The Problem of Hemingway

December 4th, 2008

Frank O’Connor, in the Lonely Voice:

But the real trouble with Hemingway is that he so often has to depend upon his splendid technical equipment to cover up material that is trivial or sensational. For much of the time his stories illustrate a technique in search of a subject. In the general sense of the word Hemingway has no subject. Faulkner shows a passion for technical experiment not unlike Hemingway’s, and, like Hemingway’s picked up in Paris cafes over a copy of transition, but at once he tries to transplant it to Yoknapatawpha County. Sometimes, let us admit, it looks as inappropriate there as a Paris hat on one of the Snopes women, but at least, if we don’t like the hat we can get something out of the woman it disguises. Hemingway, on the other hand, is always a displaced person; he has no place to bring his treasures to.

(he then cites the influence of Joyce, Gert, and the German Expressionists, and the resultant reduction of character and plot to abstractions… specifically in the example of Hills Like White Elephants), continuing with:

I submit that there are drawbacks to this method. It is all too abstract. Nobody in Hemingway ever seems to have a job or a home unless the job or the home fits into the German scheme of capital letters…

Now I’m no stranger to stylistic excess or the joys of an overindulgence of technical chops, and displacement can work for some (c.f. Joyce, James), but O’Connor gets to the PROBLEM of Hemingway (more aptly than “for every pound of good writing he produced, he also churned out two pounds of utter shit”). But it’s disorienting, with abstractions of people displaced and wandering between leisure and restlessness, and as in Hills Like White Elephants, just waiting to be given something to do.

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