Arts & Culture

From his time to ours, Hemingway still speaks

Editor's note: This story originally appeared in the June 5, 2004 edition of The Kansas City Star

You'd think that a book called In Our Time and written some 80 years ago might have scant interest for readers in our time. Today, that is.

But great literature lasts because it speaks across time.

Ernest Hemingway was barely 26 years old when his first book of short stories appeared in the United States in 1925. Hemingway was living the postwar, ex-pat life in Paris then, and some of his poems and small pieces first saw light there. But In Our Time served to announce Hemingway's arrival on the American literary scene.

A book critic for The Kansas City Star, where Hemingway had toiled as a cub reporter eight years earlier, hailed Hemingway's voice as something new: "The short sentences bite like acid; the infrequent expletives snarl and rumble like loaded trucks under a viaduct."

For readers today, the Hemingway stories of In Our Time resound with familiar, iconic images. And that's one reason The Star has made the book this month's FYI Book Club selection. Your reading assignment also coincides with Hemingway's birthday anniversary July 21; he was born in Oak Park, Ill., 105 years ago.

Perhaps you first encountered Nick Adams in the classroom long ago: Nick Adams, the boy who becomes a man in the course of In Our Time. Nick Adams, who is witness, in these stories, to birth and death and all the heartache in between that you can stand. Nick Adams, whose fishing trip into the woods of Michigan at the end of the book stands for a generation traumatized by war.

Is In Our Time timely?

Like the seasons and the cycles of life.

"In Our Time is one of the great coming-of-age books," says Scott Donaldson, a prominent Hemingway biographer and editor of The Cambridge Companion to Ernest Hemingway. "The stories, brilliant individually, are strung together on the jangling nerves of a youth confronted by a world he never made. Hemingway calls him Nick Adams, but he bears an uncanny resemblance to Hemingway, and he stands for the rest of us, too, as we shuck off our confident illusions and graduate into manhood."

The book still has the look of a modernist experiment, which challenges readers to decode Hemingway's ideas and intentions and put the pieces together in meaningful ways. Start with the title: It's meant to echo, ironically, a line from the Book of Common Prayer: "Oh Lord, let there be peace in our time."

Sixteen short stories are woven together with the same number of vignettes. The vignettes, all less than a page long and often just a paragraph or two, have echoes of Hemingway's journalism, which he had practiced in Kansas City, Toronto and in Europe in the early 1920s. They describe refugees fleeing the Greco-Turkish war and the ways of bullfighters in the ring. They capture the voices of soldiers during combat and tough Kansas City cops.

The interplay of the vignettes and the longer stories is a never-ending source of study for graduate students everywhere. But to everyday readers the vignettes also can be approached as finely chiseled, modernist prose poems, which help punctuate the longer stories that surround them.

The longer, titled stories include some of Hemingway's best and best-known early work: "Indian Camp," about a boy who accompanies his physician father to an emergency birthing in the woods; "Soldier's Home," which depicts a Marine, back from the war, struggling to come to grips with Midwestern conformity and an uncertain future; and "Big Two-Hearted River," a story in two parts, which follows a meditative Nick Adams into his beloved woods to camp and fish for trout.

Unlike "Soldier's Home" there is no mention in "Big Two-Hearted River" of warfare or wounding, but readers have long recognized that the story is, in fact, about the impact of war and the healing attraction of the natural world.

In Our Time has its rookie weaknesses - especially some over-the-top sarcasm - but for the most part it remains an astounding achievement. The seeds of nearly everything we know or think about Hemingway today can be detected in this book.

Its stories contain a rich pool of still-contemporary images and ideas to ponder and discuss: The gut-wrench of war. The silent decay of a marriage. The white world's disruption of Native American lives. You'll encounter American arrogance in Europe. And don't overlook: Honor, courage, gender troubles; or disaffected youth, fathers and sons, crime and punishment; or the fragile matter that makes us human.

In his review of the book in The Star in 1925, Schuyler Ashley spotted a few qualities that Hemingway may very well have begun to try on in his teen-age stint at this newspaper.

"In lean, spare sentences," Ashley wrote, "he always makes you see the thing he writes about. But what comes nearest to catching his peculiar quality is the everyday, vernacular term `hardboiled.' This fellow is indubitably a hardboiled writer. He has a great feeling for the nonchalant, bleak-faced relish for life enjoyed by truck drivers and city detectives."

Hardboiled, yes. But wiseacre, too. And tender. And then some.

To reach Steve Paul, senior writer and editor, call (816) 234-4762 or e-mail:

The Ernest Hemingway file:

Born: July 21, 1899, in Oak Park, Ill.

Died: By his own hand, July 2, 1961, in Ketchum, Idaho

Also lived: In Kansas City, Paris, Key West, Fla., and San Francisco de Paula, Cuba.

Served: In the ambulance corps in Italy in World War I, where he was wounded by a trench mortar shell in July 1918.

Married: Four times; father of three sons.

Achieved: Literary stardom with novels including The Sun Also Rises (1926), A Farewell to Arms (1929), For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940) and The Old Man and the Sea (1952).

Won: The Nobel Prize for literature in 1954.

Also known for: A larger-than-life personality of often toxic proportions; a fondness for hunting and deep-sea fishing; a deep influence on writers around the world.

More on Hemingway

An article by Steve Paul about Hemingway's Kansas City apprenticeship appears in the Spring 2004 issue of The Hemingway Review, an academic journal published by the Ernest Hemingway Foundation and the University of Idaho Press. The article, "Preparing for War and Writing: What the Young Hemingway Read in The Kansas City Star, 1917-1918," also appears on The Star's Hemingway Web site: "Let's drink to fishing," Bill said. "All right," Nick said. "Gentlemen, I give you fishing." "All fishing," Bill said. "Everywhere." "Fishing," Nick said. "That's what we drink to." "It's better than baseball," Bill said. "There isn't any comparison," said Nick. "How did we ever get talking about baseball?" - From "The Three-Day Blow" About the club Here's how The Kansas City Star's FYI Book Club works: Every six weeks or so, we announce our book selection in the Saturday FYI section, along with an interview of the author and excerpts. Read the book and check back in Saturday FYI about five weeks later for a reader discussion of the book. Want to talk? To be considered for a discussion group, briefly tell us about yourself and the kinds of books you like. E-mail us at or send a letter to: FYI Book Club, The Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64108. Be sure to tell us your phone number. Here's the schedule: Today: Next book and author, In Our Time, by Ernest Hemingway, introduced. July 13: Discussion group meets. July 17: Highlights of panel discussion run in FYI. July 24: Next book and author introduced.