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Over the past twenty-five years, Ernest Hemingway has been undergoing the scholarly equivalent of an "extreme makeover." In the early 1980s, criticism of the great, macho, celebrity writer of modern American literature, who inspired protective loyalty in some critics and outright antipathy in others, seemed to have reached a saturation point. One leading critic even announced that he believed "there was nothing more to be said about Hemingway's fiction" (qtd. in Strong vii). But the publication of The Garden of Eden in 1986 changed everything. Since 1986, Hemingway scholarship has become a boom industry as critics have tackled issues of gender and sexual identity from nearly every conceivable angle and in relation to every piece of writing in Hemingway's oeuvre. As a result, long held beliefs about the author's misogyny and machismo have been challenged, and a newer, less easily pigeon-holed Hemingway has emerged. Amy L. Strong's Race and Identity in Hemingway's Fiction continues this makeover trend, just as the field appears to be reaching the point of exhaustion again, redirecting attention to Hemingway's interest in race and racial identity.
Strong has been interested in Hemingway's relationship to race for quite some time (her first article on Hemingway and native Americans appeared about twelve years ago), but her decision to write what I believe is the first book-length study of Hemingway and race was prompted by the 2005 publication of Under Kilimanjaro, the scholarly edition of Hemingway's book based on his second African safari in 1953–54 (first published in 1999 as True At First Light). For Strong, the publication of Under Kilimanjaro, with its candid account [End Page 842] of Hemingway's desire to become a member of the Wakamba tribe, provides critics with the occasion to address what she rightly sees as the author's lifelong fascination with race as seriously and comprehensively as they have addressed gender issues in his work. She believes the time is ripe to challenge the perception that Hemingway is one of the "whitest writers in the American literary tradition" (11).
Inspired by strategies pioneered by Toni Morrison in her groundbreaking study Playing in the Dark, Strong presents her project as "a revisionist reading of Hemingway's work" in which she examines "how Hemingway's fiction looks if we bring his nonwhite characters out of the background and asks how we must define Hemingway's conception of American identity differently when it is constructed on the basis of race" (12, 13). She acknowledges that there is already a sizeable body of scholarship on Hemingway and race, but she claims that these past efforts defanged Hemingway's racial obsessions by translating them into more familiar (and less controversial) motifs in Hemingway scholarship such as father-son relationships, primitivism, lost wilderness, and male initiation rites. The effect, she explains, is that "The critical response to issues of race in Hemingway's works . . . reveals patterns of marginalization, disavowal, and outright dismissal" (4). Her project seeks to remedy this situation by emphasizing Hemingway's awareness of and engagement with the realities of race in the construction of his nonwhite characters and his portrayals of racial interaction. It is an ambitious and worthwhile project, but the results are uneven in part because Strong cannot consistently anchor Hemingway in such realities.
The first two chapters on the Nick Adams stories are the strongest in the book and will likely become a standard for future scholarship. In the first chapter, Strong persuasively argues that Nick Adams's identity cannot be fully understood without historicizing his relationship to native Americans, a relationship that she argues is "based on racial domination" (16). Through an effective pairing of "Indian Camp" and "The Doctor and the Doctor's Wife," Strong captures Hemingway's attempts to present race as both biological and cultural, which allows him to play with racial categories in ways that capture the unstable and shifting power dynamics between Indians and whites. The next chapter focuses on Nick's relationship to African American characters in the...