Susan Beegel: What I like about Hemingway
John F. Kennedy LibrarySurveying the dead on a battlefield near Madrid during the Spanish Civil War, 1937.
By SUSAN BEEGEL - Special to The Star
Date: 06/27/99 00:01
"A writer's job is to tell the truth."
What I like best about Hemingway is his devotion to that credo. Throughout his remarkable body of fiction, he tells the truth about human fear, guilt, betrayal, violence, cruelty, drunkenness, hunger, greed, apathy, ecstasy, tenderness, love and lust. This he does in the true language of Americans -- sparing, colloquial, loaded for bear.
His language is sometimes as coarse as a woolen hunting shirt and sometimes as breathtakingly beautiful as our rough, wild land, but always it rings true.
Great literature is never sanitized for our protection. Hemingway does not depict a fictive world of should be, or isn't it pretty to think so? Readers who do not understand this sometimes accuse him of sexism and racism. Hemingway embraces neither of these noxious isms, but he does depict them -- and truly. He writes about sexual politics -- the struggle of men and women to dominate each other -- and about the fundamental dignity of the world's have nots with often searing insight.
Like Shakespeare, Hemingway believed that art should hold a mirror up to nature and confront us with harsh truths about ourselves.
His deepest commitment was to telling the truth about war. Today we are so healthily obsessed with the social problems of gender, race and environment, we have unhealthily forgotten the social problem that can impartially slaughter by the millions men, women and children of every race, religion, color and creed, while laying waste to the earth and poisoning the sea for all species and their generations to come.
We are so obsessed with respecting our differences we have forgotten how to respect our common humanity.
Not Hemingway. Badly wounded as a Red Cross volunteer in World War I, he experienced firsthand the Greco-Turkish War, the Spanish Civil War, the Sino-Japanese War and World War II, often coming under fire. Before his death in 1961, he would taste the terrors of hot war and cold in a nuclear age, and lose his much-loved Cuban home to revolution.
In his novels The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls, as well as in his superb short fiction and dispatches from many fronts, Hemingway bears witness to the horror of war and its psychic aftermath with graphic realism.
He reminds us that wounded soldiers scream for the mercy of death, that a munitions factory explosion blows women workers into unrecognizable fragments, that invading armies practice rape and murder, that refugee mothers will not surrender their dead babies, that enemy soldiers are good men with families, that the capacity for atrocity knows no ideology, that killing another human being can destroy a man's serenity for life, that jets and automatic weapons make it easy.
"Beauty is truth, truth beauty," Keats tells us. Compassion and responsibility spring from knowledge of brutality, from understanding how things are. Hemingway's unwavering gaze at the cruelest realities and his courageous insistence on telling the truth in plain language enlarges our humanity. And that is beautiful.
Susan Beegel of the University of Idaho is editor of The Hemingway Review, an international scholarly journal.