From the Introduction by Nicholas Gaskill
It’s easy to forget, after decades of romantic recollections about the Parisian literary scene in the 1920s, that when Gertrude Stein called Ernest Hemingway and his contemporaries “a lost generation,” she
meant it as a reproach. “Lost” really did mean lost
: adrift, spent, hopeless. That pejorative meaning, which Stein tied to the lingering effects of the Great War, has now been eclipsed in the popular imagination by a more upbeat picture of expatriate writers passing their days in cafes and their nights drinking wine at cut-rate prices, while all the sops back home had Prohibition. Who can resist the urge to glamorize that almost-impossible-to-believe moment when some of the most lasting and innovative U.S. writers of the twentieth century—not just Hemingway and Stein but also F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, Djuana Barnes, e. e. cummings, and John Dos Passos—all lived in the same city, arguing and gossiping and partying together?
This double valence was packed into the idea of the Lost Generation from the very moment Hemingway transformed Stein’s private comment into a public label by using it as an epigraph for his 1926 novel, The Sun Also Rises
. Hemingway’s narrative toes the line between glamorizing its moment—through vivid descriptions of how to be cool in Paris—and condemning it. The action may be one continual party or Fiesta
(the novel’s UK title), but the overriding atmosphere is that of a bad night out. The party turns sour; a drunken insult crashes the mood; more drinks arrive, but no one can afford the tab. Even so, for every reviewer who bemoaned the corrupted morals of Hemingway’s white, monied, and decidedly modern characters, there were a dozen twenty-somethings who booked passage to Paris, with The Sun Also Rises
as their guide.
Both of these reactions surprised Hemingway. Writing to Maxwell Perkins, his new editor at Scribner’s, he remarked, “It’s funny to write a book that seems as tragic as that and have them take it for a jazz superficial story.” He had not, he believed, written another depiction of the Jazz Age, as Fitzgerald termed the period, but plumbed the emotional fragility that defined the Lost Generation—and he regarded the book as “a damn tragedy.” He announced as much in the epigraphs. Underneath Stein’s barb, which he knew could all too easily slip into a romantic view of the unique hurts suffered by his cohort, he placed the world-weary voice of Ecclesiastes, watching generations come and go like the seasons, with no progress, no novelty, just restless whirling: “The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to the place where he arose.” No room for sentimentalizing the Jazz Age here. Rather, the quotation shows Hemingway one-upping the disillusion that characterized his moment, viewing the postwar generation’s emotional posture of disaffection from the cold remove of King Solomon.
Or at least that’s the impression he wants to give. What the epigraphs don’t indicate is that The Sun Also Rises
emerged from Hemingway’s painful experience of feeling out of the loop at his own party, a trip to the San Fermín festival in Pamplona. He drafted the novel quickly in the weeks following the festival, using the real names of the people involved. Initially, the narrator was not Jake but “Hem” or “Ernest.” And so the Olympian detachment of the perspective vies with the red-hot feelings of shame, envy, and disappointment that prompted the novel in the first place. Both the plot and the perspective of The Sun Also Rises
circle constantly around questions of who’s in and who’s out, of what it means to be attached to others and how those attachments can go wrong. Even detachment, the novel suggests, is a way of facing the world, a stance that carries its own emotional costs. The Sun Also Rises
made Hemingway a literary star. That proved a mixed blessing. It put him on the road to becoming “Papa,” the public performance of his hyper-manly persona that overwhelmed the more nuanced insights of his fiction. For this reason The Sun Also Rises
occupies an essential place in Hemingway’s career, a pre-Papa moment when his writing frankly confronted the mixed allure and danger of striking a stoic stance of disillusion at the expense of human connection. This is also why the novel continues to claim our attention. Few other books have charted so movingly the dangers of walling oneself off from society or tracked so painfully the endless, slippery movements between clear-eyed detachment and hopeful projection. The Hemingway myth, thankfully, has lost its shine. The Sun Also Rises
shows that deep down Hemingway knew it was a front from the beginning. The fact that it has been so easy to lose sight of this is, today, what makes the book so tragic.
