Hemingway’s Fiction Writing Style – Too American?

by Bill Henderson

Hemingway - AmericanMy thanks to Fee, for his good natured comment on a recent Hemingway post (see comment, left). Like many British readers, he feels Hemingway is over-rated by Americans, and pleads cultural differences. Specifically, Hemingway’s trademark style, the “relatively unvarying, staccato rhythm,” feels like somone is driving nails into his head. That’s serious. “I know you’re a Hemingway nut, but a lot of British readers and writers don’t really understand the reverence in which he is held. Back to those cultural differences, I suppose.”

First, to set the record straight, I’m not a Hemingway nut. It was his life, as story material, that initially brought me to him. Along the way I came to respect and admire some of his fiction–mostly the early short stories. I like only one of his novels, “A Farewell to Arms,” and mostly, truth be known, I’d rather be reading other writers. Even British writers! For example, I’d rather settle down with Thackeray, Martin Amis, Hardy, Muriel Spark, even the Mitfords (I once actually met Jessica). Then why do I bring up Hemingway so much? Because, as Fee observes, he offers so many clear, “teachable” examples of the right way to approach doing fiction–examples that, I believe, are not bound by culture.

But culture is a legitimate issue here. Hemingway was certainly American to his marrow–worse, an American abroad whose interest in the natives rarely extended beyond that of an adventure tourist. He lived in Paris but had no interest in the French. He was downright hostile toward the English. Of course, that shouldn’t necessarily stop you. I love reading Evelyn Waugh, even though he was famously unlikeable and hated Americans.

No writer can please everyone. But it’s helpful to place EH in context. He came at the end of a long-simmering American reaction against the worst excesses of stuffy 19th Century Victorian fiction, English and American. The great Victorians–Hardy, Henry James–rose above the excesses of the era. But mediocre Victorian fiction, on both sides of the Atlantic, was probably the most horrendous mediocre fiction ever to exist on any planet. You’ve never heard of any of these authors because they rightly vanished into the sinkhole of literary history. Their writing was clotted with meaningless bromides, silly social mannerisms, predictable plots, cardboard characters, and melodramatic emotions.

This was the voice of fiction in the pre-WWI world Hemingway grew up in. He himself had started off writing juvenalia in that highly mannered, clicheed style. But the the unadorned style demanded by newspapers, the influence of Sherwood Anderson (in Chicago), and later the tutelage of Gertrude Stein (in Paris), caused him to seek the simplest possible way to write fiction, based on pure observation of the telling detail.

It’s impossible to overemphasize the powerful catalyzing effect Stein had on him. Everyone knows about her, but few read her today. (The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas barely counts: she wrote it intentionally for a commercial market.) But read only a few pages of The Making of Americans, or 3 Lives and you’ll hear the echoes of the voice Hemingway appropriated and made his iconic own: the simple, almost primitive phrasing, the strategic repetitions, etc. It’s all there in her supremely confident, if enigmatic, voice (although in a much less disciplined form than Hemingway employed): “Anna managed the whole little house for Miss Mathilda. It was a funny little house, one of a whole row of all the same kind that made a close pile like a row of dominoes that a child knocks over, for they were built along a street which at this point came down a steep hill. They were funny little houses, two stories high, with red brick fronts and long white steps…” [3 Lives, opening page].

Over the years, a lot of bad Hemingway has been written (a lot of it by Hemingway himself, unfortunately), and inspired the merciless parodies that have confused the style issue for many Hemingway readers. Whether you’re British or American, I think it would be hard to read, say, “A Change of Season” without being genuinely moved by it. At its best, Hemingway’s insistence on simple clarity and primacy of the image defined the future of literary fiction writing, at least for Americans, for several generations–just as Poe’s innovative “single effect” theory had done for the emerging short story form, a century earlier.

One more thing: Virginia Woolf expressed a simple thought in one of the Common Readers. (If someone can chase down the quote for me, I’d be grateful.) I don’t have the wording, but her gist was that a sentence is an image of a thought. Hemingway chose to write from the point-of-view that’s usually called “limited omniscience,” although I prefer to call it “character narration.” It’s 3rd person, and as such, objective, but it also represents a particular character’s psyche, voice, mentality, and (yes) underlying culture. In this kind of fiction, style IS (or should be) the image of that character’s way of thinking. For Hemingway, that character was always a young American male, sometimes traumatized by war, always trying shut out the forbidden areas of his own psyche. A kindred style was employed by Camus in l’Etranger, to render the narrative of Meursault. So whatever you might say about the Hemingway style–at least in his earliest, best work–it wasn’t an affection: it was a true linguistic image of a character’s stark, affectless psychic landscape.

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