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Hemingway Found Depth in Simplicity


I am about half way through Ernest Hemingway's fifth and supposedly final posthumously published work called "True at First Light." It's good and enjoyable if you read it for what it is-a fictional memoir, half as long as the untitled and unfinished manuscript from which Hemingway's son Patrick edited it. Because of how this book came to be it is not pure Papa in the way his earlier books are. It necessarily has a lot of Patrick's influence in it. I am glad it was published, despite the several critics who think it should not have been. Its publication, timed to coincide with what would have been Hemingway's 100th birthday, caused me to think about this great writer.

Hemingway has had a huge impact on the writing of the 20th century. He developed a style very different from those who came before him. It appears so simple on the page. Short sentences made up of short words. This apparent simplicity is a deception. In 1958 Hemingway described his approach to writing-his famous 'principal of the iceberg:' "I always try to write on the principal of the iceberg. There is seven-eighths of it under water for every part that shows. Anything you know you can eliminate and it only strengthens your iceberg. It is the part that doesn't show." He was suspicious of adjectives and adverbs. If he was successful they were unnecessary-the reader's intuition supplied them subconsciously.

Like other successful writers Hemingway was a keen observer. But he had a particular knack for describing the daily activities in the lives of his characters. This talent shines in what may be Hemingway's best short story, "Big Two Hearted River (Parts I&II)," which is in the collection published as "In Our Time." Besides being a powerful story in classic Hemingway style, I think anyone who has read it could go to the Michigan peninsula and catch a trout.

Ralph Ellison is quoted in the introduction to "True at First Light" saying this about Hemingway's descriptive talent: "…he wrote with such precision about the processes and techniques of daily living that I could keep myself and my brother alive during the 1937 Recession by following his descriptions of wing shooting…"

Cormac McCarthy is a living author with a similar reputation for being able to precisely capture a particular way of life-in his case that of the cowboy. McCarthy's writing is most often compared to that of William Faulkner, but I see more of Hemingway in his style. McCarthy himself says that Herman Melville, who gave us clear accounts of 19th century seafaring life, greatly influenced him. But Cormac McCarthy certainly stands on his own, and for my money is the finest living American writer.

The best Hemingway novel is "The Sun Also Rises," which was almost titled "The Lost Generation." He wrote it in Spain and Paris in 1925, and it captures the struggle for identity of the generation that came of age right after World War I. The alternate title came from Gertrude Stein's assessment of the young, fast living expatriates in 1920s Paris: "You are all a lost generation."

Somewhere there is a wonderful quote-I think it is from Mark Twain-that goes something like: "What the son wishes to remember the father wishes to forget." The gist of it is that you have more in common with your grandparents than you do with your parents. Anyone of the current lost generation, i.e. "Generation X," who hasn't read "The Sun Also Rises" should. It is about your grandparents, yes, and it is about you.

It has become quite fashionable since about the early 1970s to not like Hemingway. He's not politically correct. All the truly "with it" literati are fans of William Faulkner. And yet Hemingway endures. His influence continues to dominate American letters.

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