Why Hemingway

(A letter to my students.)

Each year we read several of his short stories. I chose the shorter works not for practical reasons but because Hemingway's gift for economy and insight weakens as his stories lengthen. While there are exceptions, particularly The Old Man and the Sea and The Sun Also Rises, it is likely that his immortality as a writer will lie in his short stories. These are stories to be carried throughout your life. Being often very short, they can be revisited in the liminal moments of your adult life. Read "Indian Camp" as your son gets older or your father begins to struggle with mortality. It will take ten minutes. Read "Hills Like White Elephants" after a fight with your spouse or the end of an affair. Read "The Killers" while on the road at night -- you will call home for reassurance. Read "Big Two-Hearted River Part One" when seeking a cure. Finally, as mortality swings into view, sit down with "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" and try to answer the question about the leopard.

Do not get caught up in the lack of political correctness that follows Hemingway into English Departments and book clubs everywhere. A good writer does not have to be a good guy. In fact, being too good a guy might be a precondition to not being a great writer. The good news is that time heals all wounds. By the time you are well into your adulthood, Hemingway will be long dead, his life story will be increasingly irrelevant but his writings, particularly his short stories, will endure. While time gradually erases the good writer, it slowly memorializes and preserves the great ones. In the end, every great artist wants to create works that outlive the often ordinary or even unsavory facts of his or her own life. Of course, the footnote to this with Hemingway is his dramatic suicide. While certainly driven by many motives ranging from pain to depression, ending his life with such an exclamation point may make time's usual erasure less complete.

When revisiting his stories, remember a couple contextual frameworks we employed as we pursued Ernest through the wilds of his mostly adjective free world. His mother dressed him in girl's clothes well into his childhood. This is an effective if very temporary antidote, like a lozenge to a sore throat, to his relentless message that "a man's got to do what a man's got to do." Next, the iceberg reveals all. He wrote in order to attract attention to what is NOT said. He believed that we all live a life resembling an iceberg with the facts, the noise of our life, on the surface for all the world to see but its real meaning, while attached to our daily life, remains submerged within the darker folds of thought, dreams and art. He sought war and peril as ways to illuminate the darker depths of the human condition. Just as the iceberg itself preserves the air and water within it, his structure preserves the timelessness of his art. While the profound poignancy of "Indian Camp" is explicitly framed in the boy's speculation in the last line that "he felt quite sure he would never die," the "iceberg" moment lies in the line in the previous paragraph with Nick in the boat with his father, his life forever marked by the events of the Indian camp, watching "the sun ... coming up over the hills" while a "bass jumped, making a circle in the water." The simple ordinary beauty of the description preserves all that the story suggests, all that must be in one form or another going through Nick's young mind.

Recently, I came home from school after a troubling day wondering if there could be life after the classroom. As I let our small dogs out into the backyard, I yearned for a cigarette to help burn my way through my doubts and fears. Meanwhile, off to the right, the youngest dog, only one year old, a female with endless spirit if not a lot of intelligence, was chasing a small shadow on the lawn. Pouncing away, she was trying to catch the shadow of a large butterfly that was darting just above her. I no longer needed the cigarette. While I certainly did not feel like I "would never die," the terrors of the day retreated into the shadow play of a puppy and a butterfly. Whether it be the word "fine" at the end of "Hills Like White Elephants", the apricot can in "Big Two Hearted River Part One" or the bass in "Indian Camp", at his best Hemingway, in his starkly framed, carefully polished words offers you linguistic prayer stones to be rubbed smooth over the years of your life.