Hemingway, Stinker and Writer

Some people on FB are gassing on about what a stinker Hemingway was, and concluding therefore that he couldn't write. Treating novelists as either heroes or demons, ideologues or intellectuals, is a grave mistake that is generally made by people who do not read, much less understand literature. Just because Hemingway was by an large a terrible person does not mean that he was a poor writer, and the fact that he was a sucker for the fashionable ideologies of his time puts him in the same category with at least 90% of mankind.

Glen Gould was a neurotic, but that has little bearing on his musicianship. Proust was a homosexual, Baudelaire a drug-taking degenerate, Coleridge and De Quincy were dopers. Big deal. EH's stories and first novel are, by modern American standards (admittedly not very high) well done and useful if only for telling boys and young men the code they are supposed to aspire to. The observation that EH did not practice as he preached is, well, trivial and silly. At least the com symp womanizing suicide preferred to spend his time fishing, hunting, drinking and wenching instead of displaying his ignorance on FB.

Some poor writers are wonderful people, some great writers are stinkers, but there is no equation of moral evil with literary greatness. From everything we know, Aeschylus and Sophocles were fine men, and across the centuries some of the greatest writers have led good lives. Walter Scott comes to mind, and, after he got off the booze, Booth Tarkington.  I am reminded of a newspaper editorial on the presidential race between Grover Cleveland and James Blaine.  Cleveland was making payments to support a bastard (he may or may not actually conceived, since he was taking the fall for married friends) but was an honest politician, while Blaine, a model family man, was a crook.  A sane man knows which of the two deserved his vote.

We live in a rotten period, where even people who make a stab at leading responsible lives fall terribly short. When a man or woman has done something well--painted a picture, written a song, worked hard to rear his children--his accomplishments should be celebrated. A number of good people have recently asked me how I viewed my atheist leftist (almost certainly CPA at one point) father. I answer always, "With profound respect and admiration." One of the reasons I am not attracted to more intellectualizing versions of Christianity--Calvinism for example, or certain schools of thought in the Catholic Church--is that they seemed to restrict salvation only to people who can understand complex theological questions and come up with answers that please the leaders of sect or school. There was an early ruling of the Church that Arian heretics who were put to death not for their heresy but for their faith in Christ should be regarded as martyrs. Amen.


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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

16 Responses

  1. William Shofner says:

    I fear that Hemingway has not aged well…or maybe I have not aged well. When I read many of his works in college some 50 years ago, I found them lean, riveting. and muscular. When reading several of them again the past few years, I found them flat, dull and thin, for whatever that may be worth. As for his morals, or lack thereof, I never gave them any weight when reading his writing . They matter not a whit to me.

  2. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Wes, I am inclined to agree with you. Of course it partly depends on what you tried to read and partly on what you liked initially. In my teens, I liked the fishing stories and in college became fond of The Sun Also Rises. I at first enjoyed A Farewell To Arms, but concluded that Hemingway was right–it had become “professional” in the hands of editors, meaning–at least to me–that it had become hack-work. It went rapidly downhill from there. For Whom the Bell tolls was unreadable, Across the River etc contemptible, and, while Faulkner praised The Old Man and the Sea–I believe mostly as an insult–I could barely finish it.

    So what’s left? One pretty good novel and some decent stories. I’ll probably never pick up any EH again, but I won’t be reading Lawrence Sterne, Dos Passos, John O’Hara and hundreds of others. I can always reread Herodotus and Plutarch, Shakespeare and Jonson, Thackeray and Trollope, Anthony Powell and Evelyn Waugh.

  3. Dom says:

    Funny thing. I was considering picking up some Hemingway just to reread him as an adult. I didn’t care for him in highschool. Everything just seemed so listless, although I am basing this on, let’s see, The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms. We read some of his short stories and I remember taking those a little better. Maybe like Jack London he is a better short story writer than novelist.

    Which one had he barber that about cut his throat? I still chuckle about that.

  4. Raymond Olson says:

    My experience with EH resembles yours, Tom, almost step-by-step. I read Old Man and the Sea when in high school; to be exact, during summer breaks–two of them, since I couldn’t get through it during the first. Hated it. While in college, I read all the short stories and The Sun Also Rises, liking the earliest of the former and the latter with respect (as I recall, nothing of Hemingway was used in any course I took–Faulkner and Fitzgerald, but not Hemingway). The only later Hemingway I know is the Harry Morgan stories, which constituted an attempt to write pulp fiction; they’re nothing special but not all bad; my favorite movie adaptation of them is The Breaking Point (1950) with John Garfield. A Farewell and For Whom are both unreadable; Frank Borzage’s film of the first is very flashy and absorbing, Sam Wood’s of the second too long but visually dazzling because of William Cameron Menzies’s production design as well as the young Ingrid Bergman.

