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Susan Whitmore: My problem with Hemingway


By SUSAN WHITMORE - Special to The Star
Date: 06/27/99 00:01

A Farewell to Arms
Princeton University Library

It was a propitious moment. I was in graduate school, living in the Netherlands, and tasked with reading Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms for a course in American literature. It was rich, surrounded as I was by the history of the novel's war, a history alive in the Dutch fields of sugar beets and leeks and still resonating in every native's face and conversation.

I was also one year married, and pregnant with my first child. No coincidence, then, that I'd identify with Catherine, the novel's heroine, both of us in love and expecting a child.

The literary canon I came of age in presented Hemingway's work to me early. In high school, we read A Moveable Feast and The Sun Also Rises. I had loved both books, finding joy in Hemingway's fine, clipped writing, mussels and wine I'd ye t to taste making my mouth water. The lure of Paris and my own budding writing-life angst were elevated in me, and the free-wheeling bravado of that woman "chap," Brett, in The Sun Also Rises was a welcome challenge to my own sense of identity. I t hought Hemingway a feminist, for that.

Our English teacher, Mr. Terhune, never mentioned the specifics of Jake's war injury, but we students discussed it in the hallways. We girls knew. The boys wavered.

By the time I finished A Farewell to Arms that year in Holland, however, I was furious. Forget the admitted beauty of the prose and the fine wash of cognac and the sun lying verdant on the war-torn fields. It wasn't Catherine's death in childbir th or the loss of a child -- every first time mother's nightmare -- that vexed me. It was Catherine's constant apologizing.

Early in her relationship with Frederic it begins: apology over her craziness over the death of her English lover, apology for slapping Frederic as he pushes her sexually, apology for trapping him by the trick of pregnancy. And then, the most absurd th ing: Catherine's apology for dying.

Not only does Catherine apologize to Frederic for this, but to the doctors as well, for causing so much trouble. In the end Hemingway turns the reader's sympathy and identification solely to Frederic, walking late out into the rain.

Admittedly I had issues of my own. My pregnancy was unplanned, too, and I was high on the impact of wondering what to do about it. How would it change my life and body; how would it change my husband's life and aspirations, too? But it never occurred t o me to apologize for what had been our mutual blunder in love. Even if Hemingway wanted to hold Catherine accountable, why kill her off to drive the point home?

Something turned a corner in me. Wine and mussels and dampened journal pages spread across the cafe table were not enough.

The literary canon is fraught with heroines who end up crazy or isolated at best, offing themselves or dying of consumption (or in childbirth) at worst. Even Lady Brett Ashley, my first feminist, is an alcoholic, isn't she?

Ever since A Farewell to Arms I don't know whether to love or hate Ernest Hemingway. I say Hemingway and not his work, because I can't separate the author from what he or she has written in light of what I have lived. Everything I read closely t ouches me deeply; that's the author's gift. Who else can I celebrate, or blame?

Susan Whitmore is instructor of English at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and executive director of the Writers Place.

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