Hemingway for Wimps

I’m thinking of writing a book with that title, about how to look death in the face and then run like hell.
Hemingway was the most important writer of the twentieth century—not the best, but the most important.  Too schoolboy-magazine, really, but of world-class stature.

Well, what does “not the best” mean?  The novels haven’t held up.  I love The Sun Also Rises, but it’s the only one that works these days, at least for me.

But the stories are up there with the greatest: Scheherazade, Boccaccio, Chekhov, Kafka, Hemingway.  “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber”—is there a wilder, more gripping story?  Gable and Peck both starred in film versions.

But that’s not the point.  The importance of Hemingway was that he defined the American man, really for the first time.  Tom and Huck defined boyhood, not manhood.  Arthur Dimmesdale, Natty Bumpo, these are versions of the British gentleman, meaning the British aristocrat, like Tarzan
the only model American men had, and the world had of American men.

Look at the heroes of the movies of the twenties.  The most popular was Douglas Fairbanks, an American version of the British gentleman.  Barrymore, Adolpf Menjou—ersatz Brits.  Ronald Coleman—a Brit.

But in the thirties, when everybody’s read the novels, or heard of them, we have the emergence of Hemingway Man: Gable, Bogart, Cooper.  Tough guys.  "If you want to call me that, smile."
The British aristocrat, all old-world aristocrats, trace their lineage back to myth, to heroes and gods who slew monsters.  Hemingway slew his own monsters—bulls, lions, charging buffalo, giant fish—he traveled the world seeking them out.  It was very strongly felt by the young men who fought in Korea and Vietnam that you couldn’t be a man unless you had stood up under a shelling—“that chastening,” as he called it.

It is no exaggeration to say that what we call “the sixties,” the movement and broad social feeling roughly between 1966 and 1975, was a reaction against Hemingway, the minting of post-Hemingway man.  (Nor is it any exaggeration to say that the feminist movement that gathered such strength then was a reaction against the courtly love tradition, but that’s another story.)

There had always been guys like Teddy Roosevelt, “big-stick” guys, macho guys.  Indeed, Graham Greene says that machismo is an inheritance from the Romans, and exists only in places that had been part of the Empire, and their colonies. 

But Papa wore macho with a glamour that seduced the world, and gave America, and American men—and their women—a specialness, an identity, a global profile.

Fitzgerald, who wrote the finest English prose since Shakespeare, and was a more generous man than Hemingway, who despised him, was shouldered out by Hemingway Man, and knew it, and resented it, and forgave it.  Fitzgerald was the opposite of a tough guy, and therefore in competition with the British gentleman.  He wrote very little that wasn’t designed to show that American class had more class than British class. 

But by the thirties, nobody cared.  Indeed, who cares now?  Name a recent American president, even the sitting one, who isn’t cut from Hemingway’s cloth.

Ironically—for we must have irony, I can’t live without it—he finished life as a lesbian.

He became fascinated by lesbianism, put it in his novels and stories, and asked of his women that they treat him as one of them in bed.  Well, it takes balls.

One of my English professors told us that the Hemingway mystique was false if it came down to blowing your own head off, but that’s unfair.  Papa had been concussed and internally damaged in two back-to-back small-plane crashes in the jungle, and must have been in enormous pain.  With pain like that you can’t tell whether it’s physical or spiritual. Drugs, booze, shock treatments, going blind, I mean come on.

You’ve got to get out from under your heroes, and I think I have moved on from Hemingway.  My characters are as wimpy as I am.  But his presence is still there.  Norman Mailer carried it for us until a few years ago.  I leave you with this:
For more such idle verse see Literary Musings.

Robert MacLean is an independent filmmaker. His recent The Light Touch is on Amazon PrimeTubi and Scanbox, and his 7-minute comedy is an out-loud laugh. He is also a novelist, a playwright, a blogger, a YouTuber, a film reviewer, a literary critic, and a stand-up comic poet. Born Toronto, PhD McGill, taught at Canadian universities, too cold, live Greece, Irish citizen. No brains, but an intellectual snob.

I was beastly but never coarse. A high-class sort of heel.

The Light Touch on Amazon Prime

The Natural Wish to Be Robert MacLean


  1. I thought I could argue every single point you make in this piece, but I know you'd win. :-) I know nothing - except to loathe Hemingway and adore Graham Greene! To loathe Mailer and adore Fitzgerald! But then, on re-reading this, I understand more clearly about your insight into American hero. Yes, I can see H paved the way for your Wordy.

  2. Really? I was hoping you'd see Word as more of a Fitzgerald guy. I mean, macho he ain't. Belton is more Hem.

  3. I see Word as a macho-wimp, in a Gatsbyesque sort of way. Belton is a ham, not a Hem.

  4. In America, Hemingway Man has been replaced by Arrested Development Man (ADM). Although they share an affinity for alcohol, ADM does all of his killing from the relative comfort of his living room while his enemy/prey is safely ensconced in a computer monitor.

  5. Aren't our current actors still Hemingway men? Pitt, Clooney--perhaps not Depp.

  6. Chekhov as great, here I disagree. I read most of his works and seems more like a meld between Dickens and O. Henry. Neither of whom are on your list. A tough sell, I think. He comes off as Russian - lite with listless characterization.

    1. For my take on Dickens, please see http://tinyurl.com/mke3dkc.

  7. Who knows for whom the bell tolls when your ears are ringing

    Ernest was a guy
    When guys were supposed to be – guys –
    Nowadays they don’t fight the bull,
    They just throw it about –

    Ernest liked the short sharp sentence
    Quick & well aimed -
    A straight left that comes at you
    Out of the page,

    That gets the tip of the chin
    & jolts you
    So you roll back on your heels
    & wonder
    Where in hell that came from ….

    Rae Desmond Jones