Has his literary importance disappeared completely?
by Charlie Leck
Last week I wrote about Hemingway and one of his short stories. Writing that stuff propelled me to the Hemingway shelves here in my library and I decided to read again a few more of his short stories.
Damn, Hemingway didn’t seem to be a very good man. He had some tough attitudes about people who weren’t like him and also about women. I don’t think I would have liked him very much. I’ll tell you, though, he sure could write. I don’t suppose short stories get much better than The Snows of Kilimanjaro or The Short Happy Life of Francis McComber. I think it’s been thirty years since I read them last. They were just as good this time.
Some years ago, I wrote about the 50 or so most important books in my life; that is, those books that had a life altering impact on me and not necessarily the best books I’ve read. I hope you can hear the difference in that, which really isn’t very subtle. I included on the list, two books by Ernest Hemingway: (1) The Old Man and the Sea; and (2) A Moveable Feast. A charming, elderly Pastor, at the little Lutheran Church up here on the corner, read that piece and took quite strong exception to it and complained loudly to me. He came over and had a cup of coffee with me and ranted and raved for some time about the stupidity of my selections. I was a more patient guy back then and somewhat respectful of the clergy, so I allowed him to go on and on. When he finished, I asked for a few moments to present my case.
The Old Man and the Sea was a life-changing book for me – terribly impactful. I think it was published in about 1952 or 1953, when I was 11 or 12 years old. Because it was really a novella, my mother immediately recognized it as a book that I could accomplish easily and take some pride in reading. She had already begun her decline in a losing battle with disease back in those days and she spent a great deal of her time in bed. She begged me to read the book, which had been reviewed so favorably and acclaimed all across the land, to her. Over a couple of days I did that. As she lay in bed, I sat next to her on a stiff, hard backed chair and read aloud to her.
I had never read anything so wonderful. It was a grown-up’s book, but I had read it as a child; yet I understood it with clarity and I reacted emotionally and spiritually to the story, identifying and emphasizing with both the great fish and the old man. The book made me a reader and pushed me to read so many of Hemingway’s other works, until I had read them all and could only wait for others to be released.
Over the next few years, I spent many, many hours by my mother’s bedside, reading good and bad books to her. I honed my verbal and interpretive skills that way and developed a voice that stood me quite well over the years that followed.
In 1960, or 1961, my dearest and closest relative in our entire family, a cousin, who had gone off to study in Paris, gave me a copy of A Moveable Feast – more precisely, Paris is a Moveable Feast. It made me fall in love with Paris years before I would see it. In 1966, I spent four or five days in Paris with people who didn’t understand it and wouldn't try to appreciate it. It was a great, great disappointment in my life that they did not like it or comprehend it. Over the years, I went back to visit a number of times. The city became a second home and I lived there for several months in 1978. There is no city as extraordinary and magnificent as Paris. And, when you leave Paris, after falling in love with it, you take it with you and it is a part of your soul and being for the rest of your life – a truly “moveable feast.”
There is no grander city in the world than the City of Lights. No city walks like Paris. No city has presentations of art like Paris. No city has grander architecture than Paris. No city has food like Paris. Dance! Opera! Theatre!
And then, there is Harry’s American Bar – one of Hemingway’s hangouts when he needed an American fix!
I must return, one more time in my life, to walk the streets of Paris – a safe and clean and deliriously beautiful place to walk. I love both sides of the river and I love the river itself. I love the churches and chapels and cathedrals. I love the Louvre and the little museums on the side streets. I love the railroad stations, the glamor of the great shops along le rue de Fauberg Saint Honoré, the Metro, the bars, the sidewalk cafes and the grand restaurants.
Hemingway introduced me to Paris in a most important way. He transmitted his love of the great city from his heart to mine.
Yet, Pastor Ahlstrom’s argument rang true to many people in America. Hemingway had revealed himself as a chauvinist and, perhaps, as a racist. Because of his character weaknesses, he had no standing among most American from 1965 and onward. Yet, I knew how powerful his writing was – how truly and forcefully he told a story. He was in my blood and I could not abandon him.
A daughter, who teaches collegiate level literature, cannot bring herself to recommend Hemingway to her students because of his social attitudes. That’s too bad. A reader’s life is not complete until he/she has read The Old Man and the Sea. And, then, there’s the question: Should a writer’s ability and achievements be measured against his social opinions and racial attitudes? I don’t know the answer to that question, but I tend to think it is “no.”
Enough! I sense that Hemingway’s moment is gone. It is over! I don’t pull my hair out over that. I only feel sad that readers may not know The Old Man and the Sea.
You can email Charles Leck
or you can sign-in to post a comment on the blog
or you can click on “follow” in the top right hand corner