How the great American novelist became the literary equivalent of the Nike swoosh.
Photograph courtesy National Archives and Records Administration Electronic Records Archives Program.
Those who knew Hemingway well, especially in these early years, reported that his braggadocio was something of a cover: Far from being the swaggering, insouciant rake of lore, he was emotionally fragile, stirred into panics by women’s rejections, prone to insomnia, workaholic and perfectionist (in Paris, he’d spend all day writing and sometimes come home with a single sentence), and given to weird and compulsive record-keeping projects, like tallying exact word counts or tracking his wife’s menstrual rhythms. He was what we would now call a neurotic, and the struggle to make sense of a life suddenly coming apart gave his work the urgency and contours earlier efforts had lacked. Hemingway was at that point in the habit of composing “sketches” that doubled as diary entries, and in the course of writing up an odd and flirtatious trip to Pamplona with friends and enemies, he realized he had more than a few pages of material to work with. The result was The Sun Also Rises (1926), Hemingway’s first real novel and, he later said, the most successful book of his career.
It’s also a strikingly linear novel. Few time cuts or flashbacks appear, and its narration has the effect of plodding forward, never looking more than a few feet ahead. Yet the book seems viscerally vivid and alive, as in its description of bull-running:
There were so many people running ahead of the bulls that the mass thickened and slowed up going through the gate into the ring, and as the bulls passed, galloping together, heavy, muddy-sided, horns swinging, one shot ahead, caught a man in the running crowd in the back and lifted him in the air. … You could tell by the degree of intensity in the shout how bad a thing it was that was happening.
Every sentence here is shaped by a sequence of perception: We see the people running, then become aware of a slowing, then see the bulls pass, then see one strike a man, then see him go in the air. And on. It’s only in the final, beautifully colloquial sentence that a causal interpretation and a moral judgment—in short, a narrative frame—finally appears.
What Hemingway captured, in other words, was the familiar, personal, very un-Jamesian experience of processing the world directly in time. His work of this period connects with our animal habits of consciousness. And the struggle it brings to the foreground is the struggle to make sense of—to find a line of narrative through—this disordered experience. Hemingway’s insight was to understand that this struggle was not just a literary one. It’s a fundamental part of how people themselves perceive and try to make sense of the world.
That insight shaped most of his finest writing, from the slow-focusing dialogue of his stories (like “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” a story about a writer’s fears that he’s failed to capture his crucial experiences on paper) to the stunning opening of A Farewell to Arms (1929), in which the narrator describes the movement of troops through their effect on the late-summer landscape he knows well. Yet slowly, under the mantle of fame and, perhaps, his own need to experiment, Hemingway’s writing moved away from this pellucid reporting and began to don the raiment of high style. It was not always for the best. Compare the vigor and clarity of The Sun Also Rises with this, from his last published novel (or novella), The Old Man and the Sea, describing the old man’s internal life:
He no longer dreamed of storms, nor of women, nor of great occurrences, nor of great fish, nor fights, nor contests of strength, nor of his wife. He only dreamed of places now and of the lions on the beach. They played like young cats in the dusk and he loved them as he loved the boy. He never dreamed about the boy. He simply woke, looked out the open door at the moon and unrolled his trousers and put them on. He urinated outside the shack and then went up the road to wake the boy. He was shivering with the morning cold. But he knew he would shiver himself warm and that soon he would be rowing.
Almost everything here is backward and vague. What are “great occurrences”? Why do we see “places” and lions before we’re introduced to the beach, the setting? The final piece of information in the dream description is that it’s dusk—though that’s the first evocative detail we need in order to envisage the scene. And the old man has woken up, dressed, gone outside, and urinated before we have any sense what time of day it is. This sort of writing is more common than one might like in Hemingway’s later work. In Islands in the Stream (written around the same time and published posthumously), we get sentences such as “Out of all the things you could not have there were some that you could have and one of those was to know when you were happy and to enjoy all of it while it was there and it was good.” This is, in fact, not so good—in part because it takes a simple, not particularly fresh idea (embrace happiness when it comes; it won’t last long) and filters it through a distortion lens of style. Rather than using the progress of experience to shape the words on the page, Hemingway was using his voice to shape the sentences.
If anybody knew this, it was Hemingway, who increasingly despaired of his work as these late years passed. Today, it’s a shame that the “great occurrences” Hemingway, the biblically stylized voice, is the one that’s found his way into the popular imagination. It’s the other, earlier, more uncertain writing—the prose that openly struggles to track and parse a mess of a life—that gets into your blood. “There was just something magnetic to me in the arrangement of those sentences,” Didion once explained. Updike bowed before the “tension and complexity” of his simple prose. Hemingway looms large not so much for what he wrote, or in what tone, but how he captured his imagination in words—his skill in setting the American vernacular in a way that brings a lost, varied, and messy store of personal experience to life.
Nathan Heller is Slate's "Assessment" columnist. You can follow him on Twitter.