Ernest Hemingway is, to a number of academics, little more than a joke.
Despite having won the 1954 Nobel Prize, he’s seen as a writer whose terse prose is ploddingly simplistic. And his themes, which so often detailed his own view of what it means to be a man, are prone to caricature.
To be honest, there’s a lot about Hemingway to criticize, especially in his later years. He fawned over bullfighters, bragged about shooting gaggles of game in Africa, drank more than any dozen Wazoo freshmen, bullied F. Scott Fitzgerald and others shamelessly and wrote books – 1950’s “Across the River and Into the Trees,” for example – that were pale reflections of his best work.
Even the more complex works that have come to light since his 1961 suicide, “Islands in the Stream” and “The Garden of Eden,” have done little more than make some Hemingway critics accuse him of literary/thematic/emotional clumsiness.
But what most of his critics seem to forget – or conveniently ignore – is that when he emerged, Hemingway hit the literary scene as hard as anyone ever has. His mastery was that, at his best, his prose cut to the heart of whatever emotions he was trying to convey.
And the influence he had on American letters was both profound and enduring.
Which is why we’ve chosen Hemingway’s first full collection of short stories, “In Our Time,” as the July read for The Spokesman-Review Book Club.
If you didn’t know, the S-R Book Club specializes in the literature of the Northwest. And though Hemingway is a native of Illinois, spent time in Michigan as a boy, worked as a newspaperman in Kansas City and lived as an adult in such diverse places as Paris, Havana and Key West, Fla., he developed a connection with Idaho, too.
Besides fishing and hunting there, he died in Ketchum. So he fits the club’s format perfectly.
As for whether he is worth reading today, consider what John Updike said in 2000 when he edited the collection “The Best American Short Stories of the Century.”
“Certain authors had to be included, that was clear from the outset,” Updike wrote. “An anthology of this century’s short fiction that lacked a story by Hemingway, Faulkner or Fitzgerald would be perversely deficient.”
Hemingway was still in his mid-20s when he saw “In Our Time” go to press. Living in Paris, part of the “Lost Generation” of expatriates that prowled that city in the decade following the end of World War I, he had in 1924 published what was little more than a chapbook titled “in our time.”
The expanded U.S. edition, originally released a year later, includes 16 stories. Separated by short “sketches,” some are among Hemingway’s most famous.
“Indian Camp,” for example, introduces us to Nick Adams – one of Hemingway’s most important protagonists – traveling with his physician father to help deliver an Indian woman’s baby. Adams shows up later in the two-part “Big Two-Hearted River.”
And “The Battler,” which was written specifically for this collection, was later filmed as a segment of the 1962 film “Ernest Hemingway’s Adventures of a Young Man.”
In an article that I wrote in 1999, on the 100th anniversary of Hemingway’s birth, I was particularly impressed with “Soldier’s Home.” In that story, I wrote: “Hemingway outlined the lasting impact of war long before there was any real recognition of the condition we now know as post-traumatic stress disorder.”
One of his contemporaries, the American novelist Ford Madox Ford, was a fan of Hemingway’s trademark style.
“Hemingway’s words strike you, each one, as if they were pebbles fetched from a brook,” he once told the editor Edmund Wilson. “They live and shine, each in its place. So one of his pages has the effect of a brook-bottom into which you look down through flowing water. The words from a tessellation, each in order beside the other.”
Think of what Ford said as you read the following lines, which come from part two of “Big Two-Hearted River”:
“He felt a reaction against deep wading with the water deepening up under his armpits, to hook big trout in places impossible to land them. In the swamp the banks were bare, the big cedars came together overhead, the sun did not come through, except in patches; in the fast deep water, in the half light, the fishing would be tragic.
“In the swamp fishing was a tragic adventure. Nick did not want it. He did not want to go down the stream any further today.”
Then go on and read “In Our Time.” See what you think of Hemingway for yourself.
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