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  • Ernest Hemingway and the Discipline of Creative Writing, Or, Shark Liver Oil

Mice: That isn’t the way they teach you to write in college. Y. C.: I don’t know about that. I never went to college. If any sonofabitch could write he wouldn’t have to teach writing in college.

—Ernest Hemingway, “Monologue to the Maestro: A High Seas Letter”

A couple of years ago six young men submitted six stories in one day in my class. Every story was laid in a bar, every one involved a girl, wanton but wistful, with whom the hero was involved, every one contained an impressionistic passage during which the hero studied his drunken countenance in the wavering bar mirror, and every one was written in a tough, bare, corner-of-the-mouth style.

—Wallace Stegner, “The Anxious Generation” Go in fear of abstractions.
—Ezra Pound, “A Few Don’ts” in Early Writings

In the Saturday Review of Literature in 1938, Edith Mirrielees, who taught creative writing at Stanford and Bread Loaf, suggested that literary influences sweep through groups of students like the [End Page 544] flu. Ernest Hemingway, she quipped, communicated the most virulent strain. “Shake any manuscript over the table the year after ‘The Killers’ appeared and the extra ‘he said’s’ rattled down like dice.” In the decades to come, teachers would see new diseases: Salingeritis, Carveritis, Vonnegutorrhea, Barthelmetosis, and worse. But Mirrielees’s contention from 1938 held for the century: “the displacer of Hemingway is still to come” (4).

Hemingway’s influence on the writing workshops followed from his influence more generally. His reputation among critics—high in the 1920s and less high in the 1930s—soared in 1940 with For Whom the Bell Tolls and was consecrated in 1952 by The Old Man and the Sea and the Pulitzer and Nobel Prizes that followed. His popular reputation, a different thing, thrived on photo-essays in mass-market magazines from the 1930s on. The literary critical revival of the 1950s bolstered his film-star-caliber celebrity to create a literary giant visible from every college campus.

Between the apparent simplicity of Hemingway’s style and the brute grandeur of his celebrity lie phenomena that warrant elaboration and that illuminate important and complex aspects of modernist literature as it was assimilated by colleges and universities after World War II. In the union of his persona and his writing, Hemingway reconciled competing emphases in literary study, and the reconciliation contributed to the rise of a coherent, collegiate pedagogy for creative writing. He wrote prose that incorporated and advanced modernist techniques, yet his poetics differed greatly from the doctrine of impersonal artistry so crucial to Eliot and to the hermetic and inviolate quality of the poem in the New Critical classroom. Hemingway, as artist, was nothing if not personal; and his personality was nothing if not germane to his fiction.

Ascendant in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the New Critics produced sophisticated theories that often became simple in the hands of literature instructors. Cleanth Brooks, Robert Penn Warren, John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and others—following Eliot, I. A. Richards, and William Empson—treated the text as an autonomous object. In the classroom a streamlined version of their theories created a passive mode of interpretation that placed all emphasis on the poem or story, setting aside not only questions of the history of the text and the biography of the author but also questions of the identity of the student. Reading involved supplication to an ostensibly perfect or near perfect set of words, whose intricacies and subtle connections awaited acts of explication undertaken in a spirit of rigorous objectivity.

In contrast, the New Humanists, so influential at Iowa and Stanford among the pedagogues of creative writing, focused on the autonomy of students, concerned with their ethical development. [End Page 545] The fledgling creative writing programs, emerging from a philosophy concerned with character rather than scholarship, assumed, if not that everybody was an artist, then at least that everybody could benefit from submitting to the discipline of pretending to be one.1 Hemingway’s thoroughly modernist prose accommodated the New Criticism’s emphasis on text, yet his...

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