Does a Writer Know Anyone Better?

When a writer writes what does he or she write about? The source of the of inspiration must come from somewhere. The material found in fictional literature is drawn, more often than not, from the authors hopes, fears, and desires. The bulk of material is life, what is seen or experienced. So it is with the fiction of Ernest Hemingway. When Hemingway was asked if he wrote about himself, he answered squarely, “Does a writer know anyone better?” (Donaldson Introduction xi). Of course, he writes about himself but it is not fair to say that every major character or story in his cannon is a microcosm of Hemingway or his life. It is reasonably concluded, however, that Hemingway’s opinions and views on life can be read out of his fiction (xi).
In By Force of Will, Scott Donaldson “set out to discover and record . . . a mosaic of [Hemingway’s] mind and personality, of the sort of man he was” (xi). By compiling the life and literary story of his life and interaction with others, Donaldson sets forth an intriguing insight to the artist’s craft. Hemingway wrote of the things he learned, saw, lived, and was. He wrote with hard, cold, concrete images and his fictions took on the responsibilities of reality. In return, in his work, reality was just as hard, cold, and concrete as his images.

The world of “nada” in “A Clean Well Lighted Place” is an obvious example of Hemingway’s iconoclastic views. To face the chaos and to attempt to override it as an individual is the essential interest of Hemingway in this piece. The view that it was heroic for Hemingway was that only a person himself could overcome the great void and prevail with composure and this is only done by holding true to oneself and unique identity. It is also an existentialist view. Donaldson contends that Hemingway was not philosophical to the degree that it was his purpose to express this existentialist view in this story. Rather, Hemingway was relaying on his reporter stance to tell the truths of what he observed (Donaldson 234).

As storyteller, Hemingway aimed to communicate lessons to his readers. Stories such as “The Good Lion” and “The Faithful Bull” are only simple examples of this. Often considered his lesser works, their simplistic and childish charm makes their purpose as a fable noticeable. But making the moral of a story blightingly clear was not Hemingway’s style. Hemingway believed in the “principle of the iceberg . . . there is seven eighths of it under water for every part that shows . . . and it only strengthens your iceberg” (Hemingway qtd in Donaldson 245). A good example of Hemingway exercising this technique is in examining In Our Time. The second chapter alone was reduced from two-hundred and forty-one words and containing thirty adjectives eventually to one hundred and thirty-two words and ten adjectives (Donaldson 245). “The Killers” is another example of this as the author did away with a thousand words (203). The absence of these critical details translate into the story he is really telling. What is obvious is subtracted and what is fundamental becomes stronger.

“Big Two-Hearted River” is a wonderful example of Hemingway’s iceberg in perfect condition. When the narrator notes that Nick’s “mind was starting to work” for instance, underneath the water the iceberg settles that his mind was not working before and why that is true (Hemingway 169). And only when “the swamp was perfectly quiet,” does Nick sleep (Hemingway 169). Of course, the war is not mentioned directly in the story, but the “slow, careful, ritualistic way of working and fishing and eating in the story” justify the recovery of a wounded soul (Donaldson 245). The volume of Hemingway’s strategy includes a conscious decision to individualize each character or part of a character’s life by what is not told or not told completely and incorporate into this the scheme of code or of code-breaking.

When Hemingway set a learning situation for his protagonist, the code-breaking consequence was usually deadly. The stories of war, bullfighting, boxing and hunting are the prime examples that demonstrate Hemingway’s opinion on the way things should be done. His view of the code was more than just what should be done, often times it was the way things had to be done in order to survive. As a sportsman-tutor, he expected as much from his readers as his father had of him when Ernest “avidly mastered those lessons Dr. Hemingway first taught him on the prairie north of Oak Park and in the wilderness of upper Michigan” (83). Clearly, he remembered them well. He wrote about the pastimes that were also very prominent influences in his life. He knew them well and he proved it with his precise descriptions and absolute attitude to the way things should be.

