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The Critical Reception of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises by Peter L. Hays (review)

From: The Hemingway Review
Volume 32, Number 2, Spring 2013
pp. 141-144 | 10.1353/hem.2013.0004

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Peter L. Hays’s The Critical Reception of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises is an admirably thorough view of decades of scholarship—a kind of biography of the novel’s reception. In Hays’s words, and convincingly borne out by his research, “it shows what has interested critics, how they have reinterpreted the novel, and how they have seen the characters playing different roles” (Preface). Hays then speaks to the criteria guiding his selections:

Critics of The Sun Also Rises have often produced reflections of their own faces in the mirror rather than convincing interpretations of the novel, but their critical biases are indicative of what they have thought important, and I have tried to include what seemed most valuable… I have included some interpretations I thought extreme, especially when published in reputable journals, to give an indication of the range of criticism that has been published.

(Preface)

Hays’s work echoes Fitzgerald scholar Robert Beuka’s comparably sweeping American Icon: The Great Gatsby in Critical and Cultural Context (Camden House, 2011) in its collection, arrangement, and evaluation of criticism surrounding a related key novel of the 1920s. Hays’s book is richly researched in detailing the abundant work done on The Sun Also Rises from the 1920s to the early 2000s. Hays has a clear intellectual presence in appraising and contextualizing scholarly texts—such as when he surveys the criticism related to Brett, Catholicism, Jake’s behavior, and other specific aspects of the novel. He also discusses his own work on The Sun Also Rises with appropriate focus and objectivity.

Hays’s introduction deftly sets the scene, providing the familiar Paris narrative, contextualizing the novel as roman à clef, and then framing the novel as “a philosophical discourse on the need for a personal code of conduct in an unreasonable world, a hard-edged, realistic look at the world Hemingway considered cruel and without design, repudiating Victorian optimism and sentimentality, as well as the romantic rhetoric that had urged naive young men to fight in the First World War” (3).

The Critical Reception of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises then clearly charts the developments and new approaches in Hemingway studies since the early 1940s, when his work began getting deeper critical treatment. For Hays, by the late 1950s to early 1960s, “Hemingway and his works were now objects of both general and academic scrutiny,” the latter seen through an increased Hemingway presence in scholarly monographs, conferences, journals, and the broader academic marketplace (46). The robust 1990s and 2000s, as Hays shows, indicate the continued debates on—as well as deepened understandings of—the novel’s psychoanalytical subtext, its fluid sexuality, its influences, and its racial/ethnic constructions. In the last two chapters, Hays discusses works by Mark Spilka, H. R. Stoneback, Linda Wagner-Martin, Debra Moddelmog, Carl Eby, Dana Fore, Gary Holcomb, and many others. The book is clearly structured, and the chapter titles (e.g., “The Development of In-Depth Criticism: 1947– 1961” and “The Continued Proliferation of Theory, 1995–2009”) contribute to its smooth organization and readability.

I found Chapters 1 and 2 especially compelling, because the intellectual treatment of Hemingway and other American writers from Maxwell Geismar, Delmore Schwartz, and others before World War II could be overlooked in favor of contemporary Hemingway criticism. Chapter 1, “Good Style, Bad Content, No Philosophy,” offers valuable reviews and other period works that can buttress further research on and contextualization of the novel’s initial reception. As Hays notes, there was among reviewers a “split between those who were disgusted by what they saw as sleazy, immoral characters and those impressed by his prose in portraying those characters” (9). It also might be easy to forget “that contemporary American literature was rarely studied in high schools and colleges until after the Second World War. English-language literature meant British literature, and if American literature was considered, it was Emerson and Cooper; perhaps James; Twain was often considered a writer of children’s books” (12). Such context represents a nice critical and pedagogical moment for effectively situating The Sun Also Rises in its era of publication and reception, particularly since American literature is so prominent in contemporary literary studies...


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