Hemingway was born a long way from Paris, in Oak Park, Illinois, right outside Chicago. He enjoyed a comfortable suburban childhood, with summers in the woods of Northern Michigan, but eventually fell out of step with the strict moralism of his parents and in 1917, at eighteen, he took a job as a cub reporter for the Kansas City Star
. In the newsroom he picked up practical writing advice from the paper’s style sheet that he claimed never to forget: “Use short sentences”; “Eliminate every superfluous word”; “Avoid the use of adjectives, especially extravagant ones.” When the U.S. entered the Great War, the young Hemingway rushed to enlist but was turned away because of his poor eyesight. Undeterred, he joined the Red Cross ambulance corps and shipped to the Italian front, where he was hit by shrapnel and machine gun fire while passing out chocolate and cigarettes to Italian troops. He fell in love with his nurse while recovering in Milan and was heartbroken when she eventually left him. (Hemingway later mined these experiences in love and war for A Farewell to Arms
.) He returned to Oak Park a decorated but damaged man. At first he enjoyed inflating his wartime adventures for the curious folks at home, but interest waned and soon enough tensions renewed between him and his family. He moved to Chicago, where he reported for the Toronto Star
and worked on his fiction, taking advantage of the blossoming literary culture in the city. He also met and married Hadley Richardson. The new couple made plans to move to Italy, but Sherwood Anderson, a pivotal figure in modern US fiction of those years, gave them better advice. If you want to be a writer, he told Hemingway, go to Paris.
So in December 1921, Ernest and Hadley set sail for France. By early January they had found a cheap apartment in the Latin Quarter, and by the spring, armed with letters of introduction from Anderson, they had met the major players in the emerging modernist movement. There was Ezra Pound, the Idaho native turned Imagist poet who in 1921 was the loudest, most plugged-in promoter of forward-thinking writing; also Gertrude Stein, equally opinionated about the direction of the arts and, through the salon she ran from her Left Bank apartment, just as influential in shaping a new generation of writers. Both took an immediate interest in the charming new arrival. So did Sylvia Beach, whose bookshop Shakespeare and Company published James Joyce’s era-making novel Ulysses
soon after the Hemingways arrived. (Joyce had moved to Paris a year before.) Hemingway threw himself into the scene: he browsed the little magazines in Beach’s shop, admired the paintings in Stein’s sitting room, published poetry with experimental presses, and edited an issue of Ford Madox Ford’s transatlantic review
. When he and Hadley had a son, they asked Stein and her partner Alice B. Toklas to be godparents. The poet William Carlos Williams gave doctorly advice to the new parents when he passed through town.
Yet even as he joined in the bohemian milieu, Hemingway retained a sense of himself as a man who fished and hunted and got hurt in the war, not an “artist.” He cut a distinctive figure: friends recalled him shadow-boxing on the pavements as he walked from one café to another. He showed his shrapnel scars to anyone who would look. In retrospect, he was cultivating the ambivalent, inside-yet-outside perspective on his new social scene that marks Jake Barnes, the narrator of The Sun Also Rises
. He was also distancing himself from those he felt indebted to—a bad tendency that persisted throughout his lifetime and that informs the presentation of his Paris years in his posthumous memoir A Moveable Feast
(1964). Judging from that book, you would think that Hemingway was the sole sensible and workman-like writer in a town full of lazy (if famous) whiners, and that his style—so famous, so imitated—resulted from his lonely dedication to the craft of writing. But that’s not right. Hemingway learned to write like Hemingway only through the support, advice, and provocations of mentors like Stein, who effectively pressed reset on his writing (“Begin over again and concentrate,” she told him early on.)
What does it mean to write like Hemingway? His lean, terse style is one of the monumental achievements of twentieth-century prose. Where other modernist writers made their mark through experiments in narrative technique (Joyce, Dos Passos, Virginia Woolf) or through stories that touched the exposed nerves of their moment (William Faulkner, Jean Toomer), Hemingway modeled a way to build sentences and paragraphs that vibrated with emotion. The basic principle is now embedded in creative writing classes around the world: show don’t tell
. Or, as Hemingway explained, “If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing he may omit things 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.” This is Hemingway’s famous “iceberg” method, so called because “seven-eighths” of the story remains “under water.” But note how it works: not through hiding
things—unlike Joyce or Eliot, Hemingway never wrote literary puzzles—but through omission
. Cut the exposition; cut any bits that hold readers’ hands and tell them what to feel; cut the sentimental flourishes of “literary” writing. The iceberg image is actually misleading. It places undue attention on the submerged depths when all the action in a Hemingway story is on the surface, charged with outsized energy, like an electrical field.
Hemingway’s earliest experiments in this direction are marvels of compression that translate Pound’s Imagism into prose. Pound told writers what to avoid: “Use no superfluous word,” he advised; “go in fear of abstractions” and avoid adjectives that don’t “reveal something.” Hemingway, whom Hadley recalled listening at Pound’s feet “as to an oracle,” heard in these injunctions an echo of the style sheet at the Kansas City Star
and thus a way to turn his existing strengths to literary aims (a way to be a working man and an artist at the same time). Through Pound, in other words, Hemingway came to regard simplicity not just as a means of effective communication but as the very essence of the kind of writing that, as that other plain-speaker Williams put it, achieves “not ‘realism’ but reality itself.”
