Ernest Hemingway Sifts Through the Political Bullshit
The writer’s much-mocked style reveals a hatred for the exhausted language of euphemism
These days, everyone hates Ernest Hemingway, which is fine. There are many reasons to hate Hemingway. Most of them are good reasons and only a few of them are bad: The toxic masculinity, the cartoonishly macho hobbies, his inability to fathom the interior life of women. Above all, there is the union of this stunted emotional life with a pared down, minimalist prose style, one that had become ubiquitous for a time in creative writing workshops and literary journals.
Matthew Adams, writing in The Washington Post, summed this up what has become, I think, the general attitude toward Hemingway’s style. “Ernest Hemingway is the macho face of 20th-century prose,” Adams wrote in 2017.
His birth in 1899 marked the arrival of a man who wanted to dissociate literature from the taint of femininity it had acquired under the influence of Oscar Wilde and align it instead with a kind of hairy masculinity. Lilies and wallpaper were finished. In their place? Blood, battle, sex, hunts, death. Manly things. And to treat manly things properly, literature would require an appropriately manly style. Out with girly adjectives, rapt similes, elaborate metaphors, ethereal ruminations. In with curt observation, plain sentences, icy repetition.
Hemingway’s prose is the prose of ugly-hearted men afraid of their own emotions, and his writing champions the aesthetics of emotional lives submerged so far below the surface that only the tips of feelings are ever evident above the water line
Then there is Joan Didion. I’ve described her before as a style icon and “an octogenarian It Girl,” a patron saint to an entire generation of essayists, someone who is able to craft a meticulous and startling sentence while exuding the kind of photogenic aura of cool that gets one’s portrait printed on tote bags. At her best her writing is full of curiosity yet coolly detached, placing her somehow both at the heart of everything while being above it all.
But I had never thought too much about Hemingway and Didion together. I’m currently reading Let Me Tell You What I Mean, a newly-published collection of Didion’s essays, mostly about her own writing process and craft, that span just over three decades, from 1968 to 2000. Among them is her 1999 piece on Hemingway’s posthumous oeuvre, “Last Words,” in which she expresses both her admiration and her affinity to this most loathsome writer.
Hemingway’s prose is the prose of ugly-hearted men afraid of their own emotions.
What an uncomfortable recognition, to face how much the ever-beloved Didion saw in the perpetually loathed Hemingway’s style and how much she strove to emulate it in her own writing. She opens the essay with the first paragraph of A Farewell to Arms, then proceeds to break down the magic of those 126 words, and confess her longstanding attempts to imitate it. “I first read them, at twelve or thirteen, and imagined that if I studied them closely enough and practiced hard enough I might one day arrange 126 such words myself.”
But beyond this youthful ardor, reading Didion on Hemingway makes clear how much his style influenced hers. “The very grammar of a Hemingway sentence,” she writes at one point, “dictated, or was dictated by, a certain way of looking at the world, a way of looking but not joining, a way of moving through but not attaching, a kind of romantic individualism distinctly adapted to its time and source.”
I’m hard pressed to think of a better description of Didion’s own prose; the opening two paragraphs of “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” which rank among my favorite passages in any essay I’ve ever read, are the acme of a perspective that looks but does not join, as Didion moves through the Haight Ashbury district of San Francisco without ever attaching herself to it in any way whatsoever.
One finds this same poise in all of Didion’s iconic work, from “The White Album” to The Year of Magical Thinking. So whatever else one thinks of Hemingway, I don’t think it is his style, per se, that is the problem. (My own hypothesis the real disdain comes from several generations of creative writing teachers pushing Hemingway’s style as a thing to be emulated, because — let’s face it — a bad Hemingway imitation is easier to stomach and to improve than a bad Proust imitation or a bad Woolf imitation.)
Didion herself teases out another important aspect of that style, its ability to be adapted by writers who were “in no way grounded in romantic individualism.” This realization, I think, is key to separating one’s feelings about Hemingway’s style from one’s feelings about the bullshit of his romantic individualism. Didion is indeed right, after all, that one can trace Hemingway’s style through a number of writers who have very little in common with him — among them, George Orwell. “I recall being surprised, when I was teaching George Orwell in a class at Berkeley in 1875, by how much of Hemingway could be read in his sentences. ‘The hills opposite us were grey and wrinkled like the skins of elephants,’ Orwell had written in Homage to Catalonia in 1938. ‘The hills across the valley of the Erbo were long and white,’ Hemingway had written in ‘Hills Like White Elephants’ in 1927.” She goes on then to make another comparison, between Orwell’s “Politics in the English Language” (“A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outlines and covering up all the details.”) And another passage from A Farewell to Arms:
I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain. There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity.
These two sentences stopped me short. I’ve read A Farewell to Arms several times in the past two decades, but after the year that has been those lines forced a recognition that I was not expecting. To be perfectly honest, I don’t know that coming across them in the context of the novel would have had the same effect of coming across them in Didion’s essay, where she draws that sharp connection to Orwell.
The mark of a good essayist, after all, is in that ability to make you look at something you’ve looked at for years, maybe all your life, and show you how to see something new in it. And through Didion’s eyes, I was able to divine another layer in A Farewell to Arms. One can say that Hemingway’s minimalism came from the repressed emotions of toxic masculinity, I suppose, and you wouldn’t entirely be wrong. But it is also a style wrought from the failures of those who were in power — through first a war and then a pandemic — to take language seriously, or to put it to any other use than to paper over horror and calamity.
“In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible,” Orwell wrote in 1945. “Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.” Orwell understood that in times of crisis, language was among the first casualties. “When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink. In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics.’ All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasion, folly, hatred and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer.” In Hemingway’s hated style see also the hatred for the exhausted language of euphemism and political evasion.
It is a style is wrought from the failures of those who were in power to take language seriously.
I am still thinking about how we make sense of the past year. I am still thinking about how to sift through the morass of bullshit that’s been heaped on us, from ass-covering politicians to grifting conspiracists, from focus-tested rhetoric to bad-faith reassurances. Empty gesture after empty gesture of thanks to healthcare workers, grocery store workers, and delivery people, all of whom we left exposed and vulnerable even as we insisted they take care of us. I am still thinking about the utter bankrupting of language in a year of visceral crisis and fear. The hollowing out of words like essential, heroes, and sacrifice.
And yes, it is the place names, and the names of the dead themselves, that retain their dignity. Wuhan. Lombardy, Italy. Kirkland, Washington. East New York. The dozens of waste-laid cities. The hundreds of nursing homes, of overtaxed hospitals, of crowded apartments — all of whose names and addresses we will have to gather together if we the living are to restore any dignity to ourselves.