purpose is going to discover that propaganda and apologetics are not art. Therefore — and why isn’t it obvious? — having an idea who the characters were modeled on tells you nothing about whether their actions or even their character in the story has anything at all to do with life. It may, it may not, but if it does, it is because what the story demands happens to be what the person did in life. There isn’t any necessary connection, and if we have to disguise names and actions to avoid libel suits, this has more to do with legal liability than with art.

Then there is the use of symbols. Academics will not get it into their heads that the artist cannot deliberately use a symbol in the way they seem to think he does. You just can’t, and if they had ever written a novel, and seen what worked and what didn’t work (would not work), they’d know. Melville used along whaling voyage to tell his tale, and the symbols that arose from that voyage enriched the story. But do you really think he created the white whale as a symbol of evil, as some think? Or of malevolent Nature? I think (out of my experience which surpasses his because it includes his), I know — that that is not the way it works. It is the opposite of how it works. You tell what had to happen, and any symbolism arises out of that telling. Try to tell it the other way — create your symbol, manipulate it like a chess man in order to come to your predetermined moral — and see what you get.

If the critics and academics would criticize and academize the way I wrote, they could bring real light to the subject, but only that way. And many do; I don’t mean to imply they don’t. But the theory they’re working under hampers them.

Can you spell it out a little?

My job as artist is to snag a story idea, nurture it, shake it with as much as it is in me, and tell it, as best I can. That’s all. If I can do that well, I’ve done more than most so-called artists accomplish. In other words, a story should be true, meaningful, sincere, and as unmanageable as can still be barely managed. That is the fishing and the catching and the boating, and the author has done what he can for his public. Then if the critics and scholars examine what the fish really is, they can tell us things of value — “us” including the author, for it is their job to make what was unconscious conscious. It is for them to examine, and classify, and appreciate the fish. It is no part of their job to relate the fish to the fisherman’s longings, failings, accomplishments, marriages, bank accounts, or standing with church or state. Is for them to evaluate what has been done, not speculate on what he may have meant to do or wished to do. In doing what is no part of their job, they necessarily fail to do what is a legitimate part of their true job, a job that could be of great service if they would only perform it.

Now, understand, I am talking a literary criticism, not biography. I realize that anyone in the public eye is at the mercy of biographers and other slanderers intentional or otherwise. But bad biography cannot hurt good literature except to the extent that critics mix the two genres. And this they are all too prone to do, gossiping over tea.

Biographers such as Michael Reynolds certainly did you no harm.

No. And perhaps you can see that it is a legitimate thing for a biographer to use the facts of your life to illustrate your art, but it is an illegitimate thing for a critic to use the life to explain the art away.

But this is a useless effort, because it isn’t going to persuade anybody.

Still, you got it on the record.

We’ll see if it affects the judge.


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