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Hemingway’s Fear

July 5, 2011

Hemingway’s Terror



Ernest Hemingway was a war lover, a womanizer, fight picker, a bully and a bad friend.  There is evidence that he was a racist and anti semite.  He hunted and whored and boozed and made a near religion of being manly and heroic to the point that it is really too easy to parody him with his big guns, big fishing rods and that great empty grin.  Over all of this and underlying it is the great, ever present and unrelieved terror that bore down on him every minute of every day.

There’s a lot to blame for his terror; his father committed suicide, he got shot to hell in the first world war, he learned nada face to face and was always haunted by it.

The old man seeking a lighted spot to hide from the great void in “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,”  Nick Adams unable to sleep and learning to use his imagination to dream the frightful  night away, the ants on the burning log in “A Farewell To Arms,” all direct the reader straight to the heart of Hemingway’s question: what is it and why is it so?

Back in my university days I was considered something of a Hemingway scholar being familiar with his works, his life, his critics.  Lots and lots of critical and interpreter hanger-ons, people who nit pick at his work because they can’t write themselves.  Yes that’s unfair, but then that’s Hemingway’s point.  It’s not fair, nothing is.  The race is rigged.

Back when I read the experts telling everyone what he really meant, I remember thinking how little attention was paid to his fear.  His slapstick antics in the game fields and on his boat were vastly over rated while his essence, I thought, overlooked completely.  Of course my research, like everyone’s, was imperfect and it might well be that I simply missed it. That given I have to say that Hemingway was the most fearful novelist I’ve yet found.  Futility rings through his writings like a death knell – nothing ever works, plans always go awry,  you have no chance and will die in the end.  Hemingway stared straight into the great void and was destroyed by it.  To survive he had to bury himself in shooting, women and booze for distraction and, finally, when that wasn’t good enough he blew his own head off.

In the mean time he tried to send honest messages from the darkness.

He learned his truth in a war back when war was still considered a glorious affair and any doubting of it cowardice.  Way back before the beats or goths or anyone else knew that normal life was a farce falling apart at the slightest shake, a pretty dream dreamed in the face of the great, universal nothing.  The standard dream didn’t work for him after WWI and he tried to build his own at prize fights and bull rings, but he couldn’t carry it off forever and when his dream failed there was no other choice but the shotgun.  For Hemingway the truth was unlivable.

But out of this came what I still believe is the finest writing ever committed by an American author.  One of the most common complaints was that Hemingway was too shallow, not having philosophical or psychological finesse.  I think this is exactly wrong.  Hemingway was concerned with the deepest of questions and the educated elite were foxed by his simple language.  Hemingway took no great stances or offered answers because he never found them.  Neither do his characters.  They all just do the best they can and often find destruction.

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