With Pound’s encouragement, Hemingway began writing short vignettes, many only a paragraph long, that present isolated moments with the directness and clarity of Imagist poetry. For example:
"Everybody was drunk. The whole battery was drunk going along the road in the dark. We were going to the Champagne. The lieutenant kept riding his horse out into the fields and saying to him, “I’m drunk, I tell you, mon vieux. Oh, I am so soused.” We went along the road all night in the dark and the adjutant kept riding up alongside my kitchen and saying, “You must put it out. It is dangerous. It will be observed.” We were fifty kilometers from the front but the adjutant worried about the fire in my kitchen. It was funny going along that road. That was when I was a kitchen corporal."
This is the whole of the first vignette in in our time
, published in Paris in 1924. The sentences are simple, with no syntactic twists, metaphors, or rhetorical flourishes. So much is omitted that at first the effect is disorienting: who is “everybody” and why are they drunk? What is the adjutant worried about? Slowly we fill in the scene: it’s the Great War; the concern is about the kitchen fire. But that initial feeling lingers—we’re in the dark, like the soldiers, and made to sense their nervous dread without ever being told that’s what they feel. We know it from the restless repetition of those in charge and the studied repetition of the prose, all culminating in the narrator’s guarded description of the event as “funny,” a word so infused with emotional meaning by all that comes before that it sparks off the page.
Hemingway’s style is less about deleting and more about using the sentences that remain to convey an emotion. Deleting is easy, at least in principle. The difficult thing is using language “to make instead of describe.” That phrase, another that Hemingway borrowed from Stein, distinguishes between writing that tells about an experience and writing that “makes” that experience through the rhythm and images of the sentences themselves. Hemingway attributed much of what he learned in this vein to Stein’s example, and we can register her influence in the incantatory rhythm of the kitchen corporal’s vignette, with its heavy stresses on dark
, and kitchen
In In Our Time
, a 1925 collection (this time without the precious lower-case) that interspersed the earlier vignettes among longer stories, Hemingway threaded this Steinian technique through narratives that “make” emotion through scene and action instead of “describing” through exposition. Like Eliot, whose notion of the objective correlative has rightly been applied to his work, Hemingway believed that conjuring emotions in art required building up a concrete set of narrative images to provoke them. That way they are felt in the bones rather than registered in the mind. He once explained this by saying that the “greatest difficulty” in writing is not just noticing “what you really felt” but recording “the sequence of motion and fact which made the emotion.” In practice it means that what seem like merely descriptive passages in fact function to “make” the story’s atmosphere. When Nick Adams goes fishing in, “Big Two-Hearted River,” the culminating story of In Our Time
, Hemingway never says that Nick needs the trip to recover from the mental strain of having been in the war—that’s something he feels he knows enough to leave out, and so he builds it into the narrative through Nick’s exacting attention to how to search for bait, catch fish, and make his camp. He trusts that a “sequence of motion and fact,” along with the rhythm of the words, will act as a recipe for the emotion.
Nick’s fishing trip reminds us that Hemingway’s style was never solely about how to write; it was also about how to live. Some critics have formulated this relation as the Hemingway “code,” the idea that the self-conscious displays of control and restraint in the writing double as an ethics for meeting the void of existence with dignity, an existential “grace under pressure.” But I think that the ethics involved are less existential than aesthetic; they have to do with practices of attuning oneself to a sensory environment, of arranging perceptual experience to orderly ends. Today we’d call it self-care
. When Nick crawls into his tent and the narrative voice slows down—“He had made his camp. He was settled. Nothing could touch him. It was a good place to camp. He was there, in the good place. He was in his home where he had made it”—the focus is on Nick’s feelings of relief at having arranged his environment, with the implicit contrast with his experience in the war (where order, as in the kitchen corporal’s vignette, is travestied as nervous repetition). Moments like these, which highlight the satisfactions won through the patient arrangement of perceptual experience, make up the most quietly memorable and pleasurable passages in all Hemingway’s writing.
Jake Barnes in the The Sun Also Rises
offers many such moments—when he relishes his first meal in Spain, for instance, or when he fishes the Irati River or swims at San Sebastian. But he just as often encourages us to regard his posture as heroic rather than bruised. Some part of Jake wants to believe in the code. When he praises the bullfighter Pedro Romero, he does so in language that echoes not only Jake’s professed rejection of sentimentalism but also Hemingway’s effort to burn off all rhetorical efflorescence from his prose. . . .
Copyright © 2022 by Ernest Hemingway; Introduction by Nicholas Gaskill. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.