Critical Essays 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 created 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 says 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." Indeed, the first part of The Sun Also Rises overflows with the names of streets and cafés in 1920s Paris, to the extent that one almost needs a map of the city to follow the story's action. Remember, too, Jake's initial description of Brett. True, he tells the reader that she "was damned good-looking." But then he offers us the following concrete details linked by action verbs: "She wore a slipover jersey sweater and a tweed skirt, and her hair was brushed back like a boy's. She started all that. She was built with curves like the hull of a racing yacht, and you missed none of it with that wool jersey."
  • A limited word-palette. Hemingway was fluent in three romance languages: French, Spanish, and Italian. Each of these has a much smaller vocabulary than English, and yet each manages to be richly expressive. Talking about Brett and Mike's speech, Jake Barnes tells us that "The English spoken language — the upper classes, anyway — must have fewer words than the Eskimo. . . . The English talked with inflected phrases. One phrase to mean everything. . . . I liked the way they talked." Hemingway may have been inspired by the ways in which these European cultures, all of which he admired, managed to communicate effectively, even poetically, using so few words.
  • Frequent repetition of the same words and phrases. This is a technique he learned from 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 ("It was a fine morning.") or long sentences consisting of short phrases and clauses connected by conjunctions. Here's an example of the latter: "After a while we came out of the mountains, and there were trees along both sides of the road, and a stream and ripe fields of grain, and the road went on, very white and straight ahead, and then lifted to a little rise, and off on the left was a hill with an old castle, with buildings close around it and a field of grain going right up to the walls and shifting in the wind" (The Sun Also Rises, Chapter X).
  • 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. At least in The Sun Also Rises, this stylistic element jibes with the worldview of Hemingway's characters. Jake, Brett, Mike, and others know that the modern world is a place so illogical as to be positively nonsensical, a place in which previously meaningful connections have been sundered. Hemingway's storytelling syntax reflects that.

Many storytellers (Salter, Chandler, and McCarthy, for example) 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 (word choice) and syntax (sentence structure) 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.