Hemingway Among the Modernists

This is Part 1 (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.

On this day in 1899, Ernest Hemingway entered a world that was itself entering a new century. What lay in the future for both were things unknown to history: wars of unprecedented lethality; a competition of political systems — Fascism, Communism, monarchy, democracy — that upended the old world order. Hemingway’s great achievement was to write the new reality of his century. To do so, he had to create a new kind of writing; so successful was his art that it permeates the prose we write today. Nobody tries to write like Joyce, but all of us, at some point, have tried to write like Hemingway.

I should be clear at the outset about what the Hemingway Foundation has asked me to do, and what I have been able to do. Your invitation is to an evening “to honor Hemingway’s poetry, the art form he practiced before he mastered prose.” In honoring this writer, I hope also to persuade you that the traditional distinction between poetry and prose does not apply for Hemingway. “Nobody really knows or understands and nobody has ever said the secret,” he wrote to his last wife, Mary. “The secret is that it is poetry written into prose and it is the hardest of all things to do.”

Wallace Stevens saw early that it takes a new art to capture a new reality.

They said, “You have a blue guitar,

You do not play things as they are.”

The man replied, “Things as they are

Are changed upon the blue guitar.”

And they said then, “But play you must,

A tune beyond us, yet ourselves,

A tune upon the blue guitar

Of things exactly as they are.

Hemingway put it more personally.

But sometimes when I was started on a new story and I could not get going, I would sit in front of the fire and squeeze the peel of the little oranges into the edge of the flame and watch the sputter of blue that they made. I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, “Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.”

This year also marks another literary birthday — in fact, a centennial. In 1912, the Chicago poet Harriet Monroe launched a little magazine. Dedicated to printing “the best poetry written today, in whatever style, genre, or approach,” Poetry went on to publish, often for their first appearance in print, virtually every significant poet of the 20th century. In a hundred years the monthly has never missed an issue, and today continues to discover and celebrate the best in American poetry. The magazine was important to Hemingway as one of his first publishing venues: a young writer in a young magazine, both still in their formative years, both coming of age in the literary movement that came to be known as Modernism. On behalf of the Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry, I thank the Hemingway Museum for spotting this convergence of birthdays, and for this invitation to speak to you today about “Hemingway Among the Modernists.”

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