Academic journal article The Hemingway Review

"Forms of Combat": Hemingway, the Critics, and 'Green Hills of Africa.'

Academic journal article The Hemingway Review

"Forms of Combat": Hemingway, the Critics, and 'Green Hills of Africa.'

Article excerpt

IN DECEMBER 1935, Ernest Hemingway complained to Maxwell Perkins, his editor at Charles Scribner's Sons, that his book about his African safari, Green Hills of Africa (published only two months earlier) had been "ruined" by three mistakes. The first two were made by Scribners: they had placed too high a price on the book ($2.75), and had not advertised it adequately. The third mistake was Hemingway's: he had dared the critics to attack him, and they had responded by "ganging up" on the book when they reviewed it (SL 281). Throughout the book, Hemingway does belittle the critical establishment, most emphatically in his conversation with Kandisky in Chapter One where he states that writers are ruined by listening to critics:

Or else they read the critics. If they believe the critics when they say

they are great then they must believe them when they say they are rotten

and they lose confidence. At present we have two good writers who

cannot write because they have lost confidence through reading critics.

If they wrote, sometimes it would be good and sometimes not so

good and sometimes it would be quite bad, but the good would get

out. But they have read the critics and they must write masterpieces.

The masterpieces the critics said they wrote. They weren't masterpieces,

of course. They were just quite good books. So now they cannot

write at all. The critics have made them impotent. (GHOA 23-24)

A great deal of Green Hills of Africa is vitriolic towards critics. As Robert O. Stephens has pointed out, the safari memoir, along with much of his other nonfiction, was a weapon in Hemingway's "career-long feud . . . with critics in general and with certain literary adversaries in particular" (109). But Hemingway's method of attack is much more specific and calculated than it appears on the surface. In the book Hemingway responds to criticisms of his last two books: Death in the Afternoon (1932) and Winner Take Nothing (1933); specifically, he responds to disparagements of his writing style and his subject matter, which some leftist reviewers linked to his lifestyle.

Hemingway had already vented some of his anger at these critics in conversations and letters to friends; he had also used Esquire as a platform from which to defend his life and letters and to respond to his perceived attackers. But in Green Hills of Africa he made his most involved and systematic answer to his critics. He gave his readers just what one of his critics, Gertrude Stein, said she wanted:

[T]he real story of Hemingway, not those he writes but the confessions

of the real Ernest Hemingway. It would be for another audience than

the audience Hemingway now has, but it would be very wonderful!

(Stein 202)

Green Hills of Africa is by no means the "real story of Hemingway," but it is what Hemingway presented as the real story. The book supposedly describes Hemingway hunting animals in Africa, but under the surface is the story of Hemingway hunting the critics of his books.Hemingway takes specific criticisms of these works and, by giving his own aesthetic opinions as replacements, answers his detractors.

Hemingway never denied that he was reacting in Green Hills of Africa to negative reviews. In a letter to Perkins written around the end of December 1935, Hemingway explained how he came to mention critics in the memoir:

About the critics, offending same, I never thought about them at all. Only put down what I told the Austrian in response to questions and what I was thinking then. You remember Winner Take Nothing came out while we were away and I got the first reviews in Arusha and read them in the plane flying to Nairobi. That was how I happened to think about critics at all when I came back hunting after that time being ill in Nairobi. I didn't set out to offend them but to tell the truth and if the truth offended them tent pis. …

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