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Sportif Hemingway

May 24, 2012

“And it is always so quiet when the goldfish die…”  Ernest Hemingway

This quote from his Letters always makes me smile a slow happy smile. Here is my hero off-duty, mocking his own underplayed handling of dire themes. Is it not nice to meet a magician with a sense of humor about the spell he casts?

Is Hemingway only a reputation to you? If you were to Kindle up Part One and Part Two of “Big Two-Hearted River,” half-an-hour’s reading would vouchsafe you one of the five best short stories written in the last hundred years. And that’s not just me saying so, either.

Hemingway wanted what every single serious writer wants without exception: to tell true stories so simply — and simple stories so truthfully — they never age on the page, either in their sentiments, or because of bad writing. What’s more, I always admired Hemingway for living out the adventurous life he wrote about so indelibly well — big-game hunting and fishing, boxing and soldiering.

Of course, for envious people, all his physical gifts and glittering virility seemed excessive in a man already acknowledged to be a literary genius. There are always, in any English Department, women of both sexes who will assure you that being a man’s man only goes to prove he was secretly all the more feminine. So those same critics who grant the immortality of his best work also endlessly repeat to students the traditional Freudian slur: “Hemingway was always trying to prove his masculinity.”

Nope. I can lay that canard to rest right here and now. All it takes is actually having paid some small attention to what this most truthful of authors had to say about his own metier.

Think about this sensibly. A job is a job, even for a genius. Writing was how he always made his living. He worked as an international journalist straight out of high school, then became a pupil of some of the century’s other greatest writers (Paris in the Twenties!). He wrote in a bone-clean style whose best effects use our commonest words in ways so fresh and vivid it is, to paraphrase Ford Madox Ford, as if each word were like pebbles fetched new-washed from a  brook and placed side by side.

Achieving this startling freshness was his day job. Hemingway wrote in the morning and stopped when he knew the next sentence because it made starting up easier tomorrow. But the imperative thing, he said, was to then turn away from writing — from any serious use of language — completely put it out of his mind until next morning. Managing his talent demanded treating his muse, in his famous metaphor, like a well which fills up overnight if you leave it alone.

So it became nothing less than Hemingway’s professional obligation to be sportif, as the French say: to find enjoyable, healthy things to do for the rest of the day that did not involve words. 

I call on you academics. By now you reveal uncomfortably more about yourselves than you do the author when you mouth this “proving his masculinity” crap. Hemingway didn’t need to prove anything to anybody, least of all that he was a man. He was simply in liege to an iron-clad professional necessity to… go fishing.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Emmett Grayson permalink
    May 27, 2012 5:30 PM

    Perhaps they hate that part of him because they are, in fact, pansies themselves. I know of some who think themselves so utterly sophisticated that they must reject all perfectly valid artistic expression which, although they can’t admit the reason, frightens them.

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