My Hemingway

The early 20s in Paris

A good documentary on Hemingway was on PBS tonight. A Ken Burns film and it is really good. Tonight was Part 1 and covered Hemingway up to 1928 when he was 29 and just written A Farewell to Arms.

I did my senior thesis in high school on Hemingway and read a great biography on him by Carlos Baker. Read him all through the summer of 1966 on a camping trip with a VW bus through the upper western states and into Canada. The book A Moveable Feast about his years in Paris is probably my favorite. Love the short stories though as I spent many summers in northern Michigan on Lake Charlevoix as a camp couselor and camper. Lake Charlevoix is next to Walloon Lake where Hemingway’s family had a cottage. My family even rented a cabin on Walloon after one of my summers as a counselor at Camp Charlevoix. 

Haven’t thought of Hemingway for a long while but tonight got me back to thinking about him and the effect he had on my life. The simplicity of his writing (compared to contemporaries like Stein, Joyce and Cummings) was one of the things that initially attracted me to him. So different from the long, philosophical ramblings of Henry Miller or the symbolism of Conrad. So different from many of the writers living in Paris in the 20s. The novelist Edna O’Brien notes that Hemingway understood rhythm so well, had loved listening to Bach when he was growing up. 

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Seeing Hemingway’s life pass before me tonight on the two-hour, Part I of Hemingway, let me compress things together and see the dynamic forces of his life better than one might do by reading even the best biographies. Paris of the 20s is brought to life through vintage film footage and photographs. There is Hemingway and his first wife Hadley, a happy couple with the world in front of them, at various bistros and bars around Paris. By themselves. With friends. Sylvia Beach, owner of Shakespeare & Company, publisher of Joyce’s Ulysses. loved the handsome young American writer and took him under her wing, introducing him to her friends, ground zero of the well-known literary icons of Paris in the 20s. 

It covers his early years and war years, creating his first heartbreak in the letter from his nurse during the time he spent in the hospital in WWI. He never really got over this and I think it created a dark sign about how things always end. He went through a number of relationships and wives continually proving things end. It seems related psychologically to the experience in WWI. Many wanted to forget all about this horrible period in world history. But Hemingway wanted to – needed to – study this period with a different perspective. 

After all, anyone had to have a different – mixed, paradoxical – feeling about the worst period of your life, when the horrors of war are revealed to a young man. But also love. This is one of the grand battle of symbols in Hemingway’s life it seems to me. Rarely have the horrors of war been mixed so beautifully with falling in love. In the end, after all of horrors of war, he was deeply in love with the nurse in the hospital. And he was so sure that she was so much in love with him. Her letter to him was a letter of rejection said in a polite manner. Hemingway was totally devastated. 

Hemingway family cottage on Walloon Lake

Now, the emotions of the horror of war mixed with love and then rejection of love. What does one make of this creation? This alchemical mixture of emotions? Swirling around in Hemingway’s mind in those years after going to war, falling in love and then being rejected in love. A lot of baggage taken to the first marriage to Hadley and their movement to Paris in the early 20s. (What could possibly go wrong here?)

Interesting to return to thinking about an author you once idolized and haven’t thought of for years. But many others over the years have replaced this first literary idol, Hemingway. Over the years, it was followed by others. One of my favorite authors now is Raymond Chandler (Farewell My Lovely my favorite) so a long way from Hemingway. 

But Hemingway was what Marshall McLuhan would label as “cool” or participatory media. His words were so lean, using few adjectives, his reader is forced into creation of Hemingway fiction because Hemingway leaves it open for the reader to participate in creating the characters, scenes and events of the story. It is Hemingway’s contribution to modern literature to bring a “cool” shortness or words to modern fiction. 

In the end (or the end so far) this is probably the major defining literary quality of Hemingway. The structure of his sentences. Made of action verbs with few adjectives. When used, adjectives and descriptors are used sparingly. The wordiness of Proust is a form of media from another world to Hemingway. Wordiness tends immediately towards the “hot” media of McLuhan, allowing little participation in the literary work. The reason is the author is interested more in a one-way type of communication with the reader. 

Le Dome, a favorite Hemingway hangout

Hemingway is so interesting again in my life. Simply remembered by the PBS program tonight. Yet remembered at a good time it seems to me. The author, some type of symbol in my own life for me to hold Hemingway up so highly in my early years. When I was 17 and 18. Particularly when I was 18 and camping across Canada in a VW bus and reading Hemingway every night by flashlight in our tent. We always pitched a tent in the various campgrounds we went to. Banff. Jasper. Calgary. Often, we found a space off the beaten path of campgrounds. You could do this during these years – the mid 60s – in Canada. 

