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The Hemingway Dilemma

Jonathan Dagher By Jonathan Dagher Published on November 12, 2015

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The essences of art, literature and truth are difficult to separate. “Write the truest sentence that you know” was Hemingway’s advice to writers. But does this call for unalloyed sincerity exonerate the novelist from accusations he has received from feminist critics?

The American novelist misrepresents women: such is the main accusation. His writing is patriarchal and his women tainted with the sexist brush of masculine fantasy. Take A Farewell to Arms. Both the literal and metaphorical reasons of Catherine Barkley’s death in the novel revolve around her being a woman

In Soldier’s Home, he explains his preference of women who came from France and Germany because they were quieter. The Sun Also Rises tells the story of the Spanish war from the point of view of Jake Barnes, who does have a female symmetrical, Lady Brett Ashley. She is good for almost one thing: sex. In Hemingway’s world of men and their opinions, Brett Ashley is a stereotype. Or so many readers believe.

It is a popular impression of Ernest Hemingway, whose literary career is an assortment of wars, bull-fighting and hunting, that the man had harbored sexist feelings.

But what do we make of that? At cursive glance, we find three reasonable ways of dealing with the controversy in Hemingway’s writing and in literature in general.

Take Hemingway: The first solution would be to ignore the political incorrectness of his work. To choose to overlook anti-feminist content and to praise Hemingway’s work for its remaining merits only: his novels are, after all, pioneers of modern literature.

His prose revolutionized the literature of the 1920s and moved the written word from the elaborate style of long descriptive passages, to the iceberg technique. His writing employs short, stunted sentences to create tension. Simple diction and brief but poignant dialogue have become indicators of the author’s style. Hemingway’s post-war ideals have fueled the art world with ideals of individualism, antiwar rhetoric, and the de-glorification of murder and heroism. It would be unfair to disregard all that because of his views on women. For this reason, it might seem wiser from a critical point of view, to simply choose to overlook the text’s misogynistic context and read the books nonetheless. To shut the feminist up, in other words.

A second solution would be to reject his work in its entirety. To boycott it, as Ms Moberley Luger, an angry publisher from Peacock and Peacock , did.

The editor had taken great offense after reading the manuscript of The Sun Also Rises. Her rejection letter informs Hemingway that Ms. Luger had refused to publish his manuscript: “If I may be frank, Mr. Hemingway” she says, “— you certainly are [frank] in your prose — I found your efforts to be both tedious and offensive. You really are a man’s man, aren’t you?” Her harshness is unorthodox but effective nonetheless. In her outrage, the publisher was blatant in giving Hemingway a piece of her mind. It is ironic, however, that Ms. Luger, who had acknowledged the similarities of her frankness to Hemingway’s, had chosen to use his style against him, while still failing to understand the importance of said style.

Frankness is insulting. As members of society, we filter our most honest thoughts in fear of offending. We keep to ourselves, or formulate outright lies to protect ourselves and each other. We are inclined to shy away and keep a distance from those who speak their minds without consideration.

In choosing to boycott a work of art that we feel would offend our tastes, we are replicating this entrenched reaction but on a conscious level, rather than an automatic one. And that is fair, certainly, but ineffective.

The first obvious problem with censoring works of art that offend us would be the relativity of the criteria to censor. What offends me doesn’t offend everyone else. True, we can abide by general rules of what is acceptable and what isn’t. No racism, sexism, classism, homophobia – etc. But the lines within those –isms and phobias are what make the distinction unclear.

Fifty Shades of Grey and Twilight are two examples of contemporary works of literature that present themselves as women-empowering works that promote sexual liberty and female individualism. Both works however, seem to take particular enjoyment in subjecting their female protagonists to the carnal wishes of the men that populate their universe.

Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World presents us with a dystopian world state in which reproduction is in-vitro in industrial factories. The author takes the biological burden of reproduction and menstruation from his women by sterilizing them. For most authors, this could’ve presented a welcome opportunity to explore women’s role in a society that no longer perceives them as necessary means of reproduction and continuity. Huxley could’ve questioned the association of the female identity with female biology. Instead, in a world where the state segregates its citizens as alphas, betas and third rate epsilons, the author chose to portray his only two female characters as Betas, with no woman whatsoever in the Alpha class. Did Huxley intend this as a critique of his own dystopia, or was it that Huxley, like many other authors, was a product of his times?

To answer such a question is to resort to in depth analysis of the literary text, and the contexts of its period. However, it is the questions themselves that draw attention to the second problem that accompanies the censorship of offensive works.

These works provoke a conversation. To boycott literature we find incorrect, is to refuse a truth: the world, including its inhabitants, and some of its greatest authors, is politically incorrect. Pointing the finger and calling out offensive and outright misinformed views are duties that any literary critic has. However, while boycotting a work has its benefits sometimes (for instance where a discussion of the work is counter-productive because the work is going for intended shock value a la Donald Trump, and works of misinformation) in most other areas of the art world and the literary world, it is safe to say that we could exploit controversy to start a conversation about who we are as human beings.

Which brings us to the third, most effective solution: a discussion. To reject an idea is to refuse its existence, and that, by definition, creates a conflict that art tries to resolve. To ignore an idea is not only lazy, but it also discredits its author’s efforts. We can brush off Hemingway as sexist, or we can trust that maybe he’s better than that, and subsequently question his sexism.

Is Catherine Barkley an unfair depiction of women, or is she a fair portrayal of how men depict women? Would it not be possible to argue that Hemingway felt he had to be true to his setting and depict women as the flawed, war-oriented men of his period saw them? Does this not further the discussion on equality and pay women a favor?

Is it Brett Ashley’s promiscuity that makes her offensive or is it that she is nothing except promiscuous? Is it not accurate to ponder on whether, in spite of her primitive prose, E.L. James holds up an important mirror to society? Doesn’t she unwittingly expose the pleasures a patriarchal society can take from watching a woman being dominated – borderline raped – and having both her and her readers mistake it for consenting pleasure? Is Huxley not giving us a commentary on women’s rights in the future of the world?

Whether these motives are intended or not doesn’t matter. What matters is the text and what’s in it. As far as the author is concerned, one thing should be important. To thine own selves they should be true, to paraphrase Shakespeare. For better or for worse, it’s what distinguishes good writing. Even Mrs. Luger, in spite of her hatred of Hemingway’s work, sneaked in a single compliment, unaware as she might have been that it was the essence of what makes the compliment true that had raised Hemingway to the ranks of ‘greatest writers of all times’: He was frank.

Hemingway wrote what he saw as truths, unpleasant as they may be. The trick to swallowing it all down is to realize one thing: the truth changes when we change it. And we earn that power when we acknowledge that an unfortunate truth exists. By sitting at the typewriter, as Ernest said, and bleeding it out – until we change it.

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