Wednesday, June 20, 2012
10:30 AM. Finished The Sun Also Rises, again, with just as much enjoyment as ever. But, Papa, a thought occurs to me that, for all I know, you may be wanting me to ask: Brett Ashley, for one, certainly can’t claim to be part of a “lost generation” because of the war she was never in. Neither can Robert Cohn, for that matter. It leads me to generalize, the war was to some extent a rationalization for them, or am I missing something as usual. Would you comment on the lost generation, and your share of the responsibility, if any, for it achieving currency?
A more concise accusation would be helpful to you later.
Would it? All right, let’s see. Because of The Sun Also Rises, the postwar generation romanticized itself and thereby to some extent falsified its past and present. And that was your doing, and Fitzgerald’s, more than any other person’s.
That is a common accusation. But I ask you, is it reasonable to assume that one or two writers, even several, could shape a generation’s perceptions in any way they wished? Fitzgerald said it very well, he was getting paid to tell people that he felt the same way they did. How far would we have gotten if we had tried to glorify the war and pretend that it had been a glorious success? Can you see us writing Mr. Britling Sees It Through in 1924? I wrote what I believed, and I believed what I had seen, and heard, and discussed, and thought about, and knew.
I didn’t make up Lady Ashley. I didn’t make up Bill Gorton or, Robert Cohn or anybody. No, I didn’t copy anybody in the way a portrait-painter might, but in my imaginings, I kept close enough to what I knew firsthand that I was accused of writing a roman a clef. In fact, it was a roman a clef. So how can I be accused of writing something that didn’t exist?
But you dramatized them, and thereby cast them in a romantic glow, and thereby seduced plenty of young people and not-so-young people.
Consider the argument. If true, where would it lead? Could we then dramatize anything? If dramatizing is romanticizing and romanticizing is falsifying — is seducing — where is the legitimate scope for fiction? What should we do?
So you feel no responsibility for the longer-term effects of The Sun Also Rises?
As I understand it, anything that is unconscious is beyond our control. Only by becoming conscious of a drive or a complex or anything, can we master it. Right? And if that is so for any one individual, it must be true for groups of individuals, in other words, for society at large, present and future. And how is this going to happen if artists don’t do it?
So in other words, the results of the trauma were there, and it was artists who bared the wound so it could be treated.
Again, if we had not been saying what people wanted to hear, would they have listened? If you look at who succeeds at any given time, you see who society agrees with.
Would you have said that in life?
Hell no. In life I saw it as a struggle, and I saw plenty of phonies make a career, but that is a different kind of telling society what it wanted to hear. That was pandering.
Care to go into it a little more?
Well, I can see the pitfalls, of course, but still I’m not wrong on this. Some artists are shallow and that’s all they can reflect. They can imitate or they can report shallows but no depths. They have their public that corresponds to them. That is why most so-called literature is always imitation or shallow playing with words. At any given time, most of what is coming into print, or is being hung in contemporary galleries, is just stuff of the moment, stuff that can’t last and shouldn’t last. And I guess there’s nothing wrong with that, come to think of it, because it serves a function. But of course when you’re doing your best to tell the deepest thing you know, and especially when you have succeeded, it’s irritating — it’s maddening — to see so much trash selling in such numbers. Look at any bestsellers list, 10 years on, and you’ll be shocked. Even more so 100 years on, when you look for the books and artwork you by then know were great, and you can’t find them. Moby-Dick wasn’t on the bestsellers list, and neither was Walden. You get the idea. Take a look at the lists from my time.
You made them pretty consistently.
I did. I’m just reminding you why I was sometimes frantic, trying to be sure my publisher was working on my behalf.
If I hear you rightly, even the ephemeral trash meets a need.
Sure, or it wouldn’t sell. But selling a lot of copies doesn’t make it worthwhile and doesn’t mean it’s going to last. It is fast food. That isn’t what I was doing.
It was what Fitzgerald was doing, though.
We’ve talked about that. He was primarily making money, and succeeding. And he was doing it by writing. That is a very different thing from primarily writing and trying to also make money and succeed. But he had so much natural talent! The words came so easily to him! If they had come as easily to me, but truly, my career would have surpassed Shakespeare. And if he had known what I knew, learned as I learned, if he had been serious as I was, he would have surpassed Shakespeare. Instead he minted money from the Saturday Evening Post.
However, it isn’t Fitzgerald who is on trial, here, but Hemingway.
So judge me on my intent and on my execution. What else is there to judge a man on? His influence? His posthumous reputation? His imitators?
My intent was to write truly and deeply, to clean up the language from frills and decorations, and to restore it to the purity of the language as it was spoken. I know that “purity” sounds odd in the context of campaigning for an end to the censorship that wouldn’t let us say shit or balls, let alone cocksucker, but purity is the right word. A language that is prettified or prudishly censored isn’t pure, it is an imitation of something that doesn’t exist and can’t exist and shouldn’t exist.
That was my intent. My execution speaks for itself, in a score of short stories and half a dozen novels that aren’t going to die for a long, long time, until civilization is changed unrecognizably. And the rest of the short stories, and the lesser novels, are going to live a while too. Not bad for an old man who sweated out every word even when he was going good.
As to my influence and my imitators and my reputation, well, they may have to take care of themselves. I’m content to rest on what I wanted to do, and trained myself to become able to do, and did.
I agree. Thanks, Papa.