    I quite liked O’Hara in my salad days and would probably still prefer him to Fitzgerald. Sinclair Lewis has been a great late-life discovery among American novelists. Fenimore Cooper a century earlier is definitely another. I’ve been reading and rereading the Greek and Roman classics from just before the pandemic struck, starting with the tragedians and proceeding chronologically until, just last week, I closed Polybius. Next up is Catullus, whom I’ve read several times before, then Cicero, Caesar, Lucretius, and Sallust. The more I read the classics, the more I want to read them.

  5. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Ray, Thanks for the good comments. I agree entirely on the Harry Morgan stories–they ain’t Hammett but they’re better than a lot in that genre. I read only a little O’Hara in my own salad days, which were more my shrimp, oysters, and Scotch days. In the past ten years I’ve read several and liked them all but perhaps I am too old for them. Someone I have learned to like is Cozzens, though I have read only three books. I initially refused to read him, because WFB, JR liked him, and he had next to no taste. I doubt I shall ever pick up Lewis again, though in my early teens I read just about everything. I think I might still like Dodsworth and even Babbitt. Frankly, Booth Tarkington beats them all. Fitzgerald once confessed that Tarkington made it seem so easy, when, of course, it was not.

    Delighted to be reminded that you are working your way through the really good stuff. Polybius has a rotten Greek prose style, but after Thucydides, he is among the most penetrating of historical writers. Why not take a leading role in our discussion of Herodotus? Not so much for comments on the history as on the charm of his narrative technique.

  6. Roger McGrath says:

    Tom is absolutely right to separate a writer’s work from his private life, although Hemingway’s “fishing, hunting, drinking, and wenching” doesn’t sound all that bad to me. Think of all the actors we enjoy watching work on screen–if we had to consider their private lives . . . . Like most of those commenting here I was never knocked out by Hemingway’s novels. It seemed to me he struggled for what seemed like interminable pages to say the simplest things. He also seemed tortured over issues of masculinity. I haven’t read him since the mid-1960s.

  7. Dom says:

    At least he had hair on his chest.

  8. Dom says:

    Well, from what I heard in highschool. . . some critic derided Hemmingway as having fake hair on his chest. Hemmingway found him and slammed him down and made him grab his chest hair.

    Is this true?

  9. Frank Brownlow says:

    Some of the short stories are good. As for masculinity, Hemingway wasn’t the only American worried about it in the 50s. The captain of the US Lines freighter I came over here on in 1959 gave his chief officer a message for me: “Tell that young Irishman he should get his hair cut.”

  10. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Frank, you are right. The 1950s was a period of trouble young men–weak young males like James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, the losers described by Paul Goodman in Growing Up Absurd, many who identified with The Beats. I could go on, but the hair thing is interesting in itself. In the early 1970’s a colleague in sociology approached me about co-writing a book on the history of hair. He had specialized in all things Asian, particularly Japanese, and when we put our two sets of initial information together, it became clear that long-hair in many warrior societies is synonymous with exuberant virility, while cutting the hair short is often a sign of mourning or anxiety. Of course, there is no absolute equation in any of this, since there are societies where men grow their hair long specifically to express androgyny or effeminacy. About two years after you were coming over on the boat, some of my schoolmates twitted me for having hair too long. “Who you trying to look like, Elvis?” A few years later, black children in Charleston thought I was a Beatle, though I by no means had one of their signature haircuts. In the Terry Southern script of Evelyn Waugh’s “The Loved One,” when Miss Thanatogenos asks Robert Morse why he has such long hair, he tells her, “It’s just an ordinary English haircut.” I’m not much fond of long-haired men or short-haired women (an obvious allusion to Henry James), but I have rarely known a grown man with a flattop or butch haircut who did not make me uncomfortable–ex-Marines excepted.

  11. Ken Rosenberger says:

    I like Papa’s short stories best. The style in which he generally wrote becomes annoying if sustained too long. Imagine The Killers expanded into a 300 page novel. Intolerable.

