To Write the Truth
By Gabriel Blanchard
Hemingway's matter and style both have proven some of the most profound influences upon American literature.
The novelist Gertrude Stein, twenty-five years Hemingway’s senior, famously called him and his cohort une génération perdue, “a lost generation.” The term perdue could be translated “lost,” “wandering,” “disoriented,” and a few more things besides, and referred to several aspects of the people Stein meant. Like herself, Hemingway and many other members of it were American expatriates living in Paris or elsewhere in Europe; many, as expressed in the literature and nonfiction writing they produced, suffered from a sense of despair, disillusionment, or alienation from society and its institutions, from government to religion; and many were veterans of the First World War, or had been more literally lost in it. Hemingway himself had been an ambulance driver at the end of the war, and after returning to Paris as a journalist in the early 1920s, he also covered the Spanish Civil War in the middle of the following decade—experiences which provided material for several of his novels and short stories. (His transition from journalism to fiction places him in a broader dynasty of American novelists, including Mark Twain, Willa Cather, and John Steinbeck.)
The génération perdue covered a number of celebrated minds of the twentieth century: Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Pablo Picasso, and James Joyce were all acquaintances or friends of Hemingway—though friendship, to him, did not preclude competition and even sparring. (Indeed, given his lifelong enthusiasm for boxing, the sparring was occasionally quite literal.) Alongside his journalistic work, he composed the fiction for which he has since become famous, as well as two nonfiction collections; a few more books in both categories were published after his suicide in 1961.
One of these posthumous publications was the memoir collection A Moveable Feast, a best-seller recounting the time he lived in Paris in the 1920s, frequenting Gertrude Stein’s informal salons and scraping by with his first wife on his meager income. It exemplifies Hemingway’s style: direct, spare, with a sort of staccato rhythm deriving from its short sentences. He called this “iceberg theory.” Drawing on his experience as a reporter, for which the background to events was often uncertain or wholly inaccessible, he chose instead to concentrate on relating immediate events very simply, trusting the deeper meaning of events to come through to the reader by means of his clarity of focus. In Death in the Afternoon (a work on the bullfighting tradition of Spain), he articulated his theory of writing: “If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as if the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.”
This style is strongly maintained in Hemingway’s fiction. Several of his books relate to his military experiences, both in World War One and in the Spanish Civil War. For Whom the Bell Tolls relates the story of Robert Jordan, an American volunteer supporting the constitutional, or Loyalist, government of Spain against the Nationalist rebellion (which enjoyed the backing of both Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany, and ultimately defeated the Loyalists). Jordan falls in love with a fellow guerilla fighter named María, whose life and family have been devastated by the war, ultimately risking his life in a holding action so that she will have a chance to escape a Nationalist attack; it is here that Jordan alludes to the renowned lines of John Donne from which the title is drawn: “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” The book’s message of solidarity and opposition to the Nationalists’ fascism earned it censorship from a handful of world governments, including Spain, Turkey, and for a while even the United States, but this did not stop it from becoming one of Hemingway’s most highly regarded works, and it is classed by some as his very finest.
At the other end of the spectrum of his writing, we have his last major work published in his lifetime, The Old Man and the Sea. This is a slow, quiet novel, written in and based upon time he spent living in Cuba before the ascendancy of Castro. The lead character, an old fisherman named Santiago, has had a long streak of bad luck, and goes out unusually far to catch a marlin. He hooks it, but it is too large and strong to hoist from the water (marlins frequently exceed ten feet in length and can weigh well over half a ton); an extended battle of wills ensues between the marlin and Santiago, who develops respect and even a kind of affection for the great fish. As the fisherman turns to take the marlin back toward shore, he is pursued by sharks, who have smelled the marlin’s blood and attempt to steal his prize from him. The Old Man and the Sea has been compared favorably to Moby-Dick and other classics of American literature, earning Hemingway a Pulitzer in 1953 and being mentioned specifically when he won the Nobel Prize for Literature the following year.
It can be easy to miss the connection between truth and beauty; falsehood normally has to disguise itself in beauty to attract people, and truth can at times be harsh, dull, or dispiriting. But in reading Hemingway, the link between truth and beauty is momentarily obvious. The simplicity of his style lends it a transparent, even luminous quality, and countless readers over the last several decades have found him to be correct—write a true sentence, and the beauty will reveal itself.
Every week, we publish a profile of one of the figures from the CLT author bank. For an introduction to classic authors, see our guest post from Keith Nix, founder of the Veritas School in Richmond, VA.
Gabriel Blanchard is a freelance author as well as the editor-at-large for CLT. He lives in Baltimore.
If you enjoyed this piece, check out some of our other author profiles here at the Journal, from Hippocrates to Francis Bacon to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, or take a look at the essays, poetry, and short fiction contributed by our highest-scoring students. Be sure not to miss our podcast, too, hosted by our founder Jeremy Tate.
Published on 2nd May, 2022.