Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway is having a moment. Again. The eponymous documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick that has been airing and streaming on PBS — air streaming? — has exhumed the cultural conversation about the author. That conversation has not displaced the one about Taylor Swift rerecording her first albums, but we are not a bookish culture.

Much of the revived discussion has been about the man, who from one week to the next could be gentle, cruel, generous, spiteful, a sentimental romantic, a mean misogynist, an anti-fascist, an anti-Semite, a true friend, a betrayer of friends, a cat-lover, a hunter, a vigorous outdoorsman, and a sad and battered suicidal depressive. Turns out his macho persona papered over an inner Hemingway who was more gender-fluid than most of us ever imagined. Who knew?

Though Burns and Novick concentrated on the man behind the guise, there was some routine discourse about his prose: plaudits in the documentary from writers including Edna O’Brien, Tobias Wolff, Mary Karr and Tim O’Brien, and in written commentaries the usual loose tossing about of “Hemingway forever changed American fiction.”

Well, maybe some American fiction. Tracing literary influence is a tricky business. Mainstream fiction, what most American fiction is by definition, has not changed much post-Hemingway, but for an increase in cussing and sex.

But where Hemingway surely has been influential is in what serious, artistically ambitious writers have learned from close attention to his work. The Hemingway who wrote the stories “Indian Camp,” “The Killers,” “Big Two-Hearted River” and “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” and the books “The Sun Also Rises,” “A Farewell to Arms” and “A Moveable Feast,” was a superb writer, subtle and profound and courageous. Anyone who aspires to fine narrative storytelling, be it fictional or factual, has much to learn from the complicated gentleman from Oak Park.

Writing true sentences

When I taught literary nonfiction at Johns Hopkins University, I frequently admonished my students to “write like you mean it.” (So frequently that at the end of one semester, my graduate class presented me with a binder blazoned with that phrase on the front cover; they called it a “Keigerism.”) I urged them to work with conviction — this story needs to be told and it needs to be told this way. I wanted them to make it real, make it true, and make it their own.

Hemingway’s best prose exemplifies what I preached. In “A Moveable Feast” he wrote, “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” This passage has been mocked as pretentious by people who miss the point. To write the truest sentence that you know requires you, the writer, to be rigorous with yourself about facing what you actually do know, what makes you believe it to be true, and the limits of what you know versus what you merely suppose. It takes no small discipline to write only true sentences — to be true to yourself and to your story.

And it takes unwavering conviction. As he told an interviewer from The Paris Review, “Once written you have to stand by it.” I believe this conviction (plus his training at the Kansas City Star) lies behind Hemingway’s famously lean prose. He believed truth ought to be asserted in direct and unequivocal statements. If you were in the truth game, you committed yourself to concrete and precise language. This is what is true, right here. Hemingway was wary of tiptoeing toward the truth through qualifying subclauses and the equivocation of adverbs and the imprecision of adjectives. He put absolute faith in nouns and the naming of things.

When you name something (and all nouns are names), you swear to its truth. It’s no accident that investigations aim to “name names.” Nouns do not hedge and are not subject to opinion. A ball is a ball. We can argue whether it’s red or closer to orange or really maroon or scarlet, but there’s no argument about it being a ball.

The stories that matter are built from the tangible and anchored in the concrete. Hemingway once responded to some of the reviews of “The Old Man and the Sea:” “There isn’t any symbolism. The sea is the sea. The old man is an old man. The boy is a boy and the fish is a fish. The sharks are all sharks, no better and no worse. All the symbolism that people say is shit.” He’s protesting too much, I think; I’d bet a daiquiri that he was not that oblivious to symbolism. But I do believe he meant it when he argued for the truth residing in the nouns, in the sea and the old man and the boy. Hemingway’s sentences land with conviction because we sense his discipline and integrity in stating only what he knows to be true, and all that he knows to be true, whether it’s beautiful or ugly.

Stealth exposition

Another of his remarkable skills was his ability to tell a full story by telling only part. At his best, he knew exactly how much to tell us and how much to withhold. Reading Hemingway, we feel like we create the story with him, and that’s a profound level of engagement. We’re not being told the story, we’re discovering a story, or so it feels, and he was so good at it he could be confident that we would discover the very story he meant to tell. I think of it as stealth exposition.

Most of the dialogue in “The Sun Also Rises” is banal on the surface, as is most real conversation. But the attentive reader understands all that’s unsaid, all the emotion lurking beneath the banality, and all that the characters reveal by what they can’t bring themselves to say. In “Death in the Afternoon” he wrote, “If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them.” There you have it — it’s all right there.

Leaving 80 percent of the story up to the reader, which was how Hemingway once described his technique, is a trickier proposition when you are writing nonfiction. Nobody gets hurt if the reader of a novel misconstrues what lies below the surface of the author’s prose. Journalists and other nonfiction authors can’t leave that much to implication. They need to provide more information and more corroborated fact to be conscientious and credible and responsible. But I think there are two lessons here for factual writers.

One is to gauge carefully how much information you pack into your story. A story flounders from too much detail, too much description, too much attention to the inconsequential by a writer who either has too little confidence in his or her own skill, too much fear of being challenged or doesn’t trust the reader to get the story right unless every last detail is spelled out. I usually bail out of such stories long before they end.

The other lesson — maybe not a lesson so much as an example worth following — was Hemingway’s integrity toward the story and his way of telling it. This was a man desperate to be not just a writer, but a literary lion ranked with the masters. He risked it all by investing years in developing a unique prose style and then insisting that his stories could be told no other way. Had he not enjoyed so much critical and popular affirmation early in his career, he might have surrendered and resorted to writing to please conventional taste. We’ll never know. But because he didn’t, we have Hemingway. Out of similar conviction, we have Annie Dillard and Joan Didion and Tracy Kidder and John McPhee. Tom Wolfe and Geoff Dyer. Gay Talese.

All of whom have spent their adult lives writing like they mean it.


Dale Keiger is the retired editor of Johns Hopkins Magazine and author of “The Man Who Signed the City: Portraits of Remarkable People.”

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