Why Hemingway’s Prose Still Hits So Hard

The revolution of his style is hard to discern, because to a degree we’re still in it. “Use vigorous English,” counseled the copy style sheet of the Kansas City Star, his first home as a journalist. “Be positive, not negative. … Eliminate every superfluous word.” Hemingway’s voice distilled itself with miraculous speed, a fusion of telegrammatic urgency and high modernist impersonality, with counterpoint learned from Bach and rhythms located profoundly in his own neurology; entire species of literature went extinct overnight. In the most beautiful way, it was anti-writing:

Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterwards the road bare and white except for the leaves.

That’s from the legendary opening of A Farewell to Arms. Leaves, four times, each time a different vibration. A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose. “I read that paragraph and I want to cry,” confesses a literary scholar in Hemingway.

Let’s talk about the Burns Method: the frowning pan across the blotchy manuscript page, the dreamy plunge into the old photograph, the smatters of ambient sound, the talking head who is not so much a talking head as a deeply invested witness. How do you dramatize the interior life? How do you dramatize writing? If you’re Ken Burns, by talking to writers, by watching their faces and bodies register the Hemingway-shocks. “The value of the American declarative sentence, right?” says Tobias Wolff, pulsing with admiration. Edna O’Brien, magically hushed and priestess-like, reads aloud from his date-rape story, “Up In Michigan”—“She was cold, and miserable, and everything felt gone”—and asks: “Could you, in all honor, say that this was a writer who didn’t understand women’s emotions, and who hated women? You couldn’t. Nobody could.”

Then there are the voice-overs: Jeff Daniels doing Hemingway, Meryl Streep doing the ass-kicking Martha Gellhorn (who says that Hemingway, while writing, is “about as much use as a stuffed squirrel”), and—with wonderful warmth—Keri Russell as Hemingway’s first wife, the passionate Hadley. “Oh Mr. Hemingway, how I love you. … Your flannel shirt seems a strangely beautiful thing, and it smells so good besides. Some day, if I don’t watch out, there’ll be a poem on the smell of a clean white shirt that’ll raise up the hair on the dead.”

Death In the Afternoon, his sprawling, hybrid book about the bullfight, was my Hemingway text. A manual, a memoir, a manifesto, a poetic anthropology: As a bullfight-obsessed schoolboy, I inhaled it, relishing without quite understanding its distinctness. There are black-and-white photographs in the book, one of which features a sheeted corpse on a slab, surrounded by 16 well-dressed men. “Granero dead in the infirmary,” reads Hemingway’s caption. “Only two in the crowd are thinking about Granero. The others are all intent on how they will look in the photograph.”

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