    I just finished Scott Berg’s bio of the great Scribner’s editor Maxwell Perkins, which contains good depictions of the great Perkins trio: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, & Thomas Wolfe. For what it’s worth, Hemingway comes across as the most likable. He got on with his work and was not always touching up Perkins for an advance, so he could maintain his unrealistic lifestyle and his high maintenance wife, as Fitzgerald was. At one point, Papa went into hiding from his old chum Scott, lest Fitzgerald’s bad influence rub off on him. Too much John Barleycorn. Hemingway wanted to get on with his book, and after that, the next book. Ernie also expressed real gratitude to Perkins for the help he provided, invited him to Key West often for deep sea fishing. In contrast to Fitzgerald’s paltry sum of pages delivered, the impetuous Wolfe (sage of Asheville) delivered boxes of overwritten manuscript pages, often not even kept in order. How they managed to cobble together two novels out of that in Wolfe’s brief life is anyone’s guess. In the end, Hemingway may have produced too many overrated novels (I found Old Man tedious beyond words), but he does seem to have been the most sympathetic.

  12. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Perkins was a famous man in his day, trusted by his publishers and indispensable to writers, who–whatever their literary abilities–needed help turning authentic creations into marketable commodities for the vast lower-middle-brow market of bored Americans. Hemingway’s first novel because so little was expected of it–in the only terms that publishers care about, $$$–was largely his own, and when he was forced to jump through their little myriad of hoops he recorded with self-loving that he had become “a professional writer.” And that was that. Editors damaged the text of Faulkner’s novels, as Jim Meriwether demonstrated, by fiddling with dialect, and who knows–Wolfe might have actually written something worth reading before Max Perkins put his work on the dissecting table.

    Every once in a while, I listen to/watch old episodes of “What’s My Line?”, and what nearly spoils every show is the presence of the smug and self-important head of Random House, Bennet Cerf. It was Cerf who dropped 14 (I believe) poems out of Jeffers’ “The Double Ax” because they were insufficiently reverent in the references to FDR.

    In the old days, I used to dedicate entire issues to the corrupt and stupid business of literature. One had a cover of a soft drink machine dispensing ideas. Under capitalism, the arts are ever bit as subservient to the ruling class as under Communism, and it is getting worse every day.

    If you want a moral, it is this: A writer who actually needs an editor like Perkins or an activist publisher like Perf is not worth reading. They are am unmitigated Hell. I only wish Dante had had to work with an editor, because he knew where to put them.

  13. Ken Rosenberger says:

    Would that have been Malcolm Cowley who did a number on Faulkner?

    You make an interesting point about Wolfe, Dr Fleming. I just got a copy of Dr Wilson’s recent small book of essential Southern books, put out by his own Shotwell label. For Thomas Wolfe, Dr Wilson suggests O Lost! This is the original 1100 page manuscript that was submitted to Scribner’s, that would become Look Homeward Angel, after Perkins, I suppose, cut it down to a more marketable length. Marketable as determined by good Yankees like Perkins, I guess.

  14. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Ken, imagine what Perkins might have been able to make out of the text of Christopher Smart or Hart Craine, or Shakespeare. “Listen, Billy Baby, how can ‘all our yesterdays’ possibly light anything, much less “the way of of fools to dusty death.'” Waddya mean, dd the maid forget to dust him?”

    For Hart Craine we know what an editor would do since we have Harriet Monroe’s letter in which she asks how “the dice of drowned men’s bones” can “bequeath a legacy.”

    One of the best scholars England produced–a great man indeed–thought Milton really wrote, instead of not “darkness visible” but “transpicuous” gloom and his dotty daughters misheard him.

    There was at least one great editorial advisor of the last century and it was Ezra Pound, who helped Ford Maddox Ford, William Butler Yeats, and Ernest Hemingway to find their own voice, and a brief look at the ms of his friend’s “The Wasteland” shows you the vigor of Pound’s mind. People I know who studied writing under George Garret confirm for me what George actually said of his method, which was to help people learn to write in their own way–though many of them began by imitating George’s use of multiple narrative voices.

    Writers can certainly need mentors and friends, but the last thing they really need are production engineers that turn bistecca Fiorentina into Texas Roadhouse specials.

    When are you going to be able to head up here? It might do you good, though maybe not the braunschweiger and Limburger on rye.

  15. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Sorry to have misspelled Crane.

  16. James D. says:

    Dr. Fleming,

    Thank you for the Ford Madox Ford suggestion some years ago. I greatly enjoyed The Good Soldier.