Ernest Hemingway is one of the great voices of American literature. His raw, gritty take on life was developed through his work as a journalist and war correspondent and his short stories and novels are filled with his, now widely mimicked, take on minimalism and realism. Hemingway cloaked emotional drama in his stories by using dialogue as a means to only tell the reader so much. Certain stories (‘The Hills Are White Elephants’) are mere fragments, with regard to plot, existing entirely due to dialogue between two characters. The narrator is all but absent, certainly offering no comment on the characters, merely setting up the very basic scene with the overly simplified character references: “the girl” and “the man”. These in turn can then go on to be analysed for extra meaning (is she younger, since she is referred to as “girl” and him “man”?)
Hemingway was instrumental in developing the hard masculine style that Ezra Pound had wanted to see move in to writing in the Modernist period. The breaking up of genders – the development of a consciously masculine style – was as important to Pound’s vision as the innovation of a determinedly American style of writing (William Carlos Williams and Pound were early poetic examples). Too often writing from the early twentieth century mirrored the softer, rounded edges of British writing; the influence of Jane Austen was felt from novelists; the Romantic and Victorian poets still loomed large over the flowery verse that many poets were producing.
Immediately following the innovations of Pound, Williams and Elliot came the work of William Faulkner, F Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. Faulkner and Hemingway were rivals, and their work was about as different as their personalities. Faulkner indulged in serpentine sentences, long linguistic riddles – he was a great American writing innovator, sure. But his influences were largely European. Writers like Proust, Joyce and Thomas Mann informed the sound of his words, the Mississippi Delta of his homeland helping to shape the setting he gave to them. Fitzgerald and Hemingway were good friends, literary rivals also, but they had a tremendous respect for one another’s work – despite, again, the fact that Fitzgerald’s writing could often sound very English (even if designed partially as a send-up) whereas Hemingway’s blunt, raw writing belied the amount of attention he paid to it. A consummate student of writing, a dedicated self-editor and reviser/re-writer, Hemingway went on to directly influence the technical style (direct reportage) and astonishing work-rate (both in terms of consciously crafted self-editing and overall prolific nature) of such writers as Norman Mailer, Henry Miller, Charles Bukowski and John Cheever.
Hemingway’s background as a journalist, coupled with his lifestyle pursuits as a hunting/fishing man, a manly man, certainly help in explaining the absence of fun in his work; the concentration on covering direct, human drama – rather than concerning his readers with the frivolities of side-line passages, the exploration of an apparently unnecessary by-product of human emotion. But then of course, as with the very best of Hemingway’s writing, which demands re-reading for extra meaning, to suggest that Hemingway’s devotion to a masculine form of writing meant that he couldn’t pursue and investigate fun within his characters and writing provides only one, limited angle. And in fact provides an insight in to how Hemingway’s creation of himself as a literary persona within his works (often as the character of Nick Adams) is a construction that is deceptively intended to mask the author; to cloak intentions and offer a version of realism, as opposed to offering the truth. In stories like ‘The End Of Something’ and ‘The Three Day Blow’ Hemingway, as Adams, dismisses fun – using the word to suggest the necessary and missing component of a failing relationship. In ‘The End Of Something’ Nick is the portrait of masculine silence. His partner, Marjorie attempts to probe him in to sharing his feelings, “What’s the matter, Nick?” only for Nick to half-reply, “I don’t know” before concerning himself with gathering firewood. Later, over a fraught conversation, with attempts to enjoy a fire and watch the moon come out, Marjorie feels she has to press the issue and Nick remains guarded:
‘You don’t have to talk silly,’ Marjorie said; ‘what’s really the matter?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Of course you know.’
‘No I don’t.
‘Go on and say it.’
Nick looked on at the moon, coming up over the hills.
‘It isn’t fun any more’.
One could argue, from the dialogue proceeding Nick’s eventual statement, that it was never fun. The use of the word “fun” stands out; nowhere in the story does it seem like the couple are enjoying themselves together as a couple. In ‘The Three Day Blow’, a palinode story, in which Nick does indeed break up with Marjorie he tells his friend Bill that it was because he was bored. But in this story there’s an absence of fun that would usually be assigned to some of the events the story chronicles. The two friends share a drink, essentially a fun pursuit, surely. But it is presented as nothing other than a challenge to get drunk, as if to provide one of two convenient options: Nick can either confess that he is upset about breaking off his relationship with Marjorie, under the mask of inebriation, or he can simply forget about it. The drinking with his buddy is presented as a straight mission to get boozed; to pass the time until such matters will no longer seem important.
Earlier in the same story, Nick and Bill are discussing books – reading is something that is done for pleasure, certainly in the context of the conversation these two characters are having. But there’s no real feeling towards any pleasure; reading is portrayed as one more chore; or at least the discussion of it is, as it’s clearly a way for Nick to hide behind small-talk. When Bill asks if Nick has ever read “Forest Lovers”, he announces that he has and that it is a fine book, but that he can’t understand the point of the sword in the bed. When Bill explains (“It’s a symbol”) Nick simply dismisses that by saying, “Sure”, before matter-of-factly stating, “but it isn’t practical”. Bill doesn’t question this; he merely brings up the next book – as if checking off a laundry-list. The supposedly fun pursuit of reading is just a diversionary conversation topic, for Nick to avoid discussing his feelings – ironically, he tells Marjorie in the earlier story that there relationship is no longer fun; but clearly he is not having fun without her.
In ‘Hills Like White Elephants’ there is even more pointed ironic use of “fun” as a concept. The minimalist nature of the story, as mentioned earlier, sees dialogue conveying the entire plot of the story. The situation is not announced, but the story features a young woman contemplating the need for an abortion (the story of course was written at a time when abortions were illegal and considered immoral). Becoming incensed at one point, as the couple are clearly trying to avoid the very important issue at hand, sitting in a bar waiting for a train, the man announces sharply, “oh, cut it out.” To which the girl replies, “you started it”. And then, “I was having a fine time”. The man adds, “well, let’s try and have a fine time.” It’s very clear that neither were having this alleged “fine time” and that in fact both are using the words ironically, pointedly, wishing to keep the illusion of calm and happiness in an increasingly tense situation. The bottled feelings are further repressed and as the couple contemplate whether the girl should have the abortion or not, never directly talking about it, referring to “the operation” only when absolutely necessary, the man announces that once she does it, if she does indeed have the abortion that, “we’ll be fine afterward”. His narrow perception of the situation is that this situation (this clearly unplanned pregnancy) is the only dilemma bugging their happiness. He suggests that they could go back to being a happy couple afterwards. And as the dialogue continues it becomes more and more clear that the girl will make her decision irrespective of the man’s wishes – and that clearly she’s thinking about more than the abortion; she’s thinking about how this is the end of their relationship, or fling, or whatever it was that they were having.
Hemingway of course doesn’t tell us any of this, he leaves it to the girl to duke it out with the man via dialogue; but near the end of the story, in a very carefully placed sliver of narration, the following is described:
The girl stood up and walked to the end of the station.
Across, on the other side, were fields of grain and trees along
the bank of the Ebro. Far away, beyond the river, were mountains.
The shadow of a cloud moved across the field of grain and she saw
the river through the trees
At this point in the story the girl gets a glimpse of her own future – a future that could indeed be just her own; and she eventually tells the man to just stop talking to her. Can they please stop talking; she is drained from it all – and yet she is quick to strip the emotion from what should be a very emotional discussion, and says, when asked how she feels, that “I don’t feel any way”.
It’s one of Hemingway’s cleverest literary devices; his masking of fun, happiness, positive human emotions. It’s not that he, as a man is incapable of feeling them, indeed he had friends and was (at least for a while) happily married. It’s just that his journalistic background coupled with a flair for conjuring realistic situations within imaginary worlds, or if you prefer, imaginary situations within realistic worlds, has seen him capable of an enviable economy of phrase. He tells the story not merely with the words that he allows to remain in the text, but also a fair amount is conveyed with what is left out. For Hemingway fun is often used ironically, when the word “fun” appears in his stories – it is used to signal the complete opposite. The very short story ‘L’envoi’, a single paragraph of prose-poem text, features the penultimate line, “It was very jolly”. This following a description that shows the reader absolutely no joy, a King and Queen bored by their confined existence, and then the story ends with a betrayal of the alleged happiness, an omission – amongst the irreverent humour – that “like all Greeks he wanted to go to America”.
In 1952, having suffered tremendously from writer’s block and a feeling of anxiety that he wasn’t living up to his name as an American literary hero whilst very much still breathing; Hemingway released The Old Man And The Sea. This short novel rivals his early masterpieces, The Sun Also Rises and A Moveable Feast. The book features a man out fishing – a metaphor perhaps for Hemingway’s years away from writing (out to sea). The book’s protagonist wrestles with a fish, a giant beast of the sea, staying awake over several days to hunt and capture his prize. Was this the writer wrestling with his muse? It was certainly the writer subverting the sport and hobby of fishing, painting it once again (as he had in the earlier stories featuring Nick Adams) as a solitary pursuit, a lonely endeavour – a quest stripped of the fun that many describe from a day’s fishing. The old man contemplates many things while locked in his boat, wrestling with his own demons (psychologically) and with this whale of a fish (physically); but the thrill of the chase is lost in the book’s climax. The absence of fun proves as crucial in Hemingway’s final work of note, his return-to-form, as it did in any of the short stories that helped to solidify his reputation.