Ernest Hemingway and World War I: Combatting Recent Psychobiographical Reassessments, Restoring the War

By Stewart, Matthew C. | Papers on Language & Literature, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview
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Ernest Hemingway and World War I: Combatting Recent Psychobiographical Reassessments, Restoring the War


Stewart, Matthew C., Papers on Language & Literature


"Napoleon taught Stendahl how to write." -Ernest Hemingway

To ask whether or not the First World War had a profound effect upon Ernest Hemingway would, not so long ago, have been considered a rhetorical question. It can no longer be considered so, since the influential critics Kenneth S. Lynn and Frederick Crews have sought to dismiss the importance of World War I from Hemingway's life and fiction.[1] The mainstream interpretation, which held sway well into the 198x0s, had been advanced in most detail by Philip Young, whose breadth of analysis and psychoanalytical bent amplified the theory of the wound first advanced by Edmund Wilson. Although he did not speak as extensively of the wound theory, Malcolm Cowley had already marked out Hemingway's First World War experiences as a turning point in his life as early as 1945.

Following Cowley and Young, many a teacher taught many a student that Hemingway was badly wounded at the war-wounded inside as well as outside. The war left him with a fear of night, a fear said to relate to his abrupt confrontation with his own mortality. It gave him insight into the fragility of the world, and it fostered a deep skepticism towards the grand abstractions that the First World War rendered bitterly ironic. For a generation of critics, the war was not only the obvious subject matter, the sine qua non, of certain stories and novels, it also undergirded the entire oeuvre, and lurked below the surface of certain important stories that never mentioned the war. But times have changed, and as Susan Beegel puts it in her recent bibliographic essay on Hemingway criticism, in the 1980s "it became clear that the 'wound' and the 'code' were about to be muscled off the stage of Hemingway studies" (289). Because the psychobiographical version elaborated by Lynn and supported by Crews inaccurately reappraises Hemingway's life and work in relation to the war, and because this erroneous version has gained considerable currency-indeed, much outright acceptance-among general readers and academics alike, I would like to consider anew the importance of the First World War in Hemingway's life and work.

I am not concerned here with clarifying the events surrounding Hemingway's wounding at Fossalta di Piave, for Robert W. Lewis, Michael Reynolds, and, most skeptically, Jeffrey Meyers have thoroughly examined this episode. In a study co-credited to Henry S. Villard, James Nagel has constructed the most convincing say on this matter, countering to a degree the more skeptical scholarly opinions. They have shown the necessity of questioning biographical sources and interpretations that have hardened into "facts," and, more importantly, their discussions of Hemingway's war experiences rid this portion of his life of a critical one-dimensionality that may have begun to cling to it. But Lynn and Crews have subsequently substituted one sort of unidimensionality for another. They make it seem as if the war slid off Hemingway like water off a duck's back and have asked us to understand that some of his most admired war stories are not really war stories after all. Such stories as "Now I Lay Me" and "Big Two-Hearted River," they argue, do not have a wounding nor even the generalized trauma of war at their center, perhaps not even at their periphery. From the demythification of Hemingway's own wound, these critics have extrapolated a Hemingway profoundly unchanged by what he experienced in Italy. Thus Frederick Crews on Hemingway: "Nothing in his subsequent conduct suggests that he returned from Italy with a subdued temper, much less a revulsion against killing or a grasp of the issues and ironies behind the war" (95). Thus Kenneth S. Lynn on "Now I Lay Me," a story set seven kilometers from the front in Italy and whose two main characters are hospitalized soldiers: "What counts supremely in the story is not the northern Italian frame that has made so many readers regard it as a tale of war, but the childhood memories within the frame" (Hemingway 48).

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