Ernest Hemingway

By Pidgeon, John A. | Modern Age, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview

Ernest Hemingway


Pidgeon, John A., Modern Age


I HAVE ALWAYS BEEN AMAZED at the place that Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) has achieved in American letters. To be sure, he was a celebrity and I have no argument or quarrel with those who have made him so. I simply believe that he is not a novelist who deserves the adulation that he has received from the American public. Hemingway is very much like the musician who knows only one note or tune and who plays it over and over again, and as a result enters the pantheon of artists.

More than anyone else, perhaps, Ernest Hemingway was the most famous representative of the so-called "lost generation," that group of young writers who contributed to one of the greatest outpourings of modern literature in our history. For the most part, they were young men who were either directly or indirectly involved in World War I and who belonged to a young generation that went to fight in that war, having been brought up on a very romantic and idealistic diet of Jeffersonianism and American Transcendentalism. Yet, they emerged from the experience of the war disillusioned and bitter. This disillusionment served more than anything else as a stimulus for a remarkably impressive literary production and a philosophical stance on life represented in that literature.

"The American Dream" is an expression that has been used to describe America and its promise to the individual, in which we can detect the thrust of three very essential influences: the Puritan "wealth-goodness concept," Jeffersonian democracy, and the Transcendentalist idea of the dignity of man. In The Great Gatsby (1925), F. Scott Fitzgerald addresses the "wealth-goodness concept" and its effect on American life, clearly subordinating any notion of a positive correlation between the possession of wealth and the possession of character and goodness. Clearly, for him, rich people were not and are not the "best" people. Hemingway, in his work, rejects the Transcendentalist notion that man is free to do what he wishes, that human beings create their own destinies, that nothing is preordained, and that man is in complete control of his own life. Fate, according to the Transcendentalists, is an expression of nature; nature was one with God and God was higher than man. Hence, fate was no threat to man. Hemingway's theme is a rejection of this principle.

Hemingway's essential message is that man is a helpless victim of a malevolent environment, an environment which inflicts violence and pain. He believed that life wounds all of us unreasonably; it wounds each of us in a way that is most hurtful. If we love something then we will lose it because life will rob us of it. John Aldridge, the well-known American critic on literature, suggests that Hemingway's characters behave according to a "code" which is necessary if one is to survive as a human being in a threatening world. It is the code of the hero who suffers from an "unreasonable wound," and who is inwardly tough and outwardly reticent, and who must be able to live by self-restraint and perhaps even by self-hypnosis. One must show no emotions and form no emotional attachments. One must face life realistically without resorting to abstractions or to complex thought. This stance, this code of conduct, is clearly defensive. Hemingway has turned it into a kind of religion that insures safe-conduct through life.

He believes that emotions will "tip off" those who are out to "get us." If we show emotions and find ourselves, for example, openly expressing love for someone, then that person will in time be taken away from us. We have, you see, tipped our hand by showing our emotions. If we become directly or intimately involved with someone else or with some cause, then that person or that cause will be destroyed. We have shown a weak spot by our involvement.

In Hemingway's code, love is dangerous and therefore inadmissible since to love is to render oneself vulnerable to fate. When you love, you lose, and this law lies beyond the will of man. …

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