|HEMINGWAY AT 100|
July 21, 1999
ROGER ROSENBLATT: Whenever he felt the encroachment of writer's block, Ernest Hemingway explained, he would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, "Do not worry. You have always written before, and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence, and then go on from there."
He said that in the memoir he entitled "A Movable Feast." And Hemingway's life was that. It is celebrated on the 100th anniversary of his birth in Oak Park, Illinois, on July 21st. At least his life reads like a movable feast. Merely mention his name, and one pictures Bwana Hemingway; Matador Hemingway; Papa in the Spanish Civil War; running with the bulls; reeling in a marlin off Key West or Cuba; Hemingway in Africa; the women, the liquor, the fistfights, and all these images mixed in with the more solitary, stationary writer at his desk, recreating the world of his adventures in "A Farewell to Arms," "The Sun Also Rises," "For Whom the Bell Tolls," "The Old Man and the Sea," and the great short stories, which were better than the novels.
No American artist ever had a richer self-portrait: Gunfire, conflict, passion, death, books. But the key to it all was one true sentence, and going on from there, true sentence after true sentence, until what one produced was the truth, and that, oddly, was pure fiction. Hemingway wrote with simple genius.
Had he not been able to writer the way he did, his oversized life would have been an oversized joke. What he did with truth- telling was to show how complicated the simplicity of it was. In so doing, he changed the rules of writing. He repeated words and phrases over and over, until he perfected a style as plain as the nose on your face, and just as indispensable.
Here is Nick Adams, home from the war. He is going fishing in "In Our Time." That's all Nick is doing, and he does it in nine sentences: "He came down a hillside covered with stumps into a meadow. At the edge of the meadow flowed the river. Nick was glad to get to the river. He walked upstream through the meadow. His trousers were soaked with the dew as he walked. After the hot day, the dew had come quickly and heavily. The river made no sound. It was too fast and smooth. At the edge of the meadow, before he mounted to a piece of high ground to make camp, Nick looked down the river at the trout rising.
The action is pimple as pie. The word "river" is used four times. The word "meadow" is used four times. The phrase "at the edge of the meadow" is repeated verbatim. Letters repeat: Came, covered, camp. Dew, day. Sounds repeat: Trousers, sound, mounted, ground, trout. Nick walks and looks; that's all he does. There's not a word here one needs to look up. Every verb is direct, every emotion childlike: Nick was glad to get to the river. And yet by the end of the passage, we, too, are glad to get to the river.
By stating things plain, Hemingway enfolds us in Nick's mind. And this is very high art. It all starts with one true sentence: "He came down a hillside covered with stumps into a meadow." If Hemingway had a credo, it would be "accuracy equals truth." In a certain way, he was always doing journalism, which is how he began as a writer on the Kansas City Star. Morality, too, was a function of accuracy.
He wrote in "Death in the Afternoon," "What is moral is what you feel good after, and what is immoral is what you feel bad after." As Lady Brett Ashley says in "The Sun Also Rises," "It's sort of what we have instead of God." This, of course, was the modernist 20th-century personalized vision of experience, which by now seems so old hat as to call for a revision back to tradition. Yet Hemingway had his tradition of honor and of honorable behavior, even in a lost generation of disconnections.
Endurance itself was a moral act; to hang on as "The Old Man and
the Sea" hangs on, as Hemingway hung on through massive depressions,
until he could no longer do so. In 1961, he put a double-barrel shotgun
to his head and pulled both triggers. It was an apt, brutal, romantic
end to the brutal, romantic life. But like other dramatic events of
Hemingway's, it had little to do with his final greatness, which derived
from the knowledge of what the truth of a single sentence could accomplish.
"A writer should write what he has to say," he told the Nobel
Committee when he won the prize in 1954. It was as simple as that.