- Hemingway, Faulkner and the Clash of Reputations
It could have been a riposte in an ongoing duel, or merely an objective appraisal of a few well-known American writers. There was probably something of both in the list of names he came up with, when, while answering questions in a University of Mississippi Creative Writing class in April 1947, William Faulkner was asked to rank his contemporaries. His answer initiated the definitive episode in his ongoing exchange with Ernest Hemingway:
Whom do you consider the five most important contemporary writers? A: 1. Thomas Wolfe. 2. Dos Passos. 3. Ernest Hemingway. 4. Willa Cather. 5. John Steinbeck.
If you don’t think it too personal, how do you rank yourself with contemporary writers?
1. Thomas Wolfe: he had much courage and wrote as if he didn’t have long to live; 2. William Faulkner; 3. Dos Passos; 4. Ernest Hemingway: he has no courage, has never crawled out on a limb. He has never been known to use a word that might cause the reader to check with a dictionary to see if it is properly used; 5. John Steinbeck: at one time I had great hopes for him—now I don’t know.
Faulkner could have meant this ranking as a detached, even off-the-cuff, observation. More likely, he wanted his rating to have a competitive tinge, in that, as George Monteiro has pointed out, he “chose to annotate his choices as he went along, developing reasons for his rankings” and disparaging two seemingly lesser coevals. Faulkner places himself first among living writers, since Wolfe had been dead almost nine years at the time of the ranking. Although Faulkner’s pantheon of writers includes Hemingway, his placement and commentary prompted, in Richard Walser’s words, “a mild farrago of statements which kept him busy off and on for a decade.” Regardless of whether Faulkner—ostensibly a private, noncombative writer—meant to be provocative, Hemingway saw this as a shot across his bow. His placement of Hemingway below both himself and Dos Passos proved central to the Faulkner–Hemingway rivalry, because it led to [End Page 62] the only known direct communication between the two men—four letters in all, in which they added to their mutual repository of evidence of rivalry and shared influence. Faulkner’s ranking was pivotal because it gnawed at Hemingway for years to come; he could not, or would not, let it go. As always, Hemingway was particularly attuned to criticisms that Faulkner made of him. He was even more angered by these particular remarks because they called some aspects of his courage into serious question.
The three-plus decade relationship between William Faulkner (1897–1962) and Ernest Hemingway (1899–1961) was complicated, rich, and often vexed. It embodied various attitudes: one-upmanship, respect, criticism, and praise. This exchange of American modernists was manifested in writing through their fiction, nonfiction, correspondence, and Nobel Prize addresses, ranging from Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon (1932) to his late “The Art of the Short Story” (1959) and Faulkner’s class sessions at West Point (April 1962). Faulkner and Hemingway used these and many other texts to debate—and spar over—the forms, experiments, and styles of modernism in America. Their intertextual relationship was unique for both men: it was unusual for the reserved Faulkner to engage so directly and so often with a contemporary, and for the hypercompetitive Hemingway to admit his respect for—and the concomitant possibility of his inferiority to—a rival writer. Commonly, Hemingway’s literary relationships were monochromatic, as in, for instance, his declared respect for Ezra Pound, or his disdain for John Dos Passos after their friendship disintegrated in the mid-1930s. Likewise, when Hemingway was described as inferior to or derivative of other writers (such as Sherwood Anderson or Gertrude Stein), he distanced himself from and disparaged them because of their influence. His dynamic with Faulkner was different: he simultaneously respected and scorned Faulkner, who responded similarly, if a little less harshly. They helped shape each other’s work and aesthetic, manifesting a literary version of what jazz musicians call “trading twelves”—riffing on...