In “The Undefeated,” Zurito and Manuel embody the codes of the bullfighting that they participate in. Zurito is the role model and father figure, if you will, as he is cautious and knowing especially during the fighting scene. Zurito sits calmly patting his horse and watching. He is as much a part of this sport as it is of him because “he felt the moment when the horse was clear . . . ” ( italics added, Hemingway 194). His actions are carefully planed and as easily delivered as if it were second nature for him. The severity of Manuel’s responsibilities in the bullfighting ring makes him absolutely require a code. It is do or die in Manuel’s position. His movements were deliberate and precise when he “side-stepped, swung the cape in back of him, and pivoted, so the bull followed a swirl of cape” (Hemingway 196). Manuel knew the crucialness of his actions and the consequences if he slipped or failed. Hemingway once said “The bullfighters that do it for money are worthless . . . The only one that matters is the bullfighter who feels it, so that if he did it for nothing, he would do it as well” (Hemingway qtd. In Donaldson 53). This is the essence of Manuel who does it for himself as he tells Zurito, “I got to do it . . . I got to stick with it, Manos” (Hemingway 189). It is not devastating at the end, however, he will die in the few pages that Hemingway did not continue on to write, but it will be with dignity and pride. A point that surfaces time and again, no doubt the manner in which Hemingway himself would wish to go.

The element of code was most certainly found in the fiction of Ernest Hemingway in association with an ideal and macho hero when the code was followed and with a lowlife if it was not. Donaldson contends that “the ideal male behavior, for Ernest Hemingway, jibes almost exactly with the images of the macho as Octavio Paz describes it in The Labyrinth of Solitude. The macho is a stoical creature, capable of magnificent feats of bravery or endurance in the face of adversity” (188). This is seen in stories such as “The Killers” when Ole Anderson waits, fully aware of what is coming to him, intact and with composure. This instance is much different from Harry in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” who knew had many writing resources to draw on and knew “he had been in it and he had watched it and it was his duty to write of it; but now he never would” (Hemingway 49). This is the difference between having code and being code. Surely, Harry is an example of how Hemingway personally did not want to die.

Death is what is at the end of every story, eventually and the process and manner by which it is reached proves to be a major concern for Hemingway. Donaldson asserts that Hemingway “courted his danger, whether acquired vicariously while watching bullfights, or closer at hand while big-game hunting, . . . but nowhere more persistently than under combat conditions” (133). Hemingway certainly did have a fascination for the world of war. The battles, the aftermath, and mostly the way it affected the participants all show as some of his most masterful works.

Although Hemingway did not fall under the “patriotic” category when it came to having faith in politicians who made the war, he did believe that “wars are fought by the finest people” and that “the closer you are to where they are fighting, the finer people you meet” (Hemingway qtd in Donaldson 130). The war, as it was known by the fine people is the subject of a number of short stories including that of Nick Adams.

Nick, Hemingway’s most developed character is a young man who is put through the traumas of the war. Again, the life-changing experiences of Hemingway’s own war blow. The front is where romanticized war is gunned down is where disillusionments set in. An uneasy awakening for Nick, and even more so for his creator. In “Now I Lay Me” and “The Way You’ll Never Be,” Hemingway allows Nick to function as an example of many solders including Hemingway himself. Nick exhibited the fear of the dark and of over thinking that plagued Hemingway. Nick says that he “can’t sleep without a light of some sort” (Hemingway 309). The fact is, that Hemingway also had a fear of the dark that Donaldson says lasted for at least forty years of Hemingway’s life (137). Hemingway also feared his “soul would fly out of his body like a handkerchief” just as it is expressed by Adams in “Now I Lay Me” (126). The impression the war left on Hemingway was not merely a physical wound and he goes out of his way to see that his readers get this straight about his war-time characters.

The art of Ernest Hemingway took on the responsibilities of reality but it was still fiction. Hemingway proved his detachment from his life and his work with relentlessly harsh standard set for his Heroes. Donaldson maintains that Hemingway set forth a standard of courage which anyone, including himself, would find it difficult to live up to” (137). Hemingway created what was his ideal courage and dignity in his short stories. His vision was set apart from the ordinary in his time. He was a writer of ideals and anti ideals. His voice was loud and undeniable. As Donaldson says Hemingway was “confronting the world beyond its boarders” (224).

As any writer does, Hemingway drew from his life the material which he formed into short stories that delver biting truths. Not a lofty, wordy or complicated writer, Hemingway wrote what was and utilized his experiences as “reporter” to bring it into the an objective light. His problems came with depression and paranoia. Donaldson explains that “after a lifetime of exorcising real demons, Hemingway succumbed to a succession of imaginary ones” (304). But Hemingway will not be soon forgotten. His work is deservingly regarded as “one of the most enduring accomplishments ” of the century (Donaldson 305). His morals are timeless and his spirit courageous.

Donaldson, Scott. By Force of Will. New York: Viking Press. 1977.

Hemingway, Ernest. The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway: The Finca Vigia Edition. New York: Collier. 1987. 111-116.

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