Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Baldwin's Hemingway: The Sun Also Rises in Giovanni's Room, with a Twist

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Baldwin's Hemingway: The Sun Also Rises in Giovanni's Room, with a Twist

Article excerpt

In the wake of a world war, an American-born author moved to Paris to join a flourishing literary community and five years later published a novel about a community of expatriates living in Paris and traveling in Spain. The narrator-protagonist is an American man suffering from sexual issues; after excessive drinking in cafes and some painful romantic encounters, he attempts to accept his life as it is. This is a description both of Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises (1926) and of James Baldwins Giovanni's Room (1956), and, as I hope to show, pairing the texts helps illuminate the latter text's ambivalent but revealing relationship with the former. (1) At the heart of that relationship is how Giovanni's Room amplifies a central concern of The Sun Also Rises: the cultural compulsion to pursue an American ideal--white, straight, potent, and self-possessed--that is both impossible to ignore and impossible to meet.

Connecting Baldwin to Hemingway might well seem like an unlikely move. In one account of his own influences, Baldwin insists, "My models--my private models--are not Hemingway, not Faulkner, not Dos Passos, or indeed any American writer. I model myself on jazz musicians, dancers, a couple of whores and a few junkies" (quoted in Pratt 1978, 17-18). And biographical differences make this an unlikely critical pairing anyway. As D. Quentin Miller remarks, "Baldwin and Hemingway had markedly differing life stories: one black, urban, poor, and overtly bisexual, the other white, most comfortable in rural settings, relatively well off", and overtly heterosexual" (2012, 120). More broadly, Gary Edward Holcomb and Charles Scruggs (2012) argue that claiming Hemingway as a major influence for African American writers clashes with much of contemporary African American literary studies. In "Hemingway and the Black Renaissance," building on arguments by Houston Baker (1987) and Henry Louis Gates Jr. (1988), they consider whether "black literary modernism developed independently from a majority modernism (or modernisms)" (Holcomb and Scruggs 2012, 6-7) and "black literary arts issue from an ancestry different from that of western, textually oriented writing" (7). In this view, the African American literary tradition operates primarily through a closed system of call and response. (2)

At the same time, in the 1930s and 1940s it would have been very difficult not to have been influenced by Hemingway; "He, even more than Faulkner and Fitzgerald," Scruggs writes, "was considered the greatest living writer of prose fiction" (2012, 55). Hemingway's influence on Baldwin in particular is apparent, as in some of Baldwin's titles (such as Another Country and "The New Lost Generation") and at the end of "Autobiographical Notes": "I consider that I have many responsibilities, but none greater than this: to last, as Hemingway says, and get my work done" (Baldwin [1955] 1984, 9). Indeed, in a statement to his agent Baldwin explicitly connects the two novels: "There was also something in [Giovanni's Room] of Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises though his own generation wasn't even so well defined as to be considered 'lost,' and he also wanted his texture more dense, his pain more awful, his resolution less despairing" (quoted in Weatherby 1989, 122). Baldwin was particularly drawn to his predecessor's view of pain. In a 1962 essay, "As Much Truth as One Can Bear," Baldwin suggests that the greatness of previous American writers lies in "the American way of looking on the world, as a place to be corrected, and in which innocence is inexplicably lost," a condition that causes the "almost inexpressible pain which lends such force to some of the early Hemingway stories--including 'The Killers' and to the marvelous fishing sequence in The Sun Also Rises" (2010, 30). So detached from the African American literary tradition, Hemingway thus nevertheless loomed large in Baldwin's literary landscape, because of the particularly American manner in which his work represents the agony of believing that the world can somehow "be corrected" through a force of will. …

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