Ernest Hemingway was born July 21, 1899. One Sunday morning, a few days after what would have been Hemingway’s 100th birthday, I talked with Peter Griffin, author of Along with Youth: Hemingway, the Early Years and Less Than a Treason: Hemingway in Paris. I asked Griffin why Hemingway remained such an important figure in American literature.
“Two general reasons. One is, I think that he changed the way people wrote. I think he made acceptable a way of writing that’s direct and has weight and solidity to it, and in a style that makes lies very apparent. Hemingway’s style is a truth-telling style. It’s a style that lends itself to an understatement, it lends itself to a tone of humility. It’s a style that lends itself to a real solid expression of the physical world and yet has the suppleness and resiliency to be lyrical. To be able to work simply is the hardest thing you can do. That’s what Ernest does.
He works simply in bright colors with his words and his imagery. It requires using that ear — he’s got that perfect-pitch ear. His language, his rhythms, can seem unexpected and sometimes, when you read them, not as predictable as iambic pentameter. But because he’s got that ear he can violate the beat off and on, and then suddenly and surprisingly catch up with it, and surprise you with being right on beat again. And his beat usually is part of his means of emphasis. So he works beautifully in that way. His sentences sometimes seem like they’re contrapuntal or dissonant, but then suddenly you say, ‘Ahhh,’ and he moves right into something beautiful and lyrical. And because it’s such a surprise, it’s acceptable. Not only acceptable, but delightful. So I think his style is exquisite.”
Hemingway, I said, seemed to listen carefully to his sentences.
“He did. I think he felt it. He said, ‘Notice, don’t judge.’ I think he meant the same thing about listening. You know, don’t listen to every second or third word, or every other sentence, but really listen. He also said, ‘You live right with your eyes’ and I think he meant also, ‘Live right with your ears.’ And live right with your heart too. ‘Notice, don’t judge’ meant a lot.
“Also, Hemingway’s got that capacity to say something that makes you feel as though it’s been said and it can’t be said any better. And very few writers have that. Hemingway imitators can imitate a lot of his style, but because they’re not as perceptive and sensitive, and as profound as he is as a thinker, because they are not, like Hemingway, a writer who can feel so sensitively and deeply and honestly, they don’t get the 60 percent below the surface. So their work seems flat. His work, that dignity of movement, is what’s below the surface.
“He wrote beautifully about women. The popular image of Hemingway is that of a macho figure, who doesn’t really give a damn about females, and just uses them, kind of the way Sinatra and his crew used to treat women, back in the early ’60s, as decoration. Hemingway was not like that at all. What happened with him with women was that he worshipped them, put them up on a pedestal, expected them to be goddesses, and when they weren’t, he would reject them and try to do the same thing to another one.
As he wrote to a friend about one of his first great loves, ‘She replaced religion for me. She meant everything in the world to me.’ It was a heavy burden for a woman to carry. She couldn’t do it. And she ended up not being what he wanted. And he did that to women all the time. That’s part of it. But he wrote beautifully about women. Lady Brett in The Sun Also Rises is terrific. Pilar in For Whom the Bell Tolls is terrific. Pilar’s got all that weight and wisdom and strength and maternal, mythic, earth-mother quality. Hemingway felt women had great power. He felt that they were in tune to that source of what Jung would call the ‘collective unconscious,’ that women knew things that men could never know and they knew them intuitively. Hemingway would go to women, for the intuition. Not the kind of insights that they would articulate. But the feelings that they would cultivate in him would be the kind of feelings that would reorder his emotional life. And that’s why when he went with a good woman, he knew it, because when he stood next to her, he felt less confused.”
Hemingway’s life itself, I suggested, became a new model for male American writers and would-be writers. I asked Griffin if he would talk about that.
“He really did. Before Hemingway, a serious writer was considered a kind of Henry James. It was a guy who was somewhat oversensitive, fond of gardens, and had delicate digestion — he had an old-maid quality to him. But Hemingway, he was a guy who said, ‘If the artist can’t challenge reality and make some sense out of it, even if its cost is his life, he’s not worth anything.’ Hemingway used his journalism instincts to get the facts right, to get the story. But then to go even deeper and to get the real story, the story below, beneath the story. Which was challenging eternity or the lack of it every day. Which he says is what an artist does. It’s not for the faint of heart.
“Of course this was caricatured and people made fun of it because they didn’t understand it. He made writing a life and death struggle. Here’s somebody who’s putting his ass on the line, and putting his soul on the line. He says, ‘I’m willing to get it through experience — I’m not afraid of life. I’m going to get out there and battle life, just as much as Thoreau.’ But more than Thoreau, because Thoreau went to the woods to do his work, and anybody could be an individual in the woods. But Hemingway really challenged life. He went out there and did the toughest things...risking his life in all kinds of ways, inoculating himself against fear. He took some of the most basic problems that human beings face, and he met them head on. And then tried to write about them. And tried to make them make sense, so the reader could, with his help, * overcome them. Or at least overcome them for a while. Or to understand what * it might take to overcome them.
“Lillian Ross said that Hemingway had the guts to be like nobody else on the face of the earth. It’s true. He did. And especially when you recognize the incredible self-scrutiny he held himself to for most of his life. And the honesty. Genius is a burden for Hemingway, it’s a wonderful burden, but it’s a cross and it’s something that you carry with great diligence and suffering. Hemingway was bearing burdens. And I think that’s what he saw genius as, a real burden, that you have to suffer through and you have to win. But the sacrifice is for great art, which then lifts the spirit of your fellow man.”
Griffin was 22 when he first read Hemingway. “The first Hemingway I ever read was a book of short stories that I picked up. I was just looking around for somebody to read. I had heard his name. I didn’t know anything. I’d graduated from college, but I didn’t know anything. And I got into graduate school by the skin of my teeth. And I was working full-time at a junior high — and I said, ‘Gee I better read something, so I know something when I go to graduate school.’ I felt so ignorant. All I did was run around with women in Bridgewater and get laid as much as I could, drink myself into a stupor every weekend. And so I said, ‘Ah, I better read something.’ So I read Hemingway. Just because of his name. And I found immediately I loved him. I thought he was wonderful. '
“My parents had separated. I lived in a tenement with my mother. I’d be up at night, and I would sleep in a chair in the parlor, and my mother slept in the living room on one of those beds that children have, not a real little bed, but small, and just big enough for her. I had my room back across the kitchen, toward the bathroom. I’d sit in the parlor, and I’d be smoking my pipe, all night. I’d be up until three or four o’clock in the morning, when I first started reading Hemingway, jumping up, saying, ‘Mom, listen to this, isn’t this something, isn’t it unbelievable?’ I’d shake her, and she’d wake up. You know, she’d be mad as hell. But I’d say, ‘Ma, you got to hear it, it’s worth hearing, Ma, you ought to know this stuff.’
"It was foolish and selfish of me, but I remember those were the nice times, some of the best times in my life when I first discovered Hemingway. Because Hemingway was somebody who understood, somebody who had some answers, and somebody I could believe in. I recognized he wasn’t a bullshitter. He was the real thing. I knew it as soon as I read him. He was a guy who was tough on himself. He understood that if you’re going to make something of your life, you’ve got to be hard on yourself, you’ve got to acquire the kind of dignity that comes from having rules that you play by, that you won’t violate. And I try to do that with my life. And it works. He was my philosopher. And also I loved the way he wrote.”