A Farewell to Hemingway
Updated: Jun 2
A recent Saunders Report story on Ernest Hemingway featuring N.C. State University professor Marc Dudley was so well-received that we have decided to print the entire interview. Prof. Dudley was selected by producers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick to appear in the three-part PBS documentary Hemingway. For brevity's sake, the original story was condensed, but Hemingway is so interesting - and Prof. Dudley's knowledge so extensive - that we've decided to print the whole interview. Here it is:
What sparked your interest in Hemingway?
My interest in Hemingway was sparked in graduate school. I was not a fan when first introduced to him in high school, and even having to read him as an undergraduate did not spark anything in me. I simply was not ready for Hemingway back then. But then something changed. Like most, I was drawn to his works in part because of that laconic style of his. But I was also vexed by him as well. The first work of his that intrigued me enough to follow up with research and such was Green Hills of Africa. Not a great book, but a problematic one, and the problems were enough to make me dig and do some work. That text for me epitomizes the good and the bad of Hemingway: spots of that classic style in-action (there are some wonderful segments in it), but a lot of problematic racial politics. I decided to write my Master's thesis on that work for those reasons, and I was off to the races!
Who are your other favorite writers? I love Ernest Gaines, William Faulkner, Gayl Jones, Toni Morrison, Cormac McCarthy, Virginia Woolf, Percival Everett, Colson Whitehead. For short stories, there's Edward P. Jones, Stephen Crane, Willa Cather, John O'Hara, Charles Chesnutt. Few are better than Raymond Carver and Sherwood Anderson. What makes Hemingway timeless?
His ability to paint a scene with words, often few words, and to distill things to their bare essentials. He is, as the film demonstrates, like any good visual artist, striving to make the greatest effect with the fewest (visible) gestures. And, contrary to the myth he tried to cultivate, especially as he garnered celebrity and then later, he did not do it alone. He is equal parts Stephen Crane, Mark Twain, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, Paul Cezanne and Pablo Picasso. He learned from other greats, other writers and visual artists alike. And when he's on, there are few who do it better. This says nothing of his mastery of those timeless themes that define us, that define who we are as human beings. Or put differently, his ability to connect with our humanity, to get at that the loneliness and sometimes the bleakness that is/can be human existence. How did you get selected to participate in the documentary?
Good question. I was initially contacted and brought into the project to add my perspectives on Hemingway and his fraught relationship with issues of race. I received an email, actually a couple of emails, from Lynn Novick. We had a handful of initial conversations and consults, and then I was extended an invitation to consult further on the film and to participate directly in it. The experience has been wonderful and I'm grateful to Ken and Lynn and the folks at Florentine Films for their generosity and their hospitality. Is there a reluctance on my part to call Hemingway racist or misogynist?
Not at all. I think it's fair to suggest that he was both, or at the very least, he clearly trafficked in language and behavior of racism and misogyny, and did so comfortably and without compunction. But, I do suggest that, along with so many other facets of his life, those "simple" determinations are too pat and too easy and dismissive. I suggest in the film and more so everywhere else that Hemingway was extremely deliberate in what he did, especially on that written page.
As perhaps the 20th century's most renowned literary celebrity, he was all too aware of his audience, and played to that audience and sense of celebrity and the expectations that come with it. He meets his audience here, and as with so much else of his writing, he expects you to do some of the heavy lifting.
I see his trafficking in offensive language and type as such an exercise. That's the "easy" part to detect, the expressly visible part. But as with so much of Hemingway's work, it's the 7/8s of that iceberg beneath the surface that tells us much. The underlying examinations in several of his works suggests there's something more sophisticated going on, buried beneath the epithets and (gendered and racial) stereotypes.
To that end, that's what makes a story like Up in Michigan so nuanced and powerful in its exploration of male/female relationships. The film speaks to this. Further, I'd argue that the character of Catherine in A Farewell to Arms is every bit the hero that Frederic Henry is, and maybe more so. This same lens and explanation could be applied to issues of race. Epithets aside, the black character, Bugs, in his "The Battler" is that story's heroic figure, not the downtrodden, white ex champion boxer at its center.
Moreover, I'd argue that so many of Hemingway's "race" stories - stories featuring African American and Native American characters - challenge America's prevailing views on race. I say this in the film: Hemingway was a man of his time, representing his time (and that means prevailing attitudes), and trying to negotiate the complications of that time.
That at least partly explains his robust use of epithets and other offensive language. But there's more. He is coming of age as women are campaigning for and winning suffrage, as African Americans are championing civil rights through such newly forged organizations as the NAACP. He came home from that Great War, injured, and recovered as Chicago, just eight miles from Oak Park, and many cities around the country burned during the Red Summer of 1919, a summer marked by racial strife. He summered with his family for years in Michigan and saw first-hand the effects of Indian Removal Acts on such tribes as the Ojibwe. These things clearly informed his writing. Does this make Hemingway a "woke" progressive in the sense that we now associate with the term?
No. Does that exonerate Hemingway of those racist/misogynist charges? No, not at all. But it certainly complicates them. Do you think that his mental illness was responsible for the virulent racism he