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186 emily o. wittman 13 A Clean, Well-Lighted Place for Killing Nostalgia in Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon Emily O. Wittman • The homesickness of the Swiss . . . which befalls them when they are transferred to other lands, is the result of a longing that is aroused by the recollection of a carefree life and neighborly company in their youth, a longing for the places where they enjoyed the very simple pleasures of life. Later, when they visit these places, they find their anticipation dampened and even their homesickness cured. They think that everything has drastically changed, but it is that they cannot bring back their youth. —Immanuel Kant, Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View Those who weep for the happy periods which they encounter in history acknowledge what they want; not the alleviation but the silencing of misery. —Albert Camus, The Rebel When Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon was published in 1932, few critics understood why a successful fiction writer would devote nearly a decade to a lengthy exposition of an archaic sport many considered immoral.1 Questions about “the book’s genus and species” guided initial critical response (Thurston 47). Reviewers struggled to label the unusual book, which combined 279 pages of text with nearly a hundred pages of photos and an eighty-four-page glossary. What logic organized this mass of information? A reviewer from the Book186 Cirino & Ott.indb 186 3/23/10 9:34:58 AM a clean, well-lighted place for killing 187 man awkwardly described it as “an interlude of reporting and miscellaneous comment in a career chiefly devoted to fiction” (Collins 115). Taxonomic questions continue to surface in critical studies of Death in the Afternoon. Nevertheless, we would be mistaken to see the book as a radical departure from Hemingway’s earlier writing, or even from other travel literature of the same era. Death in the Afternoon is less an aberration than a parallel project to The Sun Also Rises, which he wrote seven years earlier. This is particularly clear when we investigate how Hemingway uses nostalgia in Death in the Afternoon to guarantee his authority and to distinguish himself from both his readership and the other foreigners who have irrevocably altered “the way it used to happen at San Sebastian” (DIA 33). As Malcolm Cowley observed in his review of Death in the Afternoon, every Hemingway book “has been an elegy” (123). Cowley referred to Death in the Afternoon as a “Baedeker of bulls” (121). Carlos Baker likewise dubbed it a “Baedeker of the bullfight” (A Life Story 220). Hemingway’s own classification is less clear. Forty pages into his book, in the middle of a long description of the pleasures of Aranjuez, he apostrophizes the reader: “You can find the sights in Baedeker” (DIA 40). Yet in chapter 7 he acknowledges that he has written a kind of guidebook: “There are two sorts of guide books; those that are read before and those that are to be read after and those that are to be read after the fact are bound to be incomprehensible to a certain extent before” (63). When he directs the reader to go to Spain and see a bullfight for himself before finishing the book, Hemingway suggests that a book cannot take the place of first-hand experience. The reader is invited to attend a fight but will later be told that the spectacle he will see is decadent. Hemingway also argues that each fight differs so much that even if he did describe one, “it would not be the one that you would see” (63). Thus, at the same time that he offers broad information and “how-to-ism” about the bullfight, he also implies that the kind of bullfighting he describes will have disappeared by the time the reader actually attends a fiesta (Said 238). Death in the Afternoon is thus both a meditation on an idealized era of bullfighting and a complicated introduction to a rapidly deteriorating practice. This demand that the reader witness a bullfight before finishing the remaining thirteen chapters of Death in the Afternoon highlights Hemingway’s ambivalence about sharing his knowledge and downplays language as a useful medium for sharing information and appreciation. Intimations about the reader’s insufficiency are conjoined with implicit doubts about the power of Cirino & Ott.indb 187 3/23/10 9:34:58 AM 188 emily o. wittman writingtoreachtheunelect.Thedifficultyofcommunicatingessentialinformation about Spain and the bullfight is reiterated throughout the book, especially in Hemingway’s...


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