Academic journal article African American Review

Ellison's Hemingways

Academic journal article African American Review

Ellison's Hemingways

Article excerpt

And when I read the early Hemingway I seem to be in the presence of a Huckleberry Finn who, instead of identifying himself with humanity and attempting to steal Jim free, chose to write the letter which sent him back into slavery.--Ralph Ellison (1946)

Do you still ask why Hemingway was more important to me than Wright? Not because he was white, or more "accepted." But because he appreciated the things of this earth which I love and which Wright was too driven or deprived or inexperienced to know: weather, guns, dogs, horses, love and hate and impossible circumstances which to the courageous and dedicated could be turned into benefits and victories.... Because all that he wrote--and this is very important--was imbued with a spirit beyond the tragic with which I could feel at home, for it was very close to the feeling of the blues, which are, perhaps, as close as Americans can come to expressing the spirit of tragedy.... Because he was in many ways the true father-as-artist of so many of us who came to writing during the late thirties.--Ralph Ellison (1964)

In the summer of 1935, home in Oklahoma City after his sophomore year at the Tuskegee Institute, Ralph Ellison discovered the writing of Ernest Hemingway while waiting in line for a haircut at a neighborhood barbershop. Hemingway had been composing regular essays and travelogues for the upstart men's fashion monthly Esquire since 1934; "American Sportsman" entries like "A.D. in Africa," "Shootism versus Sport," "Sailfish of Mombassa," and "Notes on a Dangerous Game" helped form the foundation of the magazine's sophisticated image, and proved popular in barbershops and drug stores across the United States during the mid-1930s (Jackson, "Emergence" 136-37). (1) One can imagine an impressionable young Ellison stumbling onto any of these articles while relaxing in a leather chair and flipping through a back issue of Esquire, unexpectedly finding himself captivated by Hemingway's prose. As Ellison would later point out, the "Lost Generation" writers "had not only the comfort of being in the well-advertised advance guard; they were widely read and their characters' way of life was imitated to the extent that several generations of young people stylized their speech and attitudes to the pattern of Fitzgerald's and Hemingway's fiction.... With Esquire carrying their work to readers in most of the barbershops throughout the country, these writers were lost in a crowd of admirers, of whom I was one" (Ellison, "Collected" 716). (2) Ellison returned to Tuskegee the following fall and read whatever Hemingway he could get his hands on (Jackson, "Emergence" 146-47). When he found himself disheartened by the college's humanities courses--especially the narrow "sociological" perspectives on the African American experience that they tended to offer--Hemingway's declaration of artistic independence in the opening pages of Death in the Afternoon proved particularly stirring: "I found the greatest difficulty, aside from knowing truly what you really felt, rather than what you were supposed to feel, and had been taught to feel, was to put down what really happened in action; what the actual things were which produced the emotion that you experienced" (CE 57-58).

Ellison's birth as a mature reader and critic of Hemingway's work emerged out of slightly more remarkable circumstances. Two and a half years later, the future author of Invisible Man used the same Esquire essays that he encountered in the Oklahoma City barbershop to help endure an unimaginably harsh winter in Dayton, Ohio. Homeless, grieving the recent loss of his mother, and uncertain about his newfound commitment to becoming a professional writer, Ellison sustained himself from October 1937 to April 1938 by tracking and hunting quail in the wilderness of the Ohio Valley. He apparently turned to Hemingway's detailed descriptions of wingshooting for guidance: "I had been hunting since I was eleven, but no one had broken down the process of wing-shooting for me, and it was from reading Hemingway that I learned to lead a bird. …

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