Hemingway's Debt to Cezanne: New Perspectives

By Gaillard, Theodore L., Jr. | Twentieth Century Literature, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

Hemingway's Debt to Cezanne: New Perspectives


Gaillard, Theodore L., Jr., Twentieth Century Literature


As they stood admiring the foreboding Rocks at Fontainebleau in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art in November 1949, Hemingway confided to Lillian Ross that it was from Paul Cezanne that he had learned how to construct his own verbal landscapes (Baker 479). While elements of his style had been shaped by The Kansas City Star's style manual, by Ezra Pound, and by Gertrude Stein,(1) Cezanne has emerged as a subtler but perhaps more significant influence whose methods appear on a deeper level to have guided Hemingway's fundamental approaches to his craft.

Biographers discussing Hemingway's style frequently focus on comments from his early postwar years in Paris described in A Moveable Feast when, wrestling with the recalcitrant start of a new short story, Hemingway in frustration would reassure himself: "All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know" (12). But he soon found that was not enough, for as he labored on the stories that would comprise In Our Time, he would walk almost daily to the Musee du Luxembourg to absorb its Cezannes:(2)

I was learning something from the painting of Cezanne that made writing simple true sentences far from enough to make the stories have the dimensions I was trying to put in them. I was not articulate enough to explain it to anyone. Besides[,] it was a secret. (13)

In keeping with this secrecy, Hemingway - admitting almost facetiously that "I learned to understand Cezanne much better and to see truly how he made landscapes when I was hungry" (69) - never identified specific works of Cezanne that had influenced his own creative vision. Nevertheless, he would use a varied palette of this artist's techniques in areas ranging far beyond the large-scale conceptual approaches to landscapes that have already been noted by scholars. While an article of this length cannot serve as an exhaustive study of the full spectrum of Cezanne techniques appearing throughout Hemingway's oeuvre, it can - in passages from selected short stories and novels - show how representative paintings by Cezanne embody a range of methods that Hemingway incorporated into his writing, significantly strengthening the symbolic impact of his narrative point of view, setting, and character focus.

COINCIDENTAL LIFE PARALLELS, INTENTIONALLY BORROWED TECHNIQUES

On the surface, the lives of these two men share coincidental but relevant similarities. Neither received encouragement from his family. Cezanne's parents felt he had little talent, his strict father insisting that Paul continue in law school even though he wanted to begin painting full time. Hemingway faced a domineering mother ("that bitch," he called her [qtd. in Lynn 27]) who for several years had dressed him as a twin to his sister Marcelline and later vehemently complained that his gift of an early copy of The Sun Also Rises had struck both parents as "one of the filthiest books of the year" (Lynn 357). For support, Cezanne would turn to Zola, Pissarro, and Vollard;(3) Hemingway would confide in Pound, Stein, and Perkins.

Both have also left us a number of revealing serf-portraits. Like the more than 30 completed during Cezanne's ensuing career, Hemingway's war vignettes, safari adventures, and Nick Adams stories present a similar selection of self-explorations. Furthermore, artist and author approached their work with equivalent intensity. After 115 sittings, Cezanne felt that although he had acceptably depicted the shirtfront of Ambroise Vollard (Clay 223), the remainder of the portrait was not progressing: he threw it out. In addition, the considerable challenge of trying to capture the varied aspects of Mont Sainte-Victoire's solidity and permanence required 60 canvases.(4) And for his part, when the conclusion of A Farewell to Arms failed to coalesce, Hemingway rewrote the last page 39 times. To George Plimpton's query concerning the nature of the problem, Hemingway retorted, "Getting the words right" (qtd. …

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