restricted access Hemingway's Theaters of Masculinity (review)
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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 51.3 (2005) 679-683

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Thomas Strychacz. Hemingway's Theaters of Masculinity. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 2003. vii + 284 pp.

Since Ernest Hemingway's controversial and surprising manuscript about sexual experimentation, gender role reversal, and artistic creativity was posthumously published (albeit in heavily edited form) as The Garden of Eden in 1986, discussions of gender and sexuality have dominated Hemingway scholarship. The rich and unexpected material in Garden proved to be fertile ground for scholars who spent the next twenty years producing critical work that explored the nuances and intricacies of what Nancy Comley and Robert Scholes called the "nuevo Hemingway" (Hemingway's Gender: Reading the Hemingway Text 1994), a Hemingway whose macho persona and writing style masked a man with conflicting attitudes about sexuality and a complex, often vexed relationship to gender. The publication of Garden was fortuitous; as Loren Glass has recently and pithily observed, "if The Garden of Eden hadn't been written, it would have been necessary to invent it" (Authors Inc: Literary Celebrity in the Modern United States 1880–1980 2004). Indeed, it is difficult to recall another book that has occasioned so thorough and startling a reconsideration of its author and his oeuvre. The fecund Garden not only revived Hemingway criticism, it also made Hemingway and his work relevant to a new generation of postfeminist and postmodernist readers. Nonetheless, in recent years, this once innovative area of scholarship seems to have settled into a set of predictable observations and slightly stale gestures. It is thus completely understandable if readers are skeptical of Thomas Strychacz's claim that he is going to present them with a "new approach" to Hemingway and masculinity, but Strychacz's Hemingway's Theaters of Masculinity emerges as a subtle, difficult, and insightful book that delivers even more than it promises.

The freshness of Strychacz's study results from a slight but significant adjustment in his approach to the issue of masculinity in Hemingway. Strychacz fully recognizes that any study of Hemingway and masculinity enters into an established and complex critical landscape, but he makes it clear from the beginning of the project that he is not primarily interested in participating in the long-standing debates about Hemingway's male characters and masculine style. Rather, Strychacz explains that he wants to explore the way Hemingway's work instigates, encourages, and sustains such debates. To this end, Strychacz announces that his study will focus on "Hemingway's narrative and rhetorical strategies," but he warns his approach will make these strategies "seem disconcertingly different from those that have been thought to typify [Hemingway's] work." [End Page 679] The goal is to present readers "not so much with a nuevo Hemingway" but with a "defamiliarized Hemingway," which in turn will help readers encounter the author's work on new terms (13).

In order to arrive at this "defamiliarized Hemingway," Strychacz must pursue an ambitious project of critical asceticism. One of the things that makes this book exceptional is Strychacz's ability to engage deeply and critically with not just Hemingway's work, but also the years of scholarship and the critical commonplaces through which readings of his work are usually filtered. As a result, a significant part of the project involves stripping away the critical assumptions and biases that Strychacz believes have desensitized readers to Hemingway's tactics. For Strychacz, this desensitization is integrally connected to the way the concept of masculinity circulates in Hemingway criticism. Strychacz puzzles at how the "masculine codes underpinning critical approaches [to Hemingway's work] do not even have to be inscribed in the text in order to function in critical readings" (25). He argues that critics have imported "hidden assumptions about masculine style, codes, and identity" derived from culturally dominant notions of masculinity as inviolate, unproblematic, innate, and continuous into their readings. As a result, Strychacz observes that critics have tended to gloss over the rich moments of rupture or indeterminacy that he finds everywhere in Hemingway's texts.

Deploying a methodology drawn largely from performance studies but heavily indebted to many different...