Thursday, September 24, 2015

Forgotten Books: The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway

If you grew up in the Forties or Fifties it was impossible to imagine that the literary luster of Ernest Hemingway would ever dim. I've never known of a writer as imitated (usually badly) as ole Papa.

He loved it. He carefully crafted the public persona of adventurer and man's man the press and the people admired and foolishly tried to emulate. Novels such as A Farewell To Arms and For Whom The Bell Tolls outsold the books of his contemporaries.

But time and taste caught up with him and we now see that Hemingway's novels weren't quite as good as we once thought. He certainly had no Gatsby to brag of nor even a Grapes of Wrath by the  Steinbeck he despised; Papa believed he was a terrible writer. For me the only Hemingway novel  worth reading now is The Sun Also Rises. It's not a great novel but it's fascinating one and much truer to the real Hemingway than the novels he wrote afterward.

But then there are the short stories. Back in the day his collected stories were referred to with great reverence as The First Forty-Nine. Many of them were reprinted dozens if not hundreds of times around the world, textbooks included. They still deserve the reverence paid them back then.

From his story of death and dying ("A Clean, Well-Lighted Place") to his sad and ironic tale of a soldier who came back from the First World War too late for the parades ("Soldier's Home:) to the stories set in Upper Michigan this is American literature at its finest. This was Hemingway before he became Papa--the confused boy-man who went to war and then set himself up in Paris to write.

In numerous stories here he proves himself the equal of Faulkner (whom he saw as his main competition--he'd already arrogantly written off his old friend (and the guy who got him his Scribner contract) Fitzgerald) in experimenting with point of view. The line, as several critics mentioned at the time, went from Stephen Crane to Mark Twain to Hemingway, that pure American voice. If you read Crane's The Blue Hotel before you reading Hemingway's Collected Stories you'll hear the echoes throughout the book.

For readers and writers alike, this is one book that should be in every serious collection. There was no more vital and powerful voice than Hemingway's in his early stories (and I don't include The Old Man And The Sea which I never much liked; way too self-consciously Important). Today they're just as pure and perfect as they were when first published. All hail Hemingway.

I'd pick this up as soon as possible.


Bill Crider said...

I really like these stories. I'm also a fan of THE SUN ALSO RISES. I agree that it's his best novel. I like the first half of TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT, which starts off as a pretty good hardboiled novel and then loses its way.

Walker Martin said...

I've read many of Hemingway's short stories more than once and agree that some of his very best work is in the short form. THE SUN ALSO RISES is definitely his best novel and one that I think is a great one, capturing the lost generation atmosphere in Europe after WW I. I've read it a half dozen times at least.

Barry Ergang said...

I read and didn't much care for The Sun Also Rises years ago. Had to read A Farewell to Arms in college and faked my way through it because I found it boring and tedious. Unlike you, Ed, I greatly enjoyed The Old Man and the Sea, which I read twice. (The movie adaptation was good, too.) And among the short stories, "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber" was a favorite.

I agree with Bill about To Have and Have Not, which was the first Hemingway novel I ever read.

Overall, I always preferred Faulkner, whom I first discovered when I read "Dry September." His style knocked me out, and I started devouring the novels. The Sound and the Fury is an all-time favorite.

Keith West said...

Like many who graduated high school in the last few decades, my education is spotty. Hemingway's short stories are part of that spottiness. I'll need to correct that. And I've never read The Sun also Rises. Need to correct that also. (But I have read For Whom the Bell Tolls.)

Graham Powell said...

I admire Hemingway's work and have his collected stories sitting on my shelf. It may be time to revisit them.

One thing I have never understood: how could a writer of such perception and sensitivity have been such a buffoon?

Richard R. said...

I like several of the novels including SUN ALSO RISES, FAREWELL TO ARMS and a personal favorite, ISLANDS IN THE STREAM. I've read the Nick Adams stories and liked them a lot, and some other of his stories, but a complete collection would be nice to have.

Mathew Paust said...

I learn something new about craft every time I read Big Two-Hearted River. Its quiet minimalism engages my imagination so subtly I find myself suddenly thirsting for absinthe and hunting for someone like Ford Madox Ford to "cut."