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« Introducing Emily Dickinson, part 1 [by David Lehman] | Main | "Estelle" [by Molly Arden] »

February 19, 2021


Ken Burns has finished up a documentary on Ernest Hemingway that's slated to air on PBS this year. Like many (but, sorry to say, not me), Burns feels Hemingway's impact and reputation need restating or refurbishing. I'd agree that Hemingway's alternately celebrated and criticized parataxis is rooted in a misunderstanding of his style (e.g., sentences starting with "And"). His first published novel, THE SUN ALSO RISES, was his best, with a last line, "Isn't it pretty to think so?," almost equal to F. Scott Fitgerald's enduringly famous last line in THE GREAT GATSBY: "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." I also admire several of Hemingway's short stories, including the so-called Nick Adams stories. But for capturing the zeitgeist of HIS time and now OURS, Fitzgerald's THE GREAT GATSBY remains unsurpassed. Perhaps getting the distinctive Ken Burns's touch will re-elevate Hemingway's work closer to the high plateau it once occupied. We'll see--literally.

What does "trou" rhyme with? I've never heard it said. Except in French, bien sur.

In French, "trou" would rhyme with the English "blue." If used in the American vernacular as shorthand for "trousers," the word would rhyme with "wow."

As always, thank you for your thoughtful comment, Earle. The more I read of Hemingway's behavior, the less I like him. He was a bitchy guy. And a blowhard with a couple of bees in his bonnet. But he did establish a new style that still sounds fresh, certainly in "The Sun Also Rises" and the stories, and I'd add "A Farewell to Arms," and even the book on bullfighting. It must have been tough for him to realize he had lost it -- or was just imitating himself. Fitzgerald had more natural talent than Hem, he had a real capacity for invention, and I believe Gertrude Stein said that Scott spoke naturally in sentences, which is rare. I have quarrel to pick with both in their treatment of Jewish characters, but I don't let that get in the way of reading and rereading their books. They continue to fascinate.

Thanks, David, for your comment responding to mine. I would add to mine this: Hemingway's deft use of the objective correlative, especially in his short story "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place." Like many, I first encountered the term "objective correlative" and its definition in T. S. Eliot's essay "Hamlet and His Problems," a chapter in his book THE SACRED WOOD from 1920. Let's not forget that Eliot relied on the term to define its lack in HAMLET, a play he deemed "most certainly an artistic failure." (That sound you just heard was my gasp.) But I also know Eliot was not the originator of the concept. That distinction likely goes to Washington Allston in his LECTURES ON ART from 1850. Anyway, in the final analysis (can any analysis ever be truly final?), I concede Hemingway's indelible role in influencing and even liberating how one can perceive and write fiction. At its best, his own serves as the prodding model.

Earle, I totally agree a with you bout "A Clean Well-Lighted Place," probably my favorite of his stories. In that ornery essay about "Hamlet" as a failure, Eliot also called it the "Mona Lisa of literature." Isn't that a funny phrase worth analyzing?

David, I have this recurrent nightmare of Eliot's ghost sneaking into the Louvre after hours with a Magic Marker to widen the wan, enigmatic smile of Da Vinci's MONA LISA into a Cheshire cat grin. Also, Eliot's sentence before the one you quoted from is a corker: "And probably more people have thought HAMLET a work of art because they found it interesting, than have found it interesting because it is a work of art." Eliot's eruptions of wit are not championed enough by exegetes. Analysis paralysis perhaps?

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I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark

from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman


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