The literary world is flooded with novels, memoirs and short stories today, with more number of men and women trying their hands in writing than ever before. But the classics remain an all time rage. There are authors who would never fade away from our collective imagination. One such author was Ernest Hemingway, who remains pre-eminent among the American writers. His memoir The Moveable Feast is a must read even today.
Few other writers living or dead can come close to Hemingway when it comes to his force of execution. He had an uncanny way of regaling his readers. He had a style of writing which was distinct, tough and peculiarly American. It was a style that was to become legendary in his own lifetime.
The most striking elements in Hemingway’s writing are his stylistic innovations and extreme mannerism. He writes in his memoir about his self discipline as a writer: “If I started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I could cut that scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence I had written… I decided that I would write one story about each thing that I knew about. I was trying to do this all the time I was writing, and it was good and severe discipline.”
In one of his short stories A Clean Lighted Place, which is modelled around an old man on a drinking spree at a bar late into the night, Hemingway builds the character of the old man through dialogues between the two waiters. The old man, we are told, attempted suicide recently. There are parts in the story which makes one wonder, whether the old man is Hemingway himself. Nothing really happens in the story which must be a few hours long in terms of its events but Hemingway’s benign influence is at work throughout the story.
Hemingway enjoys a formidable reputation of being an extraordinary autobiographical writer. All his stories that feature Nick Adams are in part autobiographical at least. Once in an interview when he was questioned, if he was writing about himself in his books, he retorted, “Does a writer know anyone better?” His art indeed conveys the unmistakable feel of the places he lived in, the activities he liked and the people he lived with. These autobiographical aspects of Hemingway’s oeuvre urge one to know more about Hemingway the man. So who was this man who left behind a legacy for other writers to follow?
Born in 1899, he was a young athletic man from Oak Park, Illinois. He was a boy of mere 18, when he began as a cub reporter with Kansas City Star in 1917, fresh out of college and eager to make a career in writing. During the First World War days, as an ambulance driver for the Red Cross in Italy, Hemingway had been severely wounded. The years following his stints with Toronto Star and Star Weekly as a foreign correspondent, he would meet Sherwood Anderson, Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein who would influence his writing style — later he would quarrel with them. In 1925, his first collection of short stories was published. Between then and his tragic death, he wrote great many novels, short stories and journalistic pieces.
Hemingway’s style is unique. He used short words, declarative sentences and that beautiful recording of action in words. It is almost like a verbal photography of action. Probably he pared his style into perfection while working as a journalist. He had a great ear for dialogues. There were many imitators of his style. But none could come close to it, let alone his achievements.
“I started out very quiet and I beat Turgenev. Then I trained hard and I beat Maupassant. I have found two draws with Stendhal but nobody is going to get me in a ring with Tolstoy unless I’m crazy or keep getting better.”— Ernest Hemingway
But most critics weren’t happy with his ways as an artist. They found his world narrow and limited. However, they insisted that in his oeuvre less is more. And he was believed to be a far better short story writer than a novelist. While some writers were clinical and dispassionate; others passive and poetical, Hemingway was a blend of all of these — a complete package. He abandoned literature altogether for his pursuit of the higher journalism.
In 1954, he was awarded the Nobel Prize. The judges were impressed by the “the style-forming mastery of the art of modern narration”, which is most evident in his short novel The Old Man and the Sea, which was published two years earlier.
In a famous interview with Lillian Ross, he said, “I started out very quiet and I beat Mr Turgenev. Then I trained hard and I beat Mr Maupassant. I have found two draws with Mr Stendhal but nobody is going to get me in a ring with Mr Tolstoy unless I’m crazy or keep getting better.” It must be noted that a few decades earlier, Hemingway had rated Ivan Turgenev above Leo Tolstoy.
According to his critics, by now his writing had gone soft. His syntax was beginning to get boring and his tricks were repetitive.
A Farewell to Arms is generally regarded as his best novel. In 1935, in a piece in Esquire magazine called “Monologue to the Maestro”, Hemingway wrote, “As a man, you know who is right and who is wrong. You have to make decisions and enforce them. As a writer you should not judge. You should understand.”
In one of his finest short stories, The Snow of Kilimanjaro, Hemingway’s protagonist, Harry (a writer) is on a safari in Africa with his partner. They get stranded on a hill due to a deadly infection to one of his legs, making it impossible for them to move on. And here he comes face to face with death. He visions it watching him from a corner, coming towards him and surrounding him. It once even puts a leg on his cot bed to seize him. Harry amidst these face offs with death contemplates all the stories there will be no time to write. Seldom, one comes across a writer of Hemingway’s calibre and his level of imagination. He had an incredible ability to make his readers experience the deepest compassion, sadness and fear. He emphasised on the need for peace in the world through his depiction of violence, bloodshed and death. Even though he departed from our world long back but he will remain immortal through his living words.