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Hemingway: The Conquest of Panic

What was in Hemingway’s writing that enabled him to command the loyalty of a generation?

Earl Theisen Collection / Getty

Now that he is dead and nothing remains but a few books and the problem of his dying, perhaps we should ask the simplest, most radical of questions: what was there in Hemingway’s writing that enabled him to command the loyalty of a generation? Even those of us who disliked some of his work and most of his posture, why did we too feel compelled to acknowledge the strength and resonance of his voice?

Answering such questions can never be easy, and with Hemingway, master that he is of false leads and distracting personnae, it demands a touch of ruthlessness. The usual business of literary criticism will yield only limited returns, for if you were to spend the next decade studying the narrative techniques of his stories you would still be far from the sources of his power. Most of his late work was bad. Papa gone soft, desperately in search of the image of self he had made in his youth. The Old Man and the Sea—a confection of synthetic wisdom, an exercise in pidgin-classicism, a parody of composure and lilt. Across the River and Into the Trees—the swagger of a failing conqueror, all garrulous and fantasy, but as a personal revelation unbearably sad, the pose crumbling, the terror of getting old finally breaking past his guard.

For the past twenty years the public Hemingway, who cannot after all be so readily separated from Hemingway, was a tiresome man. The old African hunter, the connoisseur of bulls, women and wars, the experience-dropper, was a show-off who had stopped watching the audience to see if it remained interested. Nothing more cruel has happened to an American writer than the Lillian Ross interview in a 1950 New Yorker: a smear of vanity and petulance that only a journalistic Delilah would have put into print. Miss Ross, a few days ago, wrote in anger to say that Hemingway had approved her article, and one believes her implicitly. That is just the trouble. Years earlier Hemingway had written, “Something happens to our good writers at a certain age. . . .” Yes; they devote the first half of their lives to imitating human experience and the second to parodying their imitation.

But there was another Hemingway. He was always a young writer, and always a writer for the young. He published his best novel The Sun Also Rises in his mid-twenties and completed most of his great stories by the age of forty. He started a campaign of terror against the fixed vocabulary of literature, a purge of style and pomp, and in the name of naturalness he modeled a new artifice for tension. He was a short-breathed writer, whether in the novel or story. He struck past the barriers of culture and seemed to disregard the reticence of civilized relationships. He wrote for the nerves.

In his very first stories Hemingway struck straight to the heart of our nihilism, writing with that marvelous courage he then had, which allowed him to brush past received ideas and show Nick Adams alone, bewildered, afraid and bored, Nick Adams finding his bit of peace through fishing with an exact salvaging ritual in the big two-hearted river. Hemingway struck straight to the heart of our nihilism through stories about people who have come to the end of the line, who no longer know what to do or where to turn: nihilism not as an idea or a sentiment, but as an encompassing condition of moral disarray in which one has lost those tacit impulsions which permit life to continue and suddenly begins to ask questions that would better be left unasked. There is a truth which makes our faith in human existence seem absurd, and no one need contemplate it for very long: Hemingway, in his early writing, did. Nick Adams, Jake Barnes, Lady Brett, Frederick Henry, and then the prizefighters, matadors, rich Americans and failed writers: all are at the edge, almost ready to surrender and be done with it, yet holding on to whatever fragment of morale, whatever scrap of honor, they can. Theirs is the heroism of people who have long ago given up the idea of being heroic and wish only to get by without being too messy.

It has been said that Hemingway, obsessed with the problem of fear, sought in his fiction for strategies to overcome it; and that is true, but only partly so. Hemingway was not so foolish as to suppose that fear can finally be overcome: all his best stories, from “Fifty Grand” to “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” are concerned to improvise a momentary truce in the hopeless encounter with fear. Hemingway touched upon something deeper, something that broke forth in his fiction as the most personal and lonely kind of experience but was formed by the pressure of 20th Century history. His great subject, I think, was panic, the panic that follows, so to speak, upon the dissolution of nihilism into the blood-stream of consciousness, the panic that finds unbearable the thought of the next minute and its succession by the minute after that. And we ail know this experience, even if, unlike Jake Barnes, we can sleep at night: we know it because it is part of modern life, perhaps of any life, but also because Hemingway drove it fearlessly into our awareness.

But there was more. Hemingway’s early fiction made his readers turn in upon themselves with the pain of measurement and consider the question of their sufficiency as men. He touched the quick of our anxieties, and for the moment of his excellence he stood ready to face whatever he saw. The compulsive stylization of his prose was a way of letting the language tense and retense, group and regroup, while beneath it the panic that had taken hold of the characters and then of the read- er kept spreading inexorably. The prose served both as barrier and principle of contrast to that shapelessness which is panic by definition, and through its very tautness allowed the reader finally to establish some distance and then perhaps compassion.

This Hemingway forced us to ask whether as men we had retained any thrust and will, any unbreakable pride. He asked this question in the most fundamental sexual way, moving from the desperateness of The Sun Also Rises to the comforts but also final return to bleakness in Farewell to Arms, from the sleeping-bag fantasia — with Maria as a sort of Fayaway with politics — of For Whom the Bell Tolls to the boozy ruminations of Across the River and Into the Trees. But he also asked the question in other ways.

The poet John Berryman once said that we live in a culture where a man can go through his entire life without having once to discover whether he is a coward. Hemingway forced his readers to consider such possibilities, and through the clenched shape of his stories he kept insisting that no one can escape, moments of truth come to all of us. Fatalistic as they often seem, immersed in images of violence and death, his stories are actually incitements to personal resistance and renewal. Reading them, one felt stirred to a stronger sense — if not of one’s possible freedom then at least of one’s possible endurance and companionship in stoicism.

Hemingway’s vision was narrow. It was, as an Italian critic has remarked, “a brilliant half-vision of life,” in which a whole range of behavior, not least of all the behavior of man thinking, was left out. But there were moments when he wrote with a sudden enlarged sensibility, so that one forgot the limits of his stance and style, feeling that here, for these few pages, one was in the presence of a great writer. There is a little story called “A Clean Well-Lighted Place” and a passage in that story where the older waiter explains to the younger one that he must be patient with the homeless men sitting in the cafe, because everyone needs a clean well-lighted place in which to stare at his aloneness. I cannot imagine that this story will ever be forgotten.