On this day in 1899, one of the greatest American novelist Ernest Hemingway was born. When I was younger, I was quite fond of his work. To my young boy mind, he seemed to establish what it was to be a man. That’s most especially true of Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises. There was something very poignant his sexual dysfunction along with his drive to still be around women. But looking back on the book now, it seems a very immature view of men, which doesn’t necessarily mean it isn’t true. But it certainly doesn’t present anything like the male ideals that Homer provided for the ancient Greeks.
What still moves me as much today as it ever did is his style. I still remember this one sentence from A Farewell to Arms that is so simple and yet evocative, “I looked back and saw the three cars all climbing, spaced by the interval of their dust.” That’s like poetry and Hemingway’s fiction is probably the most lyrical of the 20th century writers. There’s no doubt that Gertrude Stein was a master of language, far exceeding Hemingway. But she is such a master that I find her difficult to read most of the time. And based upon pure writing, I think Hemingway was better than both Fitzgerald and Steinbeck.
But here I am at 50 and I still read Fitzgerald and Steinbeck. I even occasionally read Stein. But Hemingway: never. Part of that is having read a good too much of Hemingway when I was younger, but the same could be said of Steinbeck. What Hemingway always lacked, and this became clearer and clearer as I got older, was what Fitzgerald and Steinbeck had in abundance: great characters and a humane worldview.
Hemingway’s work seemed to be limited by his own personal demons. He was afraid to allow his own humanity to be shown in his work. That’s why I think his mostly solitary The Old Man and the Sea works the best of his fiction—because it is more mythic and even spiritual. The me, it is an allegory for life. It doesn’t really matter that he got the marlin back safely. The essence of life is the journey, not the destination or the trophies. It would have been interesting to see him have developed in that direction, but instead, it stands like Orson Welles’ F for Fake: a great work never built upon.
The last couple years of his life, Hemingway seems to have suffered from hemochromatosis—the accumulation of iron in the body. This caused him to deteriorate mentally, if not physically. It led to him twice being “treated” with electroshock therapy, which made his mental state even worse. Regardless, he eventually killed himself. It’s sad, because I think he had a lot to offer as an older writer. With his clarity of vision and careful style combined with wisdom, he might have done really great things. Then again, it might just have been a lot more gossipy trash like A Moveable Feast. But he could have had more important things to say. Isn’t it pretty to think so?
Happy birthday Ernest Hemingway!