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What’s the Big Deal About Hemingway?

In my U.S. War Literature class, we have read several interesting items. First, we tackled a little bit of Walt Whitman’s Civil War poetry. Next, we admired Louisa May Alcott’s Hospital Sketches (a far cry from the sappy Little Women). Quality work from both.

Then came A Farewell to Arms, by Ernest Hemingway. Pulitzer and Nobel Prize-winning Hemingway. Hemingway, the guy who wrote a bunch of other stuff like The Old Man and the Sea and For Whom the Bell Tolls. Novels I’ve known about for years but somehow managed to avoid in my 45 years rooted on this planet.

A Farewell to Arms. I didn’t like it. At all. Turn your nose up at me, it’s ok. I understand Hemingway changed the way we read. I realize he took writing and turned it on its head (100 years ago). He’s a smart guy. War veteran. Highly respected. He even has his iceberg theory, after all:

“If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.” – Hemingway

The problem with Farewell, though, is that the other 7/8ths of the iceberg is buoyed with it. It’s dense and heavy. It’s slow. Often times it’s infuriating, namely the conversations between Lieutenant Henry and Catherine Barkley; the words are like an endless stream of Cupid’s arrows.

And I feel guilty for not liking it. It’s true. And I’m rarely prone to guilt (ask my mother). And I start sentences with ‘and’ more often than I should. But Hemingway is regarded as one of The Most Important Authors in History. Who am I to judge his work? What’s worse is I’m a f***ing undergraduate. I’m hardly a literary scholar.

Thing is, I don’t pretend to be. I know what I like, what I don’t like. I also know that to be a better writer, I have to be a better reader. I didn’t hate the novel, by any means. I can distinguish good writing from bad (I like to think). But still: the hills, the mountains, the rain, the mud, dead leaves, more hills, stones, and more damned rain. Don’t worry, I get it. I understand symbolism. For me it was his approach to said symbolism.

This is what I enjoy about school, namely in my major. I’m being introduced to so much reading from authors I would never have picked up on my own. There are daunting aspects, of course: this includes having to write a negative reader response to Farewell and turn it in to a professor who adores his writing. I still got an ‘A’, but my finger quivered when I clicked “send document.”

To quote Andy from “The Devil Wears Prada” (the film, which is totally out of place in this post, but I don’t care): “I know I’m still learning about all this stuff…” Now all I need is a tongue-lashing from Meryl Streep deriding me for that comment, and I’d be all set.

Next up: Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. I’m more than halfway through and this is a novel I can chew on.