Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Quote of the Day (Ernest Hemingway, on ‘What a Writer in Our Time Has To Do’)

“What a writer in our time has to do is write what hasn't been written before or beat dead men at what they have done. The only way he can tell how he is going is to compete with dead men.”— American Nobel Literature laureate Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961), “Monologue to the Maestro: A High Seas Letter,” Esquire, October 1935, reprinted in Hemingway on Writing, edited by Larry W. Phillips (1984)

I watched the first episode of Ken Burns’ new PBS documentary on Ernest Hemingway absolutely enthralled. I had known the general outline of his life and career, but the details divulged in these first two hours—particularly about his anguished relationship with his family in Oak Park, Ill., and the lift to his career and spirits given by his first wife, Hadley Richardson—shed new light on this endlessly discussed American legend.

But Burns, collaborator Lynn Novick, and series writer Geoffrey Ward keep in mind, above all, that they are telling us a story, and this first episode ends with a quote that can’t help but feel ominous, given how we know this will all turn out. “Hem,” wrote friend and fellow novelist John Dos Passos in 1929, after the publication of the acclaimed A Farewell to Arms, “do you realize that you're king of the fiction racket?”

From this point on, it’s all that Hemingway can do to hold onto his balance as he remains atop this mountain of celebrity. From the moment he returned from WWI to his hometown, puffing up the actual story of his wound in Italy to a fake one involving him then carrying a wounded soldier to a first-aid station, he couldn’t resist embellishing his real achievements for an audience.

By the mid-1930s, when he was sending material (including today’s quote) to Esquire editor Arnold Gingrich, the temptation to posture and perform loomed even larger. He could try to resist—writing “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” for instance, as a warning to himself on being led away from his gifts.

But now, it wasn’t just a matter of writing “the truest sentence” he knew, but also of “getting in the ring” against prior literary greats like Turgenev, Maupassant, and Stendhal. And the more Hemingway felt obliged to construct his own myth to compete against them, the harder it was to live up to that image. He might have been better off, as difficult as it might sound, to “write what hasn't been written before.”

So, one has to ask: was the tragedy of Hemingway’s life simply his suicide, or was it how the need to embody machismo sapped him of the iron self-discipline and critical judgement that produced the great work that secured his reputation in the Twenties—The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, and his short stories?

No comments: