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:
Norman Mailer and Robert Cohn
Went walking out at sunset by the sea.
Norman said to Robert, "I know you're only here on loan
But the same guy who made you made me.
He made John O'Hara and he made James Jones
And Camus and Antonio-nee.
He made more writers than Brando made actors
But the last and best he made was me,
The last and best he made was me."
They walked on in silence and the waves washed in
And Norman kicked along absently,
Put his hands in his pockets and thought about things
And looked about as glum as he could be.
He said, "Brando won't speak to me,
Marilyn wouldn't sleep with me,
I'm short and ugly and my thing's too small to see,
And what I want to know, what I called you here to ask you is,
Do you think he would have liked me?"
Cohn looked at him sharply and Mailer brought his guard up, said
"Well you punched him out, you should know!"
"Norman," whispered Robert, "you're confusing fact and fiction.
It was Jake with whom I came to blows."
"Yeah but Papa let you beat him, he could feel you in your fists!
Do you really mean to stand there and say
That you didn't feel the victory engorge you like grace?
You fought the bull, boy! And you lived another day!"
But Cohn just whispered, "Papa don't care,
Papa don't care,
Papa don't care,
Papa don't care,"
And faded in the gloom and then was gone.
And Norman hung his head and trudged back to his room
And sat there staring at the gun.
For more such idle verse see Literary Musings.