Academic journal article The Hemingway Review

Hemingway vs. Stendhal, or Papa's Last Fight with a Dead Writer

Academic journal article The Hemingway Review

Hemingway vs. Stendhal, or Papa's Last Fight with a Dead Writer

Article excerpt

FROM ABOUT 1935 to 1950, Hemingway cultivated the bizarre image of the writer, usually himself, as a prize fighter successively challenging and defeating more and more formidable dead writers--such as Ivan Turgenev (1818-83), Guy de Maupassant (1850-93) and Stendhal (1783-1842)--in a struggle to become literary champion of the world. It is difficult to know how seriously to take these boasts about matters that better fitted Hemingway's increasingly arrogant public persona than his persona as a serious artist. Yet when Hemingway writes, as he did to Charles Scribner in 1949, "Am a man without any ambition, except to be champion of the world,' he appears deadly serious. Nor was he joking when he told Scribner that although nobody could beat Shakespeare, he, Hemingway, might beat Tolstoy within ten years, if he lived that long (SL 673).

Tracing the development of these oft-repeated analogies between artist and prizefighter may help us better understand the gradual transformation of Hemingway the sensitive, objective artist who in the 1920s had modeled his art on Turgenev's, into the "new" Hemingway of the 1930s and 1940s. This new Hemingway, recalling the youthful Hemingway's passion for literary action heroes like Captain Frederick Marryat, Rudyard Kipling, and Gabriele D'Annunzio, was a self-publicist more skillful than anyone since Lord Byron in developing a heroic persona.

In spite of their outrageous oversimplification of the literary landscape, Hemingway's pugilistic analogies provide at least a rough chronology of his changing literary values and goals, as indicated by the dead authors Hemingway successively brought into the ring with him, beating each one mercilessly before going on to the next.

In a letter to Esquire editor Arnold Gingrich in 1933, Hemingway was already referring to his story "The Light of the World" as a whore story as good as or better than Maupassant's "Maison Tellier" (SL 393). Was he already thinking about Maupassant as a dead writer he may have beaten, albeit not with a knockout blow? Be that as it may, in 1935 he began to stress the importance of living authors challenging dead masters with literary reputations that had stood the test of time: "What a writer in our time has to do is to write what hasn't been written before or beat dead men at what they have done. The only way he can tell how he is going is to compete with dead men" (quoted in Meyers, Hemingway 464). By July 19 47 he was advising William Faulkner to follow the Hemingway method of achieving literary success: "You should always write your best against dead writers ... and beat them one by one. Why do you want to fight Dostoevsky in your first fight? Beat Turgenieff--which we both did soundly.... Then nail yourself DeMaupassant.... Then try and take Stendhal" (SL 624).

In September 19 49, writing to Scribner once again, he reported that he had beaten Maupassant as well as Turgenev, and that he had fought "another dead character": "I tried for Mr. Turgenieff first and it wasn't too hard. Tried for Mr. Maupassant ... and it took four of the best stories to beat him. He's beaten and if he was around he would know it. Then I tried for another guy ... and think I fought a draw with him. This other dead character" (SL 673). Two months later, in his famous interview with Lillian Ross, the one draw had become two, and the dead character with whom he fought was identified: "'I started out very quiet and I beat Mr. Turgenev. Then I trained hard and I beat Mr. de Maupassant. I've fought two draws with Mr. Stendhal, and I think I had the edge in the last one'" (quoted in Ross 35).

Instead of looking for some criterion of excellence that might explain the successive targets of Hemingway's literary pugilism, perhaps we need to recognize that his choices of Turgenev, Maupassant, and Stendhal as successive sparring partners might best be explained by Hemingway's changing conception of the role of narrator and author in his own writing. …

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