Hemingway at 100

July 21, 1999 at 12:00 AM EDT


ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: For more on Hemingway, we turn to three contemporary American writers: Richard Ford, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel Independence Day. He is also the author of The Sportswriter, and a recent collection of shorter fiction, Women with Men. Nicholas Delbanco, who has written more than 17 books, including the novels In the Name of Mercy and Old Scores. He is a Professor of English at the University of Michigan. And A.J. Verdelle, author of the novel The Good Negress, as well as a collection of nonfiction essays. She teaches creative writing at Princeton University.

Richard Ford, what about Hemingway’s writing do you most admire?

RICHARD FORD: What do I most admire? Well, I admire its arch seriousness. For a young writer, that’s a wonderful thing to find on the page.


RICHARD FORD: Well, he tries to write stories or did try to write stories at a very young age himself, when he was almost a post adolescent, which were about right and wrong, good and bad, what you ought to do and how you ought not to do it. And he didn’t in any way ever trivialize literature. Perhaps he was too ponderous about the discoveries he made. That’s, I guess, one of the complaints I have against him. But you never doubted when you were reading a Hemingway story that you were reading about, even though if somebody’s trout fishing or if somebody’s taking a ride with his girlfriend, that you were reading about something that had moral import to it.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Uh-huh. A.J. Verdelle, what do you think his most positive legacy for American writing has been?

A.J. VERDELLE: Well, actually, I think that Hemingway changed American writing. I think that he lived in a time at the edge of florid 19th century, long writing. And he made it spare. He made it new. He made it vigorous. He made it fresh. And I appreciate him a great deal for that.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And what did you learn from him? How did he influence you, if he did at all?

A.J. VERDELLE: Well, actually, his subject matter does not appeal to me or influence me greatly. I’m not a war person. I’m not a hunting person. So the text, the subtext of his stories don’t thrill me. But his attention to craft and his serious acuity of vision, his attention to precision I think has taught me a great deal about writing. And I actually am influenced a lot by Stein, and Hemingway and Stein were in a very vibrant, vivacious, almost chaotic time together, along with Fitzgerald and I think that his ability to be precise and his willingness to incisor or to laser focus, which is a word that didn’t even apply to his time, is what impresses me the most. This year is also the centennial of Duke Ellington, and I think that Hemingway and Stein and Duke Ellington are somewhat similar. I think that Duke Ellington changed the world of music and introduced new concepts into the world of music in much the same way that Stein and Hemingway programs together affected literature.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And you’re talking about the writer Gertrude Stein we should say.

A.J. VERDELLE: That’s correct.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Nicholas Delbanco, what influenced you from Hemingway?

NICHOLAS DELBANCO: You know, I think it’s almost impossible to overstate how much members of my generation perhaps particularly male members of my generation were influenced by Hemingway. And I remember that I at 18 wanting to be a writer, as many other young men then did, and reading him endlessly and avidly – was in Paris when the news of his death arrived. And I was staying in a little hotel near the West or the cafes of the select and the dome and the cafe floor that he made famous. And I thought the appropriate and honorable thing to do was go out and bend an elbow in honor of Papa’s recent memory.

And I raised a glass of red wine or three and started to wander down the Boulevard Sans Michel and up the Boulevard Saint E’sprit till I realized that there must have been 50 or 100 other guys doing the same thing in the same sequence, and that we were all mourning our lost leader. That changed quite a lot over time. His reputation was perhaps overblown at a certain stage. It was perhaps undermined at another one. But what influenced me enormously was very similar to what the other two have suggested, the precision and the accuracy of his prose and the terrific diligence with which he worked.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Richard Ford, was there anything negative in his legacy? I mean, a misuse of that style can produce some bad literature, can’t it?

RICHARD FORD: Well, sure. You can — it’s a lot easier to write bad than it is to write good, I guess. Sure. If he did anything which I thought was something a young writer, myself talking about, I guess, should live beyond, it’s the idea that the way in which literature refers to life is, can be and would be for me a way which expresses its density, that experience has a density which literature — annotative system about, which is responsive to experience expresses. And Hemingway often, because he was casual in talking about despair, because he was casual in letting his characters not say what they thought often, he didn’t express for me enough. He was in many ways stingy with language and didn’t express what I thought was literature’s moral density and complexity accurately enough, or in a way, morally enough.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: A.J. Verdelle, what do you tell your students to emulate and what to avoid in him?

A.J. VERDELLE: Well, actually, I tell my students to seek writers that they appreciate. And so I don’t quite tell them to emulate Hemingway, but I do find that in working with my students, I have to deal with the issue of his sort of overt maleness and his — the sort of aggression and imperialism that goes along with it. And in this post modern time, and the time in which we live, which is certainly 100 years after Hemingway began what was acceptable in his time, that kind of thought process and that kind of self-acceptance and that kind of chase of whatever you can attain as a subject matter is not quite as acceptable.

So that would be what I have to talk with my students about sort of avoiding, about what it is that is more or less okay to think about and do in this time. But I don’t have to do much with that. I mean, what I’m trying to teach my students is more about how to craft fiction, and that is where Hemingway was enormous and huge and really an institution.

He had an iceberg theory of writing, and he wrote about writing and talked about writing a lot, both directly and through his characters. And this iceberg theory, which is funny to come up again in the new “Titanic” moment, but basically he thought that he espoused that only 10 or 20 percent of an iceberg is exposed. And the great movement and certainly the greet threat of the iceberg is under the water where the bulk of it is invisible.

And so this whole notion of how much you have to say versus how little you have to say is really what students are studying. And the effort to be direct, the effort to be precise and clear is always going to improve your writing, even if you do make it slightly more expressive or a lot more expressive than Hemingway was willing to.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Delbanco, talk about Hemingway the man. As we heard from Roger, he was bigger than life. He did so many things. Talk about the relationship between this life, this great celebrity that he had, and his writing.

NICHOLAS DELBANCO: Well, I never knew the man, of course, and so I don’t know what it would have felt like to be in his presence. By the evidence of his biographers and really his autobiographies, too, there are several of them that are more or less direct autobiographical attestations, the most recent is the one that’s just appeared, True at First Light, I have a hunch that Hemingway the man wouldn’t have been much fun to be around. I don’t think he was all that admirable or moral in the ways we’ve just adduced.

On the other hand, by the evidence of his art, he was a very great man indeed. And my sense is that one could have learned almost endlessly by sitting at his feet. That quotation, which we just heard, which I also tell my students, is I think quite literally the dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one eighth of it being above water. And it comes cattycorner to a phrase where he says, prose is architecture, not interior decoration and the baroque is over.

And when you put that together with this sense of the man’s life, you realize, as Richard was saying, that quite a lot is guarded, quite a lot is unsaid, quite a lot is sub Rosa or beneath the surface, but that in the end there is shapeliness, there is depth, and there’s a real integrity to the structure of his best work. His best work repays close attention time after time, as Roger was saying in the early part of this segment, the shapeliness of his work, the intentional repetition in the pieces — all these are terrifically useful for students. And whether or not he’s a role model seems to me in that regard beside the point.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Ford, his great fame, his celebrity, why did it come? His life coincided with the rise of Time and Life Magazine. Explain that and he thought the fame was terrible for him. Do you think it was?

RICHARD FORD: Well, let me say one thing about something that A.J. said before about the iceberg theory, which many people know about Hemingway — and probably in the main is true, but I was interested as regards the iceberg theory in regard to what the line that Roger Rosenblatt said. It’s sort of what we have instead of God. Well, what I want to know is in that wonderful little quote, is what is what we have instead of God? And the line actually comes from “The Sun Also Rises,” a line from Lady Brett Ashley, when she said, “It makes one feel rather good deciding not be a bitch. It’s sort of what we have instead of God.” When you put those two things together, you get a lot less pithy apothem, and you get a much complexer, complexer view.


ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Go ahead. But first, Richard Ford, just on the question of what fame did for him, this whole question of a writer being such a huge celebrity.

RICHARD FORD: Well, it’s a lot more interesting if a writer is going out fishing and hunting and getting in fistfights than it is if all they’re doing is staying home and writing. So not that he was calculating about it or not that he wasn’t, I don’t know, it just made for a more interesting copy, I think, for journalists. I don’t think it has anything to do with whether or not he was a good writer or a mediocre writer. We all know lots of mediocre writers who get lots of line in the public press. Whether or not it was a burden to him, if it was a burden to him, it was a burden that he let himself have, it seems to me.

A.J. VERDELLE: I’d just like to say -


A.J. VERDELLE: I’d just like to say though that I think celebrity is slightly self-perpetuating. I think that Hemingway’s celebrity really turned him into what I perceive as an institution. And when I was in school, I mean, Hemingway has been gone most of my life. And he was more like an institution. He was like the great wall of white father. And so I’m not a person who has memorized his quotations, and I’m a person who can separate his craft from his substance and his life from his technique. And I have to say that I think he changed technique in much the same way that Ellington made a huge, vast contribution to a wider music, and -

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay. Thank you so much. I don’t want to interrupt you, but that’s all the time we have tonight. Thanks to all three of you.