I respectfully disagree with those who try to discredit Hemingway as a mediocre writer. I have talked with and read reviews by these people and I understand their criticisms, but in many cases their points could apply to any writer. Also, and maybe more importantly, they don’t like his false macho affectation. Okayyy. That’s fair. But to go so far as to argue that Hemingway shouldn’t be remembered as a great writer is just plain silly.
Have these people never had a tight-lipped uncle who liked to go fishing?
Or a brother who got into too many fist fights?
OK, rant over.
In Our Time is one of Hemingway’s immortal books. It was his first, a collection of short stories that broke ground within the form. It’s hard to believe it was published in 1924, during the age of Sinclair Lewis and Edith Wharton.
These stories are like little gusts of Chekhovian sweetness. There are great moments of tenderness and tragedy that seem impossible to fit in the space Hemingway manages. Each one seems to be overflowing. I love stories of this type and that’s maybe why I am able to give Hemingway the benefit of the doubt overall. Insofar as he is an American Chekhov, I love his writing. And this was the golden age in Hemingway’s career for this sort of thing. At the time of its publication New York Times called “In Our Time,” fibrous and athletic, colloquial and fresh, hard and clean, his very prose seems to have an organic being of its own. I think they were right. Had he continued along this line, and avoided his later self-imitations and “sentimentality,” I think he would have been a far better writer, and much lesser known.
To me, the bottom line for what makes Hemingway a worthwhile read is that–although his attempts are not always perfect–he makes literature un-literary. “Literature” at its best is always fresh, coming back down to earth to see how things are going and how people are talking to one another, and then going back up for air. Literature that never comes down to earth, but stays suspended in academia, or in esoteric little hipster sanctuaries of trendiness and high-mindedness, never connects for me. I hate those books.
In college I once had a life-defining conversation with my girlfriend. We were debating whether or not everyone has the ability to have deep thoughts. She said no, not everyone has deep thoughts. I said yes, I think they do–many people just don’t know how to talk about them or they’d rather not talk about them. She said she didn’t think so. She said there are some people out there, beer-guzzling mouth-breathers, who, honest-to-goodness, just don’t produce a single profundity their entire lives. They just sit around and take up oxygen. I said I didn’t see it that way. The topic never came up again, and we broke up after only a few months of dating.
Fast forward two years.
Walking around campus one morning, I ran into her again. I hadn’t seen or talked to her for those entire two years. The conversation was awkward at first. We shifted our weight back and forth. She asked me what I was reading. I said Hemingway. She laughed. Now she was loosened up. She said isn’t his stuff pretty simple and macho? Yes, I said. But there’s a lot there if you’re willing to look for it. Well, she said she didn’t think she’d ever get around to reading him.