- The Critics and Hemingway, 1924–2014: Shaping an American Literary Icon by Laurence W. Mazzeno
Books about Ernest Hemingway, even scholarly ones, tend to position themselves in relation to Hemingway the myth as much as Hemingway the writer, often while vigorously claiming not to. Granted, it is difficult to maneuver an (aspirational) academic objectivity around a myth so large, so Laurence W. Mazzeno’s study of Hemingway’s reception quickly dispenses with the attempt. Mazzeno, who has published mainly as a Victorianist, claims to “bring an outsider’s perspective” to Hemingway studies that will “allow [him] to record fairly and comment disinterestedly on the sometimes hyperbolic claims for Hemingway’s achievements and the equally vitriolic diatribes against him” (9), yet he opens his book with a chapter entitled “The Most Interesting Man in the World” and concludes by hailing “The Undisputed Champ Once More.” Though he lets other critics do most of the talking, underlying Mazzeno’s work is the strong presumption of Hemingway’s “pre-eminence among American writers” of the twentieth century and his status as a “literary and cultural icon.”
And that presumption colors this work. Because it is a chronological study of the critical reception of Hemingway’s writing from 1924 on, it sets out to tell a story of divided opinions, a push-pull over Hemingway’s popularity and his seriousness, but it does so by quoting snippets from nearly a hundred years’ [End Page 111] worth of reviews. Winnowing was required, and selection was crucial. Take the two pages on the contemporary reception of The Sun Also Rises, for example. Here Mazzeno quotes about two dozen critics, each represented by a phrase or two, such as the famous “lean, hard, athletic narrative prose” from the New York Times reviewer or Allen Tate’s dismissal of this “popular novel” that compromised Hemingway’s artistic integrity. While Mazzeno does not avoid the negative assessments, he routinely dismisses them, here concluding that “These few complaints had little effect on the sudden burst of praise for a young writer who went from being unknown in 1923 to being the toast of the literary world four years later” (14).
This broad-brush method aims to give readers “a sense of the tone as well as the substance” of the many reviews, according to Mazzeno, but who is to say such a method is not like movie ads that use similar shorthand quotes from (possibly negative) reviews and leave us with a comparable impression of a hearty thumbs up? Scholars will want to revisit the more robust bibliographical studies by Linda Wagner-Martin, Audre Hanneman, or Kelli Larson for more reliable source material.
But as a readable hagiography for a general audience, this book places Hemingway at the center of a lively story of critical opinion-making from an age of modernist experimentation through the rise of theory. Hemingway’s ups and downs track various approaches to evaluating aesthetic merit across the twentieth century, with high art offering a consistently suspicious side eye to the popular. If so many people like Hemingway’s writing can it really be considered complex and symbolic? Perhaps Hemingway was not an artist but only a skilled craftsman, a “master stylist,” whose incomparable sentences informed journalists and callow novelists who followed him, but whose content bordered on the ridiculous. Was his work morally bankrupt, steeped in meaninglessness and existentialist ennui, or was it ethically exemplary, the expression of that famous heroic code of the honorable stoic? The subtext of a zero sum game makes the famed competition among Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway seem like a modernist Survivor. Did Maxwell Perkins always like Scott best? Did Faulkner’s reclusiveness mark him as the real artist? Only one will win, and in this book, that’s going to be Hemingway.
Mazzeno does well relaying the assessments of the New Critics and of the mostly masculine rivalries of the preeminent literary academics through the 1960s. But this book fails its stated aim at objectivity most blatantly in discussing what Mazzeno calls...