Hemingway Among the Modernists: Hemingway the Modernist

This is Part 3 (of 5) of my essay, “Hemingway Among the Modernists,” which was originally a lecture I gave at the request of the Hemingway Foundation on July 21, 2012.

The case for placing Hemingway, in his formative years, among the early Modernists does not lie primarily in the poetry he published. Through the offices of Pound, the “overseas correspondent” to Poetry, Hemingway corresponded politely with Harriet Monroe and published his first poems, six of them, in the January 1923 number of the magazine. They are the work of an apprentice writer searching for modes of expression. Some of the poems try out the use of rhyme and meter, others not.

The age demanded that we sing
And cut away the tongue.

The age demanded that we flow
And hammered in the bung.

The age demanded that we dance
And jammed us into iron pants.

And in the end the age was handed
The sort of shit that it demanded.

Another poem parodies Stein’s technique of repetition.

In the rain in the rain in the rain in the rain in Spain.
Does it rain in Spain?

Running through this group of poems is the acerbic wit and sarcasm common to the juvenilia of many a young writer.

Home is where the heart is, home is where the fart is.

Or The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want him for long.

Hemingway scholars have gathered 88 poems in all, from his juvenilia, the little magazines, and his posthumous papers. Most of those — 73 of the 88 — were written by 1929, when his last published poem appeared. Hemingway often disparaged his poetry, calling it “obscene.” When possible he warded critics away from it. Edmund Wilson, an early reviewer of Hemingway, wrote: “The poems are not particularly important, but his prose is of the first distinction.” Generations of literary critics have not altered that view. Hemingway soon left conventional poetry for prose, as the better medium for what he was learning to do. And what he was learning to do was Modernist in both technique and outlook. The Hemingway style is perhaps most known for its economy and appearance of simplicity.

In the morning the sun was up and the tent was starting to get hot. Nick crawled out under the mosquito netting stretched across the mouth of the tent, to look at the morning. The grass was wet on his hands as he came out. He held his trousers and his shoes in his hands. The sun was just up over the hill. There was the meadow, the river and the swamp. There were birch trees in the green of the swamp on the other side of the river.

This paragraph opens “Big Two-Hearted River Part II,” one of the famous short stories set in the northern Michigan of Hemingway’s boyhood. Published in 1925, it was written in the author’s Paris years, a remarkably fecund decade that saw the publication of The Sun Also Rises, two collections of short stories, and A Farewell to Arms. The prose in this sample is unadorned, declarative, spare. It reflects Pound’s principle of concision: “Use no word not in support of the thing.” Its emphasis on nouns reflects William Carlos Williams: “No ideas but in things.” But the Hemingway style is not just the product of Modernist admonitions on how to write; the style is central to the purposes of this artist. The language is nearly devoid of modifiers — adjectives and adverbs — because Hemingway, I think, mistrusted them as a kind of stage direction that coached the reader on how to see what the prose placed before him. Too many supporting words would amount to a kind of manipulation of the reader by the writer. Hemingway used language in his prose not to persuade but to reveal. For the same reason, the narrator all but disappears in Hemingway. A page of Hemingway’s fiction is not a window on the narrator’s mind, but a transparent window onto something else — people and objects and events in the external world of the story. The role of Hemingway’s narrator is not to interpret events for the reader, but to present them in such a way that they act upon the reader as they act upon the characters.

Here again, there is more to Hemingway’s strict economy of style than just principles of sound writing. He uses severe understatement to create — or recreate — tension in his stories. By telling us not quite enough about what is going on, the technique replicates in the reader the uncertainty and tension the characters feel. The story is impelled forward by an incompletion that parallels the irresolution that is what the story is really about. The technique makes Hemingway not only a good storyteller but an effective dramatist.

Modernism in literature can be thought of as a musical revolution. A good poem from any period in literary history is aware of the sound it makes when read aloud. A poem that lies flat on the page and reads only to the eye is a lesser poem or no poem at all because it fails to employ a major resource of language — its spoken sound — to develop meaning and impact in the poem. Modernist poets were no less concerned than classical poets to make a poem that was an event of the ear, but their free verse did so without reference to the formal structures of meter and rhyme. (Frost famously said that writing free verse was like playing tennis without the net. But he too was a Modernist in asserting the primacy of sound as a source of meaning: “The possibilities for tune from the dramatic tones of meaning struck across the rigidity of a limited metre are endless.”)

Hemingway’s prose, like the free verse of the Modernists, is fully alert to the sound of its language and its potential to enhance meaning.

It was raining. The rain dripped from the palm trees. Water stood in pools on the gravel paths. The sea broke in a long line in the rain and slipped back down the beach to come up and break again in a long line in the rain.

We hear the repetition of words (“rain” four times) and of whole phrases (“a long line in the rain”); the repetition of alliteration (“pools on the gravel paths”); the repetitions of near-rhyme or para-rhyme (line, rain, down, again). The verbs, as betokens action, have sharpened sounds (dripped, stood, broke, slipped, break) but all else is legato, susurrus. (Let me read it again.) These four sentences, from the opening of “Cat in the Rain,” foretell the monotony and the closed system of the two lives this very short story (three pages) is about to reveal. I find it impossible to say that this author is not writing in “sound” as much as in “substance” — or rather, writing in “sound” as his means to “substance.” Hemingway’s prose and Modernist free verse are kissing cousins. Hemingway’s true poetry was not so much in the poems he published in Poetry or wrote for himself, but in his prose. “The secret,” he said of his prose, “is that it is poetry written into prose and it is the hardest of all things to do.”

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