BookStories: Hemingway, a man of few words

I am an old man. My hands are scarred. I type words. The pain is great.

click to enlarge A proliferation of Hemingway - Ben Wiley
Ben Wiley
A proliferation of Hemingway

You can always tell when a collector, or hoarder, has given up the ghost and his or her collection of books has been donated to the Friends bookstore. We got in dozens of books on orchids, another time a huge load of WWII histories, then there's the collection of James "All Creatures Great and Small" Herriot books, and let’s not even mention the thousands of National Geographics the grieving widow has finally been freed to toss our way.

Likewise, we recently received a huge cache of Ernest Hemingway books — novels, short story collections, biographies, academic criticism, travel and drinking, hunting and drinking, bull-fighting and drinking, offsprings' exposés, ex-wives memoirs. For a man who’s had hundreds and hundreds of books written about him, with millions of words dedicated to explaining his life and his writing style, Hemingway himself was a man of very few words. It may be apocryphal, but it is said that Hemingway once had a wager with other writers around the bar that he could craft an entire story in six words. They took on the challenge. 

Hemingway won the bet when he scribbled on a piece of paper these brief sentences: For Sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.

In fact, the Hemingway style has come to mean short words and succinct dialogue, with the briefest of character background, prose that’s abruptly terse and unadorned, often stating the obvious, all supposedly honed for effect from his early career as a journalist.

“A writer’s style,” he said, “should be direct and personal, his imagery rich and earthy, and his words simple and vigorous.” And right or wrong, Hemingway’s laconic style has come to be equated with gruff masculinity. It’s manly to be clipped and blunt. Too many words diminish the drive and dry up the juices, don’t you know?

Of course, such a style is ripe for parody too. There is even an International Imitation Hemingway Competition. So if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, think how much the writer of this winning entry admires Papa Hemingway:  “It was now morning and he was in the bathroom shaving, shaving for the first time that day but not the last, no, never the last; the hairs kept coming, tiny hairs and black and there was nothing for it, nothing for it at all but shaving, razor bright-edged clean on skin and cutting through the hairs and the soap and the dead dried cells of epidermis in that clean well-lighted place. There were the hairs and he was shaving because a man shaves. Main thing a man did. Made him into a man.”

And another parody that makes fun of Hemingway's tendency — when he's not brief and abrupt —just to string lots of clauses together: 

"So you had to get rid of the flowery prepositional phrases and the big comfortable words and go in stripped naked except for the one weapon you were allowed to take in with you: the word and. You were allowed to use that to make a sentence longer if you wanted to and then it would look braver and more able to survive. You could, if you really wanted to, put in a lot of ands, and they didn't count, and with luck the sentence never had to end, you could go on and on, and tell the story that a man had to tell and say what had to be said about birth and love and death and whoring and women and whiskey, and do that with grace or arrogance or cynicism or however you wanted to do it, and never worry about whether the parts of your story really made any sense or even whether they went together syntactically, because ultimately the middle of a long sentence is like the middle of an ocean, you will have lost sight of both the shore that is behind you and the one that is ahead of you but in the end it doesn't matter because you are here except finally you are talked out and you don't want to say any more, or you have no more time for it and it is not good in you, but you don't know how to stop anymore, to turn the writing off and let the damned sentence die the death that it was meant to die. . . ."

Hemingway struggled to keep his writing pure, and not end up as a parody of himself. 

“I write one page of masterpiece to ninety-one pages of shit,” he confided to F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1934. “I try to put the shit in the wastebasket.”

Defending his preference for the pithy, Hemingway once observed, “It wasn’t by accident that the Gettysburg Address was so short. The laws of prose writing are as immutable as those of flight, of mathematics, of physics.”

Who can argue with that? Lincoln himself was the master at saying much in few words.

click to enlarge James Herriot, all books great and small - Ben Wiley
Ben Wiley
James Herriot, all books great and small

Ben Wiley, one of our Creative Loafing film reviewers, is also an advocate for paper and print. Dead trees, if you will. He volunteers at a local library bookstore and enjoys engaging with readers and their books. Our series BookStories will highlight some of these Ben, Book & Beyond encounters. Contact him here.


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Ben Wiley

%{[ data-embed-type="image" data-embed-id="59a99bae38ab46e8230492c5" data-embed-element="span" data-embed-size="640w" contenteditable="false" ]}%Ben Wiley is a retired professor of FILM and LITERATURE at St. Petersburg College. He also was on staff in the Study Abroad Office at University of South Florida as statewide...
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