Justice for Ernest Hemingway

By Dempsey, G. T. | The Antioch Review, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

Justice for Ernest Hemingway


Dempsey, G. T., The Antioch Review


The publication of Under Kilimanjaro by an academic press is the least that, in justice, has long been due to the work's author. To date, Hemingway has been badly served by the commercial publications of the mass of manuscripts he left behind at his suicide. From his mountain of pages, a half-dozen to a dozen books (depending on how you count them) have been carved out over the last four-plus decades. Ironically, this publishing of "books" has been in response to reader demand for anything by this towering writer, with little regard for the generally abysmal standard of the writing. This essay examines the true state of the writing that Hemingway produced in the two decades preceding his death.

Though it would certainly not have been seen as such at the time, the publication within a two-year period of Hemingway's collected stories and of his most epically conceived and executed novel marked a culmination of both his art and his career as a writer. In 1938 appeared The Fifth Column and the First Forty-nine Stories, followed in 1940 by For Whom the Bell Tolls. At that time, the two massive books together would have been seen to represent a major writer truly at the peak of his powers, in full command of his art, and surely poised to produce many more works of great fiction. Sadly, as we can now see in retrospect, they also constituted the effective end of his writing career.

In effect, the two books served, figuratively if not literally, as summations of all that Hemingway could bring to fiction through his unwavering dedication to writing as craft and as art. Already preliminarily engaged on the writing of his heroic novel, Hemingway purposefully used the book of collected stories to tidy up their varied publication history: the 1930 edition of In Our Time was added to the other two previously published collections of short stories, "Up in Michigan" was resurrected after not having appeared in book form since the 1923 chapbook Three Stories and Ten Poems, and four previously uncollected stories were added. It was, in every way, a canonical collection. When it was reprinted by Scribner's in a uniform format in 1954, though the play was dropped, none of the stories that Hemingway had since published in magazines was added. Nevertheless, it served for the next three-plus decades as the standard "collected" Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. At the time of its initial publication, Hemingway was thirty-nine years old.

Over the next two decades, until his suicide in 1961, Hemingway would produce hundreds of thousands of words, mostly fiction and mostly following upon his return to Cuba from World War II in 1945. Little of this massive outpouring of words would be ranked by any serious reader of Hemingway with even the weakest of his pre-1940 work. Gone are the classic austerity, the purity of line, the narrative tension and muscularity of his prose. Sinewy understatement has been replaced by flaccid bravado. There is great irony in Hemingway's famous comment in his Paris Review interview of 1958 that the "most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shock-proof, shit detector." In truth, this interview came when even Hemingway, with his hard-earned shrewdness, must have realized that, while he still understood all that he had learned in a lifetime of dedication to his craft, he was no longer able to judge his own writing or to control how be wrote. His own writing had long deteriorated into what can, in justice, only be described as Papa's "hokum" period.

In general, the critics have attributed this decline to the psychic stress of playing up to the Hemingway persona. Certainly, for a writer for whom writing was always a private act, living up to self-generated public fame cannot but affect the creative judgment, insidiously corroding its integrity, and certainly the Hemingway characters in his post-war writings--whether fictional like Colonel Cantwell in Across the River and Into the Trees or first-person as in Under Kilimanjaro--are as buffoonish, vainglorious, and mawkish as the real-life Papa could be.

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