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.
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). Allen Josephs, once among the most severe critics of the "linguistic realism of the novel," has subsequently softened what he calls his own excessive literal-mindedness (89). Milton Azevedo, one of the more recent scholars to weigh in on Hemingway's use of Spanish, finds the novel's language "an admirable stylistic experiment" (30). Azevedo reminds readers that Hemingway is creating a literary dialect, by definition something that "exists only within the confines of a piece of prose fiction" (30).
While Hemingway's experiments with the use of Spanish have drawn their share of commentary, both positive and negative, Steinbeck's use of a similar bilingualism has attracted little critical notice. What there is--such as Susan Shillinglaw's evaluation that Tortilla Flat is "cast in a consciously artistic language that captures the rhythms of Spanish (a device that to some ears sounds artificial, to others charming)" (53)--usually appears as an aside in the course of other concerns. Marcia Yarmus is one of the few who has focused on Steinbeck's connections with the Hispanic world, particularly in the area of language, but her contribution is at the level of cataloging proper names, place names, and vocabulary. (2) Generally not acknowledged or discussed in the critical literature about Steinbeck is that he was adept enough in the language to have written the original synopsis for The Wayward Bus (El Camino Vacilador) in Spanish, thinking he might publish it in Mexico as a short story (Benson 569). (3)
Rather than engage in the debate about the translation techniques or correctness of either author, I want to suggest that their way with language has an appeal to a new generation of American readers, a generation more attuned to bilingualism, who may have lived on the border between the United States and Mexico and spoken that mix-and-match argot called everything from Spanglish to Tex/Mex to calo. (4) The University of Texas at El Paso is the largest university in this country with a Mexican-American majority--between 70 and 75% of some 20,000 students. The students I will cite in this essay represent a growing demographic. …
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Publication information: Article title: Bilingual Wordplay: Variations on a Theme by Hemingway and Steinbeck. Contributors: Gladstein, Mimi R. - Author. Journal title: The Hemingway Review. Volume: 26. Issue: 1 Publication date: Fall 2006. Page number: 81+. © 1999 Ernest Hemingway Foundation. COPYRIGHT 2006 Gale Group.
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