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Sorry about this, but — completely unplanned — I began jotting down a few comments and being the sort who really can’t shut up . . .

Oh, what have I let myself in for? Just read the introduction to a book of five essays on Hemingway’s ‘first’ novel (it was his second, in fact, but like much about the man, nothing is straightforward) called New Essays On The Sun Also Rises in a series called The American Novel, and despite the hi-falutin’ talk of ‘New Critics’, ‘new criticism’ and modern perspectives and modernism, I still think the guy is a nine-bob note who had the luck of old nick.

But — a huge ‘but’ — is it really likely that yours truly, a snotty-nosed cynic cast aside in deepest North Cornwall is right and an assortment of academics and critical literary types are wrong? Really? Come on, let’s get real. And yet, and yet...

I’ve just finished the introduction and will continue with the rest of the essays tomorrow, but let me cite just one passage which makes me wonder whether, however unlikely it might be, the world really is capable of disappearing up it own arse. Remember: my background is in newspapers, mainly as a sub, and I know — I know! — the kind of bullshit which can be produced to make white seem black and black seem like a stroll in the park. So let me cite this, from the end of Ms Linda Wagner-Martin’s introduction:

‘As full of disjuncture as a picture puzzle, The Sun Also Rises still presents a story whole, its fragments necessarily scattered throughout the narrative, and readers accept the fragmentation as one of the marks of Hemingway’s truth. They [the readers] seize on the purity of Pedro Romero, the wit of the bemused Mike Campbell, the flip bravado of Brett Ashley s the symbols of the characters who survive the onslaught of real life.’

Sounds real doesn’t it? But is it? This is the same novel about which Hemingway’s sometime friend and fellow novelist John Dos Passos wrote (in a review of the novel when it came out):

‘Instead of being the epic of the sun also rising on a lost generation, [the novel] is a cock-and-bull story about a whole lot of tourists getting drunk.’

He also noted in that review that ‘it had been a mistake to quote the Bible at the beginning of the book: doing so only raised readers’ expectation which were not met by the story that followed’. He is referring to the quote from Ecclesiastes which is used as a second epigraph to Gertrude Stein’s ‘lost generation’ quote.

Then there’s the verdict of Donald Ogden Stewart, who was of the party in the visit to Pamplona in 1925 who along with Hemingway’s boyhood friend Bill Smith, Hemingway based the fictioal character of Bill Gorton. Stewart was also no opinionated snotty-nosed cynic: he had published several books by the time he got to know Hemingway in Paris, had hinterland and became an Oscar-winning screenwriter (he wrote the script for The Philadelphia Story). After reading the novel, Stewart commented that ‘It was so absolutely accurate that it seemed little more than a skilfully done travelogue’ and added that ‘it didn’t make much of an impression on me, certainly not as an artistic work of genius.’

So might be going in?

. . .

Putting forward my explanation — OK, putting forward a possible explanation — lays me wide open. I am no academic, not literary critic, no published author or poet, in fact, I have no obvious qualification at all for adding my two ha’porth worth. But I’m going to do so anyway (which is partly what writing this whole bloody thing — the ‘thing’ being how The Sun is not a masterpiece and Hemingway is not ‘a writer of genius’ — is all about). I think what happened is quite simple: Hemingway’s initial success and his subsequent reputation was the result of the confluence of a variety of often quite disparate factors: there was Hemingway himself, a complex man who believed himself to be something of a literary genius, who was ruthlessly ambitious bordering on being a sociopath, and who believed his own bullshit.

There were his various champions, who promoted him at difference times and for very different reasons and who each in some way or other furthered his career: Sherwood Anderson, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, most notably Scott Fitzgerald (who almost hero-worshipped Hemingway) and eventually his editor at his publishers Scribner’s Sons, Maxwell Perkins. Pertinently, Perkins had entered publishing through Scribner’s advertising department and seems to have had a healthy commercial instinct. That is a vital part of the Hemingway success story.

Then there was the time at which Hemingway (born in 1899) appeared on the literary scene: the post-World War I era (not, of course, then known as World War I — I thought I might alert one or two younger readers to that fact) when pretty much everything was up in the air and ‘modernism’ was all the rage. The ‘Great War’ (which, kiddiwinks, is what it was called at the time) was a watershed, possibly the mother of all watersheds to adopt a current cliche, and what folk wanted was ‘something different’. And they wanted it desperately.

The established authors — Henry James, John Galsworthy, DH Lawrence, Edith Wharton (who didn’t in fact pop her clogs until 1937) were very much ‘out’ and what the young folk wanted — as always — something ‘new’ and ‘different’. And Hemingway was certainly that. Different? Try reading some of his ‘lean, muscular prose’. It’s different all right, though — in my very humble view — not at all very good.

Perkins, he at Scribner’s with the commercial head who had already championed Fitzgerald by publishing Scott’s first novel This Side Of Paradise and his subsequent work (which, believe it or not were at the time regarded as ‘shocking’ — this was, remember, in only the second decade after the end of the Victorian Age and whatever it is called in the US) was more than ready to take a punt on Hemingway, and boy did it take off.

The Sun Also Rises sold steadily more and more copies, not least because Hemingway was marketed by Scribner’s as a new kind of author, a writer who was not some airy-fairy pale artistic pansy (the mention of which allows me
to post a picture of Reginald Bunthorne) but who was a wholesome he-man who could not only write (so the story went) but who also boxed, enjoyed bullfighting and eventually shot big game and all the other things which get you wondering what the hell he thought he was trying to prove. In marketing terms it was genius: his style and the writer were new, and new sells, sells, sells, and then sells, sells, sells some more (until something newer comes along, of course).

Here’s another taste of the kind of bull The Sun Also Rises elicited — this is from a review of the book in the New York Times in 1926:

No amount of analysis can convey the quality of The Sun Also Rises. It is a truly gripping story, told in a lean, hard, athletic narrative prose that puts more literary English to shame.

Surely after reading that, which on the face of it seems, well, fair enough, it is legitimate to ask: what exactly does ‘more literary English’ have to feel ashamed about? Well, nothing, really. That quote is just a snippet of the acres of newspaper bullshit churned out daily which, in Hemingway’s case, did him a great favour.

Three years later Hemingway published his second (third) novel, A Farewell To Arms and that, too, sold like hotcakes. But although he carried on selling stories to some magazines, to be blunt that was the sum of his novelistic output. What about To Have And Have Not? you ask, and For Whom The Bell Tolls? Well, yes and no. To Have And Have Not (1937) was more a novella, a short story on steroids and didn’t sell particularly well at all. For Whom The Bell Tolls (1940) was done a favour by Hollywood who turned it into a film starring Gary Cooper and I would bet my bottom dollar that those who still remember the work, remember the film not the novel.

Then, again to be blunt, Hemingway really dried up. In fact he had pretty much dried up at the beginning of the 1930s after A Farewell To Arms. Much of his work published in that decade was collections of previously published
short stories, but he kept his name aflame by using his reputation and ‘name’ and negotiating a deal with a US magazine group to ‘cover the Spanish Civil War. As Amanda Vaill makes clear in her book Hotel Florida, Hemingway was getting a little desperate to keep his name in the lights. Here is a taste of his ‘war reporting’:

‘It was a lovely false spring day when we started for the front this morning. Last night, coming into Barcelona, it had been grey, foggy, dirty and sad, but today it was bright and warm, and pink almond blossoms coloured the grey hills and brightened the dusty green rows of olive trees.’

Hmm. Doesn’t quite do it for me.

Ten years later, in 1950, he published another novel, Across The River And Into The Trees which — I haven’t myself read it and really don’t want to — was pretty much panned and is today, I imagine, only read by keen Phd students and nerds. Then, two year later, came The Old Man And The Sea, another ‘short novel’ — long short story is more accurate, but that, too, I haven’t read and really — well, you’re ahead of me.

And that, dear friends, was it. Oh, there’s the matter of his ‘Nobel Prize for Literature’, which is pretty inexplicable until you remember that one Bob Dylan was also awarded a ‘Nobel Prize of Literature’ which might indicate that the whole Nobel Prize thing is something of a racket.

NB I fully believe Dylan is a true one-off and deserves a Nobel Prize or equivalent, but what makes his award so farcical is that it should be ‘for Literature’. I suspect Dylan was equally bemused which, for me, explains his initial silence on the matter and his decision not to fuck off to Stockholm to receive it in person. I think — I believe he is an honest man — he was just downright embarrassed but was buggered that he would play the game. Me, if they offer me one, I’m refusing.

. . .

But what about all the acres of academic and literary criticism? Well, first of all I should point out that Hemingway is now old hat. The collection of essays I am reading is quite recent in terms of Hemigway research, but it is more than 32 years old. There are now plenty of other ‘new’ things to be getting on with. I mean even bad boy Bret Easton Ellis is old hat in 2019. And, no, I have read his work either and don’t want to. My policy is that there is plenty of good stuff which has stood the test of time which is there for me to read, more than enough of it, in fact, to last me until well after I am dead (though I did try Oliver Twist a while back and, er, wasn’t that fussed, though it was an early work and maybe later stuff is not quite as irritating).

As for the reputation, my, admittedly left-field explanation, is that it’s all rather like the Emperor’s New Clothes. Rather as there are precious few research grants available for anyone suggesting a project to show climate change is a load of old cack, for many years after World War II there was no kudos to be had be outlining why one Ernest Miller Hemingway, star of the modernist movement, stylistic innovator, mainstay for American literature, ‘one of the greats’ (John O’Hara who could write even called him the best writer since Shakespeare) was actually a man of straw and a nine-bob note.

Let me ask of you a favour: remind yourself of the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes and while it is fresh in your mind, read this paragraph again from the introduction to the book of essays. And when you have finished allow step to one side, as it were, and not take this literary guff at face value. Perhaps you might then see what I am getting at:

‘As full of disjuncture as a picture puzzle, The Sun Also Rises still presents a story whole, its fragments necessarily scattered throughout the narrative, and readers accept the fragmentation as one of the marks of Hemingway’s truth. They [the readers] seize on the purity of Pedro Romero, the wit of the bemused Mike Campbell, the flip bravado of Brett Ashley s the symbols of the characters who survive the onslaught of real life.’

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