- Hemingway: A Critical Feast
When it comes to literary targets, Ernest Hemingway stands out as American critics’s and scholars’s proverbial broad side of the barn. Few American writers, if any, will ever surpass the level of celebrity that Hemingway has achieved. He is engrained in our literary psyche as both, prototypical Lost Generation expatriate author, and poster boy for an archaic masculinity that many would love to see eradicated. The bad news for Hemingway’s many detractors, literary and otherwise, is that his iconic status won’t likely dissipate anytime soon. Despite a long list of accusations (misogyny, animal abuse, lack of intellect, excessive machismo, emotional immaturity, and general insensitivity, to name a few), Hemingway’s legacy endures and every verbal beating only seems to increase his prominence.
Of course, along with the many ad hominem attacks, there are countless aesthetic and artistic reasons to hate Hemingway as well. Most writers and editors harbor their own unique grudges toward his work. Some even hold Hemingway accountable for his many imitators who crank out page after page of sparse, often vacuous, prose. I once heard an excited editorial assistant tell the fiction editor of a notable journal that she’d received a submission from one of Hemingway’s children. Without even turning to respond, the editor told her, “Hemingway, eh? Well, that’s the first strike. Why don’t you read it and let me know if it’s any good? Otherwise, toss it in the recycling.” Generally speaking, it’s not fashionable to speak favorably of Hemingway in literary circles, and the reasons why are as numerous as landmines on a WWI battlefield.
In my own experience as a writer, there’s been no escaping Ernest Hemingway. My first novel and several of my stories and poems share the same northern Michigan setting as many of Hemingway’s notable early works. So, at readings, in interviews, and in informal discussion with writer friends and colleagues, I’m often asked to discuss my thoughts on Hemingway and give opinions on his books, such as In Our Time (1925). My responses vary, depending on mood and sobriety level. At one reading for my first novel, North Dixie Highway (2013), I told the audience that I have a sort of love/hate relationship with Hemingway. Most of the crowd nodded in unison. I waited for a tricky follow-up question, someone coercing me to elaborate, and that’s when a woman shouted out, “I love to hate him too.” I just read another excerpt from my novel and left it at that.
Rumor has it that I’ve gone on long, angry, anti-Hemingway rants after too many shots of bourbon. There are plenty of issues, literary and otherwise, that I’d like to take up with Ernie over shots, fishing—maybe a few rounds in the ring. Although I find elements of his work admirable and I simultaneously acknowledge and reject his stylistic influence, I find his narratives lacking substance at times; his description of northern Michigan in particular, its people and setting, doesn’t always feel authentic. It has always inspired me that a writer of Hemingway’s influence and literary magnitude chose to write about the place where I grew up, but I resent the fact that someone from the Chicago suburbs was the first to gain notoriety for doing so, utilizing the place I grew up as a prop. I also mostly agree with David Ulin’s assessment that, “[o]f all the great American between-the-wars writers…the one who spoke most to me was Faulkner.” That’s why it was as shocking to me as anyone else several years back when I found myself defending Hemingway at a conference in Austin. A group of professors and graduate students were talking about how Hemingway was overrated, and saying they didn’t “get” the appeal of his work. They were appalled by Papa Hemingway’s many personal flaws and felt he should be banished indefinitely from American letters. Why would the powers that be continue publishing him in American Literature anthologies, the dinosaur that he is? As a writer, I made my...