Essays Ernest Hemingway

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by Tom Stoppard When Joseph Conrad died, Ernest Hemingway, by way of an obituary notice, wrote a little piece in the TRANSATLANTIC REVIEW, in October 1924, and what he said was that if it could be shown that by grinding T. Eliot down to a fine powder, and by sprinkling the powder upon Conrad’s grave, then Conrad would immediately jump out of his grave and commence to write, then he, Hemingway, would leave for London immediately with a sausage grinder in his luggage.

As a diversion we might consider nominating, from among contemporary novelists, candidates for the honor of being sprinkled upon Ernest Hemingway’s grave.

However, we should bear in mind that this year’s list would undoubtedly differ from last year’s; this decade’s even more from last decade’s.

The further back we look, the stranger are the ups and downs of reputation. Edmund Wilson, who is very good on Hemingway, was saying in 1930 that it had become fashionable to disparage him.

These two and a half pages must be baffling, and perhaps expendable, to many of Hemingway’s present readers.

If it crossed the author’s mind that he was taking a bet on Mencken’s posterity, it probably seemed a fairly safe bet at the time.

One might think that this “law of refinement” would work in the opposite direction, so that the more spare the prose, the more successful the transfer of an idea or an image from writer to reader; but what it really demonstrates is that prose in itself does not describe at all. Here is a paragraph from it: As the shadow of the kingfisher moved up the stream, a big trout shot upstream in a long angle, only his shadow marking the angle, then lost his shadow as he came through the surface of the water, caught the sun, then, as he went back into the stream under the surface, his shadow seemed to float under the bridge where he tightened facing up into the current 4.

The words rely very much on what the reader brings to them. This bothered me because as a journalist I was going to a lot of trouble trying to avoid repeating words, and the repetition of “stream,” “upstream,” “shadow,” and “angle” at first jarred like music that had gone wrong.

I happen to like Mencken, but I don’t know more than two or three people in England who have read him, let alone heard of him.

I am dwelling on this ebb and flow between reputation and oblivion only to make a much-delayed point, that an entire conference on Ernest Hemingway, not to mention the existence of periodicals entirely devoted to him, in both senses, accords very well with my own opinion of his work and his lasting importance. Several people, familiar with my own work, find it surprising that I should be a Hemingway enthusiast. I am not capable of confronting this puzzle head-on, but I ought to confess that this will be a somewhat egocentric talk; I will try to explain something of why I got bitten by Hemingway and stayed bitten.


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