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  • In Our Time as Self-Begetting Fiction
  • Elizabeth D. Vaughn (bio)

In 1923, one year before Ernest Hemingway published the first in our time, T. S. Eliot proclaimed that the novel had "ended with Flaubert and with James" (482-483).1 Any writer responding to the atrocities of World War One at that time could have complained, as Philip Roth did in 1961, that "The actuality is continually outdoing our talents, and culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of any novelist" (224). Whereas conditions of crisis in the Sixties led many American writers to direct their creative energies into chronicling actual, rather than fictitious, events (new journalism, as Peter Hamill named it2), many writers in the early Twenties responded to the destructive horrors of their time by simultaneously transforming actual events into literature and exploring this creative process through metaliterature. E. E. Cummings' The Enormous Room (1922), for example, opens with an introduction comprised of a series of nonfictional letters and summaries of the responses they received. Written during World War One by Cummings' father asking U.S. government officials to arrange for his son's release from a French concentration camp, the letters establish a nonfictional premise for the book, which in turn uses allusions to John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, illustrations, and typographical innovations to flaunt its status as invention. Thus, as Patricia Waugh claims all metafiction does, this autobiographical novel "self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an artefact in order to pose questions about the relationship between fiction and reality" (2). The elaborate system of literary allusions and notes explaining these allusions in T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land (1922) and William Carlos Williams' explicit incorporation of the idea of the great American novel into his 1923 work, The Great American Novel, function similarly.

Although Ernest Hemingway is usually labeled as a realist, his first full-length work, In Our Time, also exhibits many metafictional qualities. Ezra Pound suggested as much when he called the series in which Hemingway's first in our time was published an "Inquest into the state of contemporary English prose" (in our time, inside back cover). Yet although a few critics have noticed metafictional aspects in In Our Time, none to my knowledge has explored the metafictional ramifications of its announced inquisitional purposes. This essay approaches In Our Time [End Page 707] as a work that uses realist and metafictional conventions to explore the relationship between fiction and reality and which therefore explores "a theory of fiction through the practice of writing fiction" as Waugh characterizes all metafiction (2).

Metafictional tendencies in "Big Two-Hearted River" were noted as early as 1959, yet surprisingly little critical thought has developed around this topic. In his essay "Hemingway's Two-Hearted River" Sheridan Baker observed, "Hemingway, indeed, consistently shows a kind of wilfulness in reporting fact with journalistic accuracy and then insisting that it is all fiction, that 'there are no real people in this volume.'" (157). Baker's discussion of metafictional tendencies in "Big Two-Hearted River" leads him to conclude that "what Hemingway himself counts as fiction seems to contain a very high saturation of actuality" (158). Nevertheless, his assertion that the narrator in the story suggests that "there are no real people in this volume" is significant in terms of what it implies about the narrator's own fictionality and the metafictional nature of In Our Time.

The deleted coda to "Big Two-Hearted River," first published in 1972 in The Nick Adams Stories under the title "On Writing," clarifies these implications by suggesting one way in which In Our Time is a metafiction. The coda provides evidence that Nick Adams is the writer of In Our Time and that the book therefore examines the relationship between art and reality by providing an account "of the development of a character to the point at which he is able to take up his pen and compose the novel we have just finished reading" (Kellman, "The Fiction of Self-Begetting" 1245). Susan F. Beegel has effectively demonstrated how an examination of the cuts Hemingway made in his manuscripts can illuminate "the thing...


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