Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Hemingway and the Creation of Twentieth-Century Dialogue

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Hemingway and the Creation of Twentieth-Century Dialogue

Article excerpt

[W]hile one can do nothing about choosing one's relatives, one can, as artist, choose one's "ancestors.". . . Hemingway [was] an "ancestor."

- Ralph Ellison (140)

In July 1961, the Saturday Review devoted a special memorial issue to Ernest Hemingway, in which writers and critics from around the world paid tribute to the recently deceased author and attempted to assess his impact on their own national literatures. Although the Hemingway mystique was given heavy emphasis, many contributors also spoke to his artistic influence. The exiled Spanish political philosopher Salvador de Madariaga observed that "Hemingway's manner of writing, his direct, simple, yet forceful prose" had "exerted an undoubted influence on the new generation of Spanish novelists" (18). From Italy, novelist Carlo Levi credited Hemingway's art as fundamental "in determining the character and mode of thought of our time" (19). And Alan Pryce-Jones, the former editor of the Times Literary Supplement, asserted that there was "not a living writer in England who has been unaffected by the laconic speed of his dialogue, the subtle revelation of character that lies behind a spoken phrase" (21). Today, such claims remain undisputed; most critics take for granted that Hemingway's techniques have profoundly influenced subsequent generations of writers across the boundaries of nationality, gender, race, ideology, sexual orientation, class, religion, and artistic temperament.(1)

Pryce-Jones ventured that Hemingway's art, especially his innovative dialogue, might "turn out to be his enduring memorial as a writer, whatever his fascination as a man" (21). However, in the years since his death, Hemingway criticism has focused more on the biographical, thematic, and cultural content of his work than on his narrative techniques, and while it is true that his prose style has been exhaustively analyzed and countless passages of his dialogue read for content, there exists not one single systematic or even a sustained analysis of his art of dialogue. The following essay attempts to redress that neglect. Through a close examination of passages from three stories, written between 1923 and 1927, it will show how Hemingway evolved the techniques that would change the nature of twentieth-century fictional dialogue. The passages are drawn from "Indian Camp," in which he for the first time employed the characteristic devices that distinguish his dialogue; "A Canary for One," in which he elevated banality in speech to the level of art through the extension of repetition to dialogue; and "Hills Like White Elephants," in which he blurred the line between fiction and drama, allowing dialogue an unprecedented constructive role in a story's composition. The essay concludes by assessing the historical and aesthetic significance of Hemingway's revolution in the writing of dialogue.


. . . Hemingway is the one who had the most to do with my craft - not simply for his books, but for his astounding knowledge of the aspect of craftsmanship in the science of writing.

- Gabriel Garcia Marquez (16)

In "Notes on Writing a Novel," Elizabeth Bowen cut to the crux of exactly why modern dialogue is so difficult to write. She observes that it must imitate certain "realistic qualities": spontaneity, artlessness, ambiguity, irrelevance, allusiveness, and erraticness. Yet, behind the "mask of these faked realistic qualities," it must be "pointed, intentional, relevant. It must crystallize situation. It must express character. It must advance plot" (255). It must, in other words, be truly verisimilar - like reality, but not an actual transcription of reality itself. "Speech," Bowen goes on to say, "is what the characters do to each other"; aside from a few extreme physical acts, it is "the most vigorous and visible inter-action of which characters . . . are capable" (255). Consequently, speech "crystallizes relationships. …

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