A River Runs Through Him

It’s Ernest Hemingway’s birthday.  Please read the sketch of his life and career offered to us by the researchers at The Writer’s Almanac.  It’s about as good a short essay on him as you’re likely to find anywhere.

For a long time I didn’t like Hemingway.  I didn’t like his drinking, his posing, his faux machismo–the whole Hemingway mystique.  But then, I got to reading him, really reading him, because I had to teach a Fiction class.  Talent–actual talent–makes everybody shut the hell up, and Hemingway shut me up good.  The directness of his style, easy to parody but impossible to duplicate, masks the complexity of his thought.  Few writers have been as good as he was in depicting the “he-and-she of it” in human relationships with such minimal phrasing.  Everyone who reads him has a favorite story or novel but, for my money, the best work he ever did was in For Whom The Bell Tolls and the short story, “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” a story with as much guts in it about love and hate as any American ever wrote.

Hemingway was reported to have said, “All of American literature comes from a single book: Huckleberry Finn.”  That may be true.  In our longing to be free and easy with each other, in our moral anxiety over issues black and white, in our communal sense of guilt over the violence of our country’s past, Huckleberry Finn may be our book.  But if Mark Twain took us out of our childhood and gave American literature its adult voice in that book, though most of its words were spoken by a boy, Hemingway was just as much Twain’s descendant as anyone.  The masculinity of the Hemingway hero–the fellow who goes off to fight in the Spanish Civil War, or takes an African safari, or fights a bull or a fish–may be traced to Huck and Jim on that raft, floating down the Mississippi.  The Hemingway hero’s desire for freedom, always in conflict with his sense of duty and responsibility, may also be traced to the feeling of liberation Huck and Jim have on the river, and the struggle Huck has over what to do about his friend–including the defiant choice he makes (“All right, then, I’ll go to Hell”)–has as its elegiac backdrop the elusive, winding river upon which they–and we–have been unable to stay.

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