I remember a totally out of the way spot we camped at in the Canadian wilderness really. We took a road off an already small road and then a road off of this one. Until there was no road and we just drove over some meadows of wild grass, swaying in an August breeze. We had dinner in a meadow rimmed by tall pines and then some great mountain rising over the pines. The fire was crackling outside my tent and I remember reading Hemingway all through the night in the tent. At two or so at night, the wind began howling and soon rain fell on the tent. I continued to read Hemingway. In fact, it seemed the perfect environment to read Hemingway. I finished As the Sun Rises. And then 

As I say, I haven’t thought of Hemingway for a long time. But have thought much about the idea of short or cool media that Hemingway really gave us in many ways. It was a simple style, inviting participation by the reader. Yet, in the end, trapping the reader inside brilliant wordsmithing via his short bait of simple sentences.

Interestingly, Hemingway wrote in the third person. It is a voice that seems to be too authorial in our era of equality. My take alone on this. Hemingway would be considered a bigot in areas like race and sex. But the third person voice of Hemingway attempts authority of distanced observation of a character. The alternative (symbol) being first person observation. In many ways, these two narrative perspectives provide pretty much a person’s perspective on life at times in their lives. 

Do you live life yourself? Or, do you observe yourself (or others) living life for you? It seems to me, in many ways, this represents the psychological difference between those who write with first person narrators and those who write with third person narrators. The author’s decision to take this perspective on their work of art tells one much about the work of art. “I” perspective versus “he/she/they” perspective. 

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As I’ve noted before, voices are an unexplored – hidden – key to advances in modern narrative. It is difficult to tell this to a consumer/audience base out there who are focused on the content of a situation. Rather than esoteric topics like the context of an environment. But voice always exists in context. It is not within in an environment. It is an environment. 

Hemingway went against the grain in narrative voice of his times. While the narrative third person voice was turning inward to the first-person voice, Hemingway was different in that he wrote in the third person. Yet, in writing in this “hot” perspective where many words are usually shot at the reader, Hemingway used few words. In this way, he short-circuited the literary voice of his time. Third person narration – traditionally a “hot” perspective -with Hemingway, given little “hot” content. Providing, though, the new “cool” of narrative. It was the literature version of the cool jazz of Miles Davis. A new type of writing resulting from this interesting, counter-history, spin on events of this time. 

It was only in his final years did Hemingway turn to the first person in writing about his first years in Paris in A Moveable Feast. In 1957, when he started to write the memoir of short pieces, he was 58 years old and had been married four times and he had fought cycles of deep depression through his life. His travels around the world had taken him far from those early years of Paris but it was appropriate he return to these early years at the end of his life. The short little book was my first introduction to Hemingway. It was written about a memory when he was still in love with life and all of its possibilities. The third person voice would never do for this for he needed to go back and relive these old memories a few years before he died. His love of life is evident even in the bad weather of Paris in the “cesspool” Cafe des Amateurs.

Then there was the bad weather. It would come in one day when the fall was over. We would have to shut the windows in the night against the rain and the cold wind would strip the leaves from the trees in the Place Contrescarpe. The leaves lay sodden in the rain and the wind drove the rain against the big green autobus at the terminal and the Café des Amateurs was crowded and the windows misted over from the heat and the smoke inside. It was a sad, evilly run café where the drunkards of the quarter crowded together and I kept away from it because of the smell of dirty bodies and the sour smell of drunkenness. The men and women who frequented the Amateurs stayed drunk all of the time, or all of the time they could afford it, mostly on wine which they bought by the half-liter or liter. Many strangely named apéritifs were advertised, but few people could afford them except as a foundation to build their wine drunks on. The women drunkards were called poivrottes which meant female rummies.

The Café des Amateurs was the cesspool of the rue Mouffetard, that wonderful narrow crowded market street which led into the Place Contrescarpe. The squat toilets of the old apartment houses, one by the side of the stairs on each floor with the two cleated cement shoe-shaped elevations on each side of the aperture so a locataire would not slip, emptied into cesspools which were emptied by pumping into horse-drawn tank wagons at night. In the summer time, with all windows open, we would hear the pumping and the odor was very strong. The tank wagons were painted brown and saffron color and in the moonlight when they worked the rue Cardinal Lemoine their wheeled, horse-drawn cylinders looked like Braque paintings. No one emptied the Café des Amateurs though, and its yellowed poster stating the terms and penalties of the law against public drunkenness was as flyblown and disregarded as its clients were constant and ill-smelling.

“A Good Café on the Place St.-Michel” from A Moveable Feast

Hemingway died before publishing A Moveable Feast and his wife Mary had it published in 1964. Just a few years before I discovered Hemingway during my camping trip of 1966.


Order the entire Hemingway documentary from PBS.

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