Critical Essays The Hemingway Influence


The Hemingway Character

Ernest Hemingway has been called the twentieth century's most influential writer. With the publication of A Farewell to Arms in 1929, he achieved widespread fame, and despite a steady decline in the quality of his work thereafter, his fame continued to grow until his suicide in 1961 and beyond. Striking evidence of this is the 1958 movie of The Old Man and the Sea; it's hard to imagine a book less suited to the big screen, and yet Hemingway's celebrity at the time of its publication was so massive that Hollywood had virtually no choice but to film the novella. The publication of recovered fragments from the writer's unpublished oeuvre has never failed to make headlines worldwide, from A Moveable Feast in 1964 to the so-called "fictional memoir" True at First Light, in 1999. Like those of Shakespeare and Einstein, Hemingway's face is recognized by millions who have never read a word he wrote.

Hemingway achieved more than celebrity, however. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then he was a great writer indeed. Especially after reading A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway's influence is easy to discern in an enormous number of the writers who have followed him. This influence has taken three forms: thematic, stylistic, and the "Papa" Hemingway lifestyle.

As the literary critic Leslie Fiedler argues in his study Love and Death in the American Novel, the classic American literary hero is a soldier, sailor, or cowboy who is brave, laconic, and (ultimately) alone. From Hawkeye in James Fenimore Cooper's Last of the Mohicans through Moby-Dick's Ishmael and Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, these characters "light out for the territories" because they don't quite fit in polite society, and they quickly learn self-sufficiency in the wilderness, at sea, or in combat. Hemingway, who identified Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as the source of all American literature, recognized this archetype, then updated and refined it. The overriding theme of his stories and books was "grace under pressure" — specifically, the ability of "men without women" (the title of an early story collection) to remain calm and competent in the face of life-threatening violence.

Thus, Hemingway heroes like Frederic Henry stoically accept not only war wounds, but the pain of losing whom they love, as well. (Think of Henry walking into the rain after the agonizing death of his lover and child at the conclusion of A Farewell to Arms.) Whether handling firearms, betting on horses, or ordering wine, they are almost scarily adept at what they do, and when the universe conspires to defeat them, they never complain.

The influence of the Hemingway hero can therefore be seen in many of the literary soldiers who followed in Henry's footsteps: for instance, the protagonist of James Salter's The Hunters, an account of the exploits of a Korean War jet pilot squadron. It is even more evident in the archetypal tough-talking detectives of Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep) and James Ellroy (L.A. Confidential). (Note: Like Frederic Henry, Chandler's protagonist Philip Marlowe is a veteran of World War I, as evinced by his trademark trenchcoat — the coat worn by Allied officers in the trenches of France and Italy. Nearly every character Humphrey Bogart ever played onscreen was influenced by the Hemingway hero.) The cowboys in Cormac McCarthy's Border Trilogy are essentially Hemingway characters, too.

The Hemingway Style

Hemingway's influence has been even more pronounced in the realm of prose style. In his first collection of stories and thereafter, he combined elements from Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, and journalism to create a radically modern approach to the writing of sentences and paragraphs distinguished by the following hallmarks:

  • An emphasis on nouns and verbs rather than adjectives and adverbs. This is closely related to Hemingway's preference for the actual versus the abstract. "I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain," Frederic Henry tells us in A Farewell to Arms. "Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates."
  • A limited word-palette. Hemingway was fluent in three romance languages: French, Spanish, and Italian. Each has a much smaller vocabulary than English, and yet each manages to be richly expressive. Hemingway may have been inspired by this phenomenon.
  • Frequent repetition of the same words and phrases — a technique learned from Gertrude Stein. (The best known sentences she ever wrote were "A rose is a rose is a rose" and "When you get there, there's no there there.")
  • Short sentences ("The next year there were many victories.") or long sentences consisting of short phrases and clauses connected by conjunctions: "The mountain that was beyond the valley and the hillside where the chestnut forest grew was captured and there were victories beyond the plain on the plateau to the south and we crossed the river in August and lived in a house in Gorizia that had a fountain and many thick shady trees in a walled garden and a wistaria vine purple on the side of the house." (A Farewell to Arms, Chapter II)
  • A lack of clarity in the relationship between one sentence and the next. Instead of writing "I drank much wine because it was good," Hemingway writes "The wine was good. I drank much of it," merely implying the relationship. He thus forces us to be active readers, connecting the dots and filling in the blanks.

Many storytellers (Salter, Chandler, McCarthy, and others) have attempted to recapitulate Hemingway's themes while mimicking his prose style. During the 1970s and 1980s, however, a group of American writers known as the Minimalists adopted the Hemingway style but rejected "grace under pressure" and so forth as distasteful and perhaps permanently outdated.

In her earliest stories, Ann Beattie wrote in the Hemingway style about well-off Baby Boomers paralyzed by the challenges of adulthood. (Like Chandler and so many others, Beattie has specifically mentioned Hemingway as an inspiration, specifically the inter-chapter vignettes from In Our Time.) Raymond Carver's down-and-out drunks could hardly be less heroic, and yet the use of diction and syntax in his masterly short stories is profoundly indebted to Hemingway. Frederick Barthelme continues to craft stories and novels in an intentionally flat, unadorned voice about largely ineffectual men (and sexy, aggressive women) living in the so-called New South. All these writers jettisoned the sometimes embarrassing excesses associated with Hemingway's value system while retaining the lessons he taught them as a writer of prose.

The Hemingway Lifestyle

Finally, in many ways Ernest Hemingway exemplified for the Twentieth Century what it means to live like a writer. The most visible example of his influence in this area has been Norman Mailer. Though Mailer's often baroque style could hardly be more different from Hemingway's (an exception is the laconic "non-fiction novel" The Executioner's Song, which many critics consider Mailer's best book), he seems to have modeled his life after Hemingway's, seeking fistfights, serial wives (Hemingway had four, Mailer six), and "Papa"-like celebrity in general. And the career of the George Plimpton has been a kind of parody of Hemingway's: Plimpton lived in Paris as a young man, but founded a magazine rather than writing stories and novels. Since then he has engaged in a number of stunts that seem actually to mock Hemingway's vigorous lifestyle while attempting to pay it tribute: briefly fighting a champion boxer and playing professional football, for instance, then writing books about the experiences.

Prior to the publication of A Farewell to Arms, the Romantic poets probably served as our primary model for the writing life. A writer was a tortured soul recollecting his or her experiences in tranquility, a la Wordsworth, Shelley, and Keats. Hemingway changed all that. Proust composed Remembrance of Things Past in bed; Hemingway wrote standing up. Then he went big-game hunting or deep-sea fishing, or to the bullfights.

Today, Hemingway's thematic influence is a victim of its own success. The tough-talking private investigator is such a pervasive figure in our culture that is seems always to have existed. As his death recedes further into the past, the "Papa" lifestyle becomes harder to recall — and therefore tougher to emulate than when Hemingway's exploits were a fixture in newsreels and the pages of Life magazine. Regarding the influence of his prose itself, however, the Nobel Prize committee was correct when it rewarded Ernest Hemingway "for his powerful, style-forming mastery of the art of narration." He changed the way we write and read literature, and he changed it forever.