Print This Article kansascity.com Back to web version

In year of centennial, many coming to grips with formidable literary force


By STEVE PAUL - The Kansas City Star

Note: This article was published Feb. 28 1999 in The Star.

He was born on July 21, 1899, and died by his own hand on another July day 62 years later. In the intervening years, his life not only paralleled the rise of the "American century," he helped define it.

He was an American abroad. He was all brawn and swagger. And in one of the surest ways to extend one's life beyond its natural boundaries he wrote it all down, and much of what he wrote down was very good.

This year marks the centennial of Ernest Hemingway's birth, and unlike the 100th anniversary of, say, James Gould Cozzens or Robert McAlmon, two of his contemporaries, the event is drawing considerable attention.

Literary scholars are sharpening their testimonials and critiques, book publishers are cranking up their presses, the marketing folks are launching their Hemingway product lines -- Papa's got a brand new sofa! -- and readers around the world are rediscovering what it was that made him a giant of modern American literature.

One of the biggest events of the Hemingway year will be the publication in July of one last book from his unfinished manuscripts. True at First Light -- a "fictional memoir" it's called -- is based on a Hemingway safari in Africa in 1953 and '54. The book will be the fifth major Hemingway work published since the writer's death in 1961.

For much of the year Hemingway scholars and enthusiasts will meet for conferences from Boston to Bimini, from Petoskey, Mich., to Piggott, Ark. Cuba, where Hemingway lived for more than 20 years, is luring tourists and scholars with the Hemingway mystique and conferences in June and October.

Aside from True at First Light, there'll be other new books, including the fifth and concluding volume of Michael Reynolds' much-admired and long-in-the-making Hemingway biography.

The fact of Hemingway's influence on the writers who followed him is nearly indisputable: The way he used the American vernacular, the language of real people, simple words. His attention to scene-setting and close observation and just the right detail. And how what he left out was just as important as what he put in.

Hemingway has alternately engaged or given the willies to generations of American school kids. Along with William Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald, he was part of a triumvirate whose writing put American literature on the world map, or, at least, the American literature of "whiteness," as Toni Morrison put it in a landmark essay.

One contribution to Hemingway's longevity -- aside from the larger-than-life mythology that he helped create for himself -- has been the depth of character and insight that people continue to find in his work, still four decades after his death.

A recent milestone was the posthumous publication in the mid-1980s of an unfinished novel, The Garden of Eden, which directed readers to a new consideration of Hemingway's virile stance.

The novel's concern with "gender confusion" in a love triangle helped launch an academic cottage industry. A new generation of scholars, including feminists who had long dismissed Hemingway' overt machismo, could now read his stories and novels in an entirely new light. Toni Morrison even found evidence in the book of a notable "Africanist" presence

For many readers that kind of unexpected depth always has been there.

"One of the great hallmarks of Hemingway as a writer is his wonderful duplicity," said Gerry Brenner, a professor of English at the University of Montana and a Hemingway scholar for 35 years.

"His stories seem to be clear little pools of lexical lucidity. But once you put your eye down on them, you see all kinds of depth and refractions that raise all sorts of significant questions."

Hemingway, of course, has his detractors.

The writer Annie Proulx, for one, while acknowledging "the power and beauty" in Hemingway's writing, dismissed "his hungry need for constant praise and attention, his egoistic contruction of himself."

Ernest Miller Hemingway was born in Oak Park, Ill., a Chicago suburb, the son of a doctor and a singer. The family often summered in the outdoors of northern Michigan, the setting of some of his best-known short stories.

In the fall of 1917 he arrived in Kansas City, where an uncle lived, and spent seven months as a cub reporter at The Kansas City Star. He long acknowledged his debt to The Star's sheet of writing guidelines ("Use short sentences," it began): "Those were the best rules I ever learned for the business of writing," he once declared.

He traveled incessantly and seemed to embrace one adventure after another: ambulance driver in Italy and wounded "war hero" of World War I; European correspondent, covering Mussolini in Italy and bullfighting in Pamplona; big-game hunter and deep-sea angler; chronicler of Spain's civil war; resistance fighter and journalist in World War II France. Above all, celebrated writer.

His work created a sensation from nearly the very beginning, blazing a territory of modern sensibilities and racy realism. In short stories and then in novels such as The Sun Also Rises (1926) and A Farewell to Arms (1929), published when he was only 30, he created works that were both highly popular and critically acclaimed, a combination that remains all too rare in American letters.

As his literary stature grew -- even as some of his later work fell flat -- so, too, did his fame as a carousing, adventuring, much married celebrity. And by the end of his life -- even after the Nobel Prize in 1954 -- that presence often threatened to overshadow the work.

"The didactic momentum of the biography," Joan Didion wrote recently, "was such that we sometimes forgot that this was a writer who had in his time made the English language new, changed the rhythms of the way both his own and the next few generations would speak and write and think."

Didion is among those writers who are none too pleased with the way Hemingway will be returning to print this summer. Hemingway's son, Patrick, has edited his father's pages, trimming 200,000 words down to 100,000.

In an early volley, launched in The New Yorker in November after the news of True at First Light's publication, Didion issued a sharp rebuke to the Hemingway family:

"(E)ight hundred and fifty pages reduced by half by someone other than their author can go nowhere the author intended them to go, but they can provide the occasion for a chat-show hook, a faux controversy over whether the part of the manuscript in which the writer on safari takes a Wakamba bride does or does not reflect a `real' event."

Scholars have long raised questions about the amount of tinkering done to Hemingway's other unfinished and posthumously published books. Gerry Brenner, for instance, has found evidence of Mary Hemingway's heavy hand -- a heavier hand than she ever admitted to -- in A Moveable Feast, her husband's popular memoir of his Paris years.

Others, though, suggest that any new Hemingway is quite welcome. Hemingway's reputation is already made and secure. Publishing unfinished manuscripts is not much different, the argument goes, than exhibiting a painter's sketches.

For many people there will continue to be two Hemingways, the writing one and the hard-living celebrity. For Hemingway, of course, those two lives were inseparable. His life and his experience fed his art in a way that still remains remarkable, if not, in Annie Proulx's estimation, somewhat pathological. "I suppose," Proulx noted, "he might have had an atrophied imagination, that he might have had to substitute the lived event for the imagined."

It's not difficult to see the conclusion that Hemingway may have drawn at the very end, when he put the shotgun to his forehead. July 2, 1961. Wracked by pain and depression and the effects of shock treatment. All of that and something else: He was unable to write any more. Perhaps Hemingway saw that as the greatest weight of all.

To reach Steve Paul, senior writer and editor, call 234-4762 or send e-mail to paul@kcstar.com

© 2014 Kansas City Star and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved. http://www.kansascity.com