Bilingual Wordplay: Variations on a Theme by Hemingway and Steinbeck

By Gladstein, Mimi R. | The Hemingway Review, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

Bilingual Wordplay: Variations on a Theme by Hemingway and Steinbeck


Gladstein, Mimi R., The Hemingway Review


Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck were among the few early 20th century American writers to incorporate the Spanish language into their work, making vanguard experiments in bilingual fiction. More often than not, this was to show their affinity for the working-class Spanish or Mexican people they were depicting. In this living within, between, and sometimes outside of two cultures, Hemingway and Steinbeck are not unlike early Chicano writers, with whom they share, in a limited way, a kind of bilingualism. Their way with language has special appeal to a new generation of bilingual American readers that lives on the border between the United States and Mexico and speaks that mix-and-match argot called everything from Spanglish to Tex/Mex to calo.

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THE SPANISH LANGUAGE is the fourth or fifth most spoken language in the world. Still, very few prominent United States writers of the 20th century incorporated it into their fiction. Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck are two notable exceptions, and an analysis of their vanguard experiments in bilingual fiction is clearly warranted as the number of Spanish/English bilinguals grows in this country. (1)

In sharp contrast to writers of their generation who dotted their stories with French or Latin words or phrases, usually to show off erudition or worldliness as French was the language of sophistication and fashion and Latin the language of learning, Hemingway and Steinbeck chose to complement their texts with Spanish words and phrases. More often than not, this was to show their affinity for the people they were depicting, to position themselves with, rather than above, the working class. In this living within, between, and sometimes outside of two cultures, Hemingway and Steinbeck are not unlike early Chicano writers such as Arturo Islas and Jose Antonio Burciaga, with whom they share, in a limited way, a kind of bilingualism. But, unlike these writers, Hemingway and Steinbeck did not learn Spanish at home. Neither had Hispanic forebears or roots; they developed their bilingual skills in the course of their lives.

Hemingway's identification with and appreciation of things Hispanic began when he was an adult, when he first traveled to Spain in the early 1920s. For Hemingway, Hispanic culture possessed the allure of the exotic, which he embraced and tried to make himself part of. Steinbeck's affinity for things Hispanic grew naturally out of his early work experiences. Thorn Steinbeck claims his father learned Spanish while "cowboying" for the Post family. Steinbeck's boyhood friend Max Wagner had lived in Mexico for a number of years; Steinbeck was a regular at the Wagner home, where the family all spoke Spanish. Their bohemian spirit and lifestyle appealed to Steinbeck and played an integral part in his rebellious development. In rejecting the middle-class values of his peers, Steinbeck also rejected their prejudices. This attitude is reflected in the words of Billy Buck, one of Steinbeck's most admirable characters in The Red Pony, a man who, like a Hemingway code hero, knows the values. Countering the prejudice against Gitano expressed by Mr. Tiffin, Buck defends all "paisanos." "They're damn good men. They can work older than white men. I saw one of them a hundred and five years old, and he could still ride a horse. You don't see any white men as old as Gitano walking twenty or thirty miles" (133).

The question of whether these writers were successful at incorporating Spanish into their fiction is still being debated. Particularly in critiques of For Whom the Bell Tolls, Hemingway often comes under attack for affecting a greater knowledge of Spanish than he actually possessed. Bruce Fleming characterizes Hemingway's Spanish as not Spanish 'at all, but "pidgin English" (266) Countering criticisms of Hemingway's translation techniques, Wolfgang Rudat explains that the reader must enter into an agreement with the author to believe that the characters say exactly what is printed in English on the page (36). …

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