The Old Man and the Sea, A Farewell to Arms and the short stories of Ernest Hemingway are old friends. So when I recently saw Ken Burns’ three-night documentary on Ernest Hemingway, I was reminded that maybe this would be a good time to visit with them again.
When it comes to Ernest Hemingway, I don’t love him because he loved bullfighting. I don’t love him because he loved fishing and hunting. I don’t love him because he wanted to out-macho every man, and many of the women, he met. And he was always drinking, drinking, drinking.
Many of us have seen or heard the quote mis-attributed to Hemingway, “Write drunk, edit sober.” Who could write drunk the way Hemingway wrote? Nobody, not even Papa Hemingway. Whoever came up with that that quote did not know Hemingway very well.
That was the lifestyle, the celebrity, the legend. That’s why so many readers and so many critics find fault with him. They’re criticizing his lifestyle and the subjects he chose to write about.
For me, it’s the writing. It is the writing that makes Hemingway Hemingway. From the first time I read The Old Man and the Sea, I loved how he could word a sentence.
When Gabriel Garcia Marquez saw Hemingway in Paris in the late 1950s, he could think of only one word to honor Hemingway with. “Maestro.” That was how much Hemingway and his sentences meant to Garcia Marquez. He was saying what the many writers would want to say to their Papa. Of Hemingway, Joan Didion once wrote in the New Yorker, “This was a man to whom words mattered.”
He preferred the basic Anglo-Saxon words of the English language over the Latinized words the English stole from the French. He wrote simple declarative sentences with strong nouns and even stronger verbs.
When he began writing with that style, it was a new way for writers to speak to American readers. Studying Cezanne and sitting at the feet of Gertrude Stein, the young Hemingway took on a literature that was loaded with fancy-dancy words and overly descriptive adjectives and gave writers a new way to speak to an audience.
Because words mattered to Hemingway, he was constantly in search of the “one true sentence.” Ask any writer who cares about their craft. They will tell you what a young writer told his agent, according to Francine Prose in her wonderful Reading Like a Writer. “What he really cared about, what he wanted most of all was to write…really great sentences.”
Later Prose writes, “I’ll hear writers say that there are other writers they would read if for no other reason than to marvel at the skill with which they can put together the sort of sentences that move us…”
Those are the kind of sentences Hemingway wrote. Again and again and again. And it’s why writers pay attention.
Just read the opening paragraph of A Farewell to Arms. “In the late summer of that year we lived in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.” Wonderful.
In the opening of Hills Like White Elephants, ” It’s the same poetic rhythm: “The hills across the valley of the Ebro were long and white. On this side there was no shade and no trees and the station was between two lines of rails in the sun. Close against the side of the station there was the warm shadow of the building and a curtain, made of strings of bamboo beads hung across the open door to keep out flies. The American and the girl with him sat at a table in the shade, outside the building.” So specific, so descriptive.
He can summarize a story in the opening sentence such as the one that opens the short story, The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber. “It was now lunch time and they were all sitting under the double green fly of the dining tent pretending that nothing had happened.” Again and again there is a magic to his writing that few others can give me.
Or the opening sentence of The Old Man and the Sea: “He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.”
God, I love those sentences.