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Vonnegut and Hemingway: Writers at War by Lawrence R. Broer (review)

From: The Hemingway Review
Volume 33, Number 1, Fall 2013
pp. 114-117 | 10.1353/hem.2013.0029

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In June 1989, Kurt Vonnegut delivered the keynote address at Boise State’s “Hemingway in Idaho” conference to an audience of some 1200 people including, as Vonnegut indicated, “about 150 real Hemingway scholars” who “know a hell of a lot more about Hemingway than I do” (19). After providing the caveat that much of what he was about to share with his audience “may be wrong,” Vonnegut detailed his impressions of his literary predecessor beginning with a list of parallels: Hemingway was “from the Cornbelt,” Vonnegut explained, “so was I. He was from Chicago, I was from Indianapolis. We both set out to be reporters; that’s what we wanted to be. Our fathers were both gun-nuts; we both expressed gratitude to Mark Twain, as our literary ancestor” (20). More significantly, Vonnegut goes on to reference similarities through involvement with war: Hemingway volunteered for the Red Cross in World War I and served as correspondent in the Spanish Civil War and World War II; Vonnegut’s experience as a soldier and prisoner of war in World War II had a major impact on his life and work as well.

Accordingly, Vonnegut pointed out, the “millions upon millions of us who fought overseas” in World War II no longer needed “a Hemingway to say what war was like” (21). Moreover, Vonnegut found Hemingway’s attitude toward certain subjects appalling: writing unapologetically about “bullfighting and nearly forgotten wars and shooting big animals for sport” had become just as passé as Hemingway’s role as an authoritative voice for a generation whose ideas were now “obsolescent,” a fate that Vonnegut suggests is inevitable for all young writers once they grow old (21, 22). Even so, Vonnegut admits that Hemingway was “unquestionably an artist of the first rank,” and “if Hemingway were a painter, I would say of him that while I often don’t like the subjects he celebrates, I sure as hell respect his brush work” (22).

Vonnegut’s remarks on the similarities between himself and Hemingway, especially the effects of childhood and war on writing, along with the development of differing attitudes toward violence that led Vonnegut to distance himself from Hemingway, suggest a genesis of sorts for Lawrence R. Broer’s fascinating study, Vonnegut and Hemingway: Writers at War. In his introduction, Broer explains the three meanings he associates with his subtitle. First, both writers deal significantly with “the horrors of war and the idiocies of battle” in their work (1). Second, even though Vonnegut admired Hemingway for his supreme artistry, he also considered Hemingway his “career-long nemesis” (1). Third, both writers were “at war with themselves,” involved in an inner conflict (with origins stemming from early childhood traumas and subsequent war wounds) that Broer explains as “the ceaseless combat of anima and animus for control of the writer’s creative imagination” (1). In other words, each author dealt with a constant inner struggle between a feminine tendency for gentleness and peace (initially suppressed) and a masculine predisposition toward violence and hostility (that needed to be confronted), the various outcomes of which are evident in the evolution of their life’s work.

Vonnegut made progress by facing his “submerged fears” through his creation of protagonists such as Howard Campbell in Mother Night, Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse Five, and Kilgore Trout in Breakfast of Champions (71). Likewise, Hemingway worked out his anxieties through portrayals of Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises, Frederic Henry in A Farewell to Arms, and Robert Jordan in For Whom the Bell Tolls. Unlike Vonnegut, however, Hemingway’s psychic advance toward a healthier appreciation for gentleness and peace took longer, as evidenced by Hemingway’s tendency to value masculine posturing not only in his earlier short stories and novels but also in nonfiction volumes such as Death in the Afternoon and Green Hills of Africa. Hemingway’s apparently arrested development in this regard is one major factor that led Vonnegut to “view Hemingway as a writer whose machismo diminished his artistic growth” even though Broer, most adeptly, shows Hemingway’s progress in achieving spiritual maturity and appreciation for the feminine by confronting certain deep-seated fears in later fiction, thereby ultimately taming his inner...

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