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The unimportance of Ernest Hemingway: why should we bother reading him anymore?

He was once considered the master craftsman of American letters, but on close inspection the entire corpus is full of artistic failure

26 January 2019

9:00 AM

26 January 2019

9:00 AM

The Man Who Wasn’t There: A Life of Ernest Hemingway Richard Bradford

I.B. Tauris, pp.256, £20

What is the most repulsive sentence in English/American literature? Even as a 12-year-old American boy, I cringed when reading, in Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls: ‘But did thee feel the earth move?’ At school I bought the myth of Hemingway as the master craftsman of American letters, teaching us to keep our sentences short and our syllables few. At university, however, I was privileged to be taught by R.S. (Ronald Salmon) Crane (1886–1967), the doyen of the Chicago Aristotelian school of literary critics, who showed the 1954 Nobel Literature Prize-winner’s lack of art by a close reading of his most celebrated and enigmatic ‘Nick Adams’ short story, ‘The Killers’ (1927) — filmed  for the cinema four times, with actors including Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner, Lee Marvin and Ronald Reagan.

‘In this story,’ says Wikipedia, going with the critical consensus,

Hemingway shows Adams crossing over from teenager to adult. The basic plot of the story involves a pair of criminals who enter a restaurant seeking to kill a boxer, a Swede named Ole Andreson, who is hiding out for reasons unknown, possibly for winning a fight.

Crane deftly showed us that Hemingway  had simply lost control of his material, and that the story is a narrative failure. Either ‘The Killers’ shows Nick Adams growing up (it doesn’t — we’re told precious little about him, he speaks only a few hundred words in a piece that consists largely of dialogue, and there’s zero character development); or the story details the plot by the hit men, Max and George, to kill the Swede (which doesn’t happen). It’s a misfire — not, as someone once said, Waiting for Godot with guns.

The Hemingway corpus is full of artistic failure. The stories make good movies because he was adept at visual description, not because they have gripping or even strong plots. The baby-talk dialogue of For Whom the Bell Tolls is only echoed in the unsatisfying ending with the inexplicably ambitious, dying Robert Jordan, waiting to commit suicide-by-ambush. And what becomes of Rinaldi in A Farewell to Arms? He’s disposable, like Max, George and the Swede.

OK, we’ve disposed of  ‘Papa’ Hemingway as a writer, despite the Nobel, the seven conventional biographies and the 17 or so films made from his books. So you have to sympathise a little with Richard Bradford, whose new book, The Man Who Wasn’t There, begins: ‘Halfway through writing this book a question occurred to me: why bother?’ Very near the end of this, the most curious book I’ve read for years (I am inclined to side with Bradford’s first thoughts on the matter), he points out a not-quite parallel —that, following ECT treatment (prior to his suicide in July 1961), Hemingway ‘had now lost interest [my emphasis] in his sprawling sequel to Death in the Afternoon’.


Here Bradford is reading Hemingway’s mind — not the first occasion in which he shows this amazing ability to infer someone’s inner thoughts from their actions, and state the former as fact. But this is the essential difference between fact and fiction, isn’t it? The creative writer can tell us what is on his subject’s mind, because he’s made up the subject — in a fashion that not even a traditional psychoanalyst would claim to ‘know’ what someone else is thinking. Indeed, Bradford says of the last book Hemingway actually finished, A Moveable Feast (1964), that it

is a piece of fiction, in the sense that he persistently uses real individuals as the models for fabrication, exaggeration and misrepresentation — by parts delusional and vindictive. Yet he presented it as an autobiography.

It is strange, even in these post-Holroyd days, when biographers strive so mightily to discover and tell the sometimes disagreeable truth about their subjects, to find a writer who hates his subject as much as Bradford does. He grudgingly finds merit in a few of Hemingway’s claims about his brave behaviour on the battlefield, and praises the quality of some of his writing on the bullfight; but Bradford can always find a bad motive for any apparently good action or paragraph, although he sometimes has to read Papa’s mind to do so. (Was there ever so wince-making and loathsome a self-bestowed nickname? I’m with Bradford on this.)

Some things are undeniable, such as his anti-Semitism, though his third and best wife, Martha Gellhorn, who was a better writer than he, was proud to be Jewish. As the US was belatedly joining the second world war, the now celebrated Hemingway insisted on being commissioned by the magazine for which Martha worked, made certain that she could not fly to London on the special plane on which he had a seat, and tried to keep her as far away as he could from the Normandy landings. Bradford says he did this to humiliate Martha. She scooped him anyway, stowing away below decks on a US hospital ship.  His revenge was to make startling, appalling comments about her vagina.

Also racist, he sprinkled both his letters and fiction with the ‘N’ word. Most of his women eventually detected that his feet were made of clay. Wife number four, Mary Monk, wrote in her journal (on their wedding day) 13 March 1946: ‘He came out with only a few of the nasty, ironic resentfulness he usually accords me… He is so phoney, so cheap, so chickenshit…’

We don’t, I think, have a word or expression for the kind of untruth-teller Hemingway was. Just before his suicide, he was no doubt paranoid, probably schizophrenic, obsessive compulsive and a pathological liar. But from childhood, or at least adolescence, he was obviously unable to distinguish the truth about himself and his family from whatever it was that he happened to tell someone in conversation.

Was he, then, not so much a liar as a fantasist? Fantasists may, indeed, not intend to deceive others — or at the very least intend no harm to those deceived — though the essence of it is that the fantasist deceives himself. The young Hemingway wrote to his parents that he was engaged to a minor film star called Mae Marsh. This, says Bradford, was ‘a lie born from a fantasy. They were not engaged because they had never met’.

Hemingway’s unpublished letters, says Bradford, ‘confirm my suspicion that his mendaciousness was more than an idiosyncrasy’; he seems to think that Hemingway was not only a unique liar, but also a bully, and not very clever, as when he tried to join the Modernist coterie in Paris around Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Picasso, Pound, Joyce and Fitzgerald, but the nature of this club ‘was beyond his comprehension’.Mind you, so were the doctrines and policies to which he apparently adhered, of the Communist party, the Spanish Republic and Castro’s Cuba.

While I share much of Bradford’s distaste for Hemingway as a man and as a writer, I was alarmed by the evident malice he feels for his subject. His wrath makes him a target for a bit of amateur psychoanalysis — his text shows obsessiveness about hygiene and cleanliness; and aren’t there obvious Oedipal issues in his feelings about ‘Papa’? The editing is sloppy — on several occasions I had to go back and re-read the previous sentence, as I could not make out who the subject ‘he’ referred to; and I counted at least six times when he used the snotty, snide modifier ‘one’, for people much less disparage-worthy than the ‘one Benito Mussolini’ who is not in the skimpy index. As a physical object, this book is nasty, printed with too narrow margins on blindingly white paper. Why bother?


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