Sizing Up a Giant as the Centennial of His Birth Nears, Ernest Hemingway's Literary Presence Is Generating New Waves of Praise and Criticism

By Paul, Steve | The Florida Times Union, June 7, 1999 | Go to article overview

Sizing Up a Giant as the Centennial of His Birth Nears, Ernest Hemingway's Literary Presence Is Generating New Waves of Praise and Criticism


Paul, Steve, The Florida Times Union


He was born on July 21, 1899, and died by his own hand on another July day 62 years later. In the intervening years, his life not only paralleled the rise of the "American century," he helped define it.

He was an American abroad. He was all brawn and swagger. And in one of the surest ways to extend one's life beyond its natural boundaries, he wrote it all down, and much of what he wrote down was very good.

This year marks the centennial of Ernest Hemingway's birth, and unlike the 100th anniversary of, say, James Gould Cozzens or Robert McAlmon, two of his contemporaries, the event is drawing considerable attention.

Literary scholars are sharpening their testimonials and critiques, book publishers are cranking up their presses, the marketing folks are launching their Hemingway product lines -- Papa's got a brand new sofa! -- and readers around the world are rediscovering what it was that made him a giant of modern American literature.

One of the biggest events of the Hemingway year will be the publication in July of one last book from his unfinished manuscripts. True at First Light -- a "fictional memoir," it's called -- is based on a Hemingway safari in Africa in 1953 and '54. The book will be the fifth major Hemingway work published since the writer's death in 1961.

During 1999, Hemingway scholars and enthusiasts have set conferences from Boston to Bimini, from Petoskey, Mich., to Piggott, Ark. Cuba, where Hemingway lived for more than 20 years, is luring tourists and scholars with the Hemingway mystique and a conference in June.

Aside from True at First Light, there'll be other new books, including the fifth and concluding volume of Michael Reynolds' much-admired and long-in-the-making Hemingway biography.

The fact of Hemingway's influence on the writers who followed him is nearly indisputable: the way he used the American vernacular, the language of real people, simple words. His attention to scene-setting and close observation and just the right detail. And how what he left out was just as important as what he put in.

Hemingway has alternately engaged or given the willies to generations of American school kids. Along with William Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald, he was part of a triumvirate whose writing put American literature on the world map -- or, at least, the American literature of "whiteness," as Toni Morrison put it in a landmark essay.

One contribution to Hemingway's longevity -- aside from the larger-than-life mythology that he helped create for himself -- has been the depth of character and insight that people continue to find in his work four decades after his death.

A recent milestone was the posthumous publication in the mid-1980s of an unfinished novel, The Garden of Eden, which directed readers to a new consideration of Hemingway's virile stance.

The novel's concern with "gender confusion" in a love triangle helped launch an academic cottage industry. A new generation of scholars, including feminists who had long dismissed Hemingway's overt machismo, could now read his stories and novels in an entirely new light. Toni Morrison even found evidence in the book of a notable "Africanist" presence.

For many readers that kind of unexpected depth always has been there.

"One of the great hallmarks of Hemingway as a writer is his wonderful duplicity," said Gerry Brenner, a professor of English at the University of Montana and a Hemingway scholar for 35 years. "His stories seem to be clear little pools of lexical lucidity. But once you put your eye down on them, you see all kinds of depth and refractions that raise all sorts of significant questions."

Hemingway, of course, has his detractors.

The writer Annie Proulx, for one, while acknowledging "the power and beauty" in Hemingway's writing, dismissed "his hungry need for constant praise and attention, his egoistic construction of himself.

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