"We Didn't Come Here to Talk about Sunsets, Kiddo": "Pauline Snow" and the Apprenticeship of Ernest Hemingway

Article excerpt

EVEN WITH THE WEALTH of biographical and critical information on Ernest Hemingway, it remains a mystery how he learned to write in his famous distinctive style. Hemingway did not just sit down one afternoon, his muse perched close to his ear or seated at a table near the window while he sipped coffee at the Cafe du Dome composing those early stories found in In Our Time. He had greatly ironic luck (Smith, "An Address")-- much of his earliest work was rejected by the Saturday Evening Post or stolen from the train to Lausanne, forcing him to develop and focus his own artistic vision. He had mentors, certainly--Anderson, Pound, Stein, and others--who could offer insight into what was working and what was not and why. He had the wars and loves of his own life, a prodigious memory, and an insightful eye into the world around him. And he had his own sense of artistry and dedication. Without any of these elements, as well as a number of others, we might never have had reason to celebrate this man's art and life.

Ernest Hemingway was certainly not an artistic tabula rasa when he and Hadley walked to their first Paris apartment in December 1921. As Michael Reynolds writes, "Paris had much to teach a young writer, but not how to observe detail. He had arrived with that skill sharply honed" (Paris Years 8-9). While his distinctive style had yet to bloom, Hemingway's early writing shows that he arrived in Paris with "sharply honed" skills of narration as well as observation. Hemingway's crisp, declarative style with its colloquial voice, precise diction, and understanding of the power of things not stated are already evident in his "Crossroads" sketches of 1919.

The strongest of these sketches, "Pauline Snow," illustrates many of the elements of craft that are praised as part of the distinctive Hemingway style, a style often erroneously attributed to his apprenticeships with writers such as Anderson, Stein, and Pound. In his A Reader's Guide to the Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway, Paul Smith briefly introduces the five pieces comprising the Collection as important for what they may have foreshadowed:

   They were brief, colloquial vignettes told in the local voice of the region
   around Horton Bay. Some of them, however, were more than imitations of
   [E.W.] Howe, for in them Hemingway found for a moment his first true style,
   which he perfected in the in our time chapters. Here, too, he discovered
   the rich vein of his Michigan stories: the portrait "Pauline Snow" was a
   promising sample that led to "Up in Michigan" in the fall of 1921. (xxvii)

Written in the Petoskey autumn of 1919, "Crossroads--An Anthology" was a series of short sketches about the people Hemingway knew in Horton Bay. He shared them with Bill Smith, who was working on a similar series of sketches. The sketches were intentionally patterned after E.W. Howe's popular series in The Saturday Evening Post, "Anthology of Another Town," which Michael Reynolds describes as "a nostalgic collection of small-town characters whose otherwise dull lives were sometimes punctuated by a remarkable experience" (Young Hemingway 96). While never published during his lifetime, Hemingway's sketches--"Billy Gilbert," "Old Man Hurd and Mrs. Hurd," "Bob White," "Ed Paige," and "Pauline Snow" (the longest and strongest of the sketches)--were eventually published in The New York Times Magazine (18 August 1985, 19-20) and re-published in Peter Griffin's biography, Along With Youth (124-7). They, and especially "Pauline Snow," provide a tangible link between the apprentice writer before his introduction to the Paris circle of literary Modernists and the accomplished artist whose works have cast long shadows across the generations of writers who have followed him.

Hemingway's development as a writer, however, also owes itself to the world he came of age in--the rural environs of northern Michigan, the hypocritical moralities of Oak Park, and the hollow abstractions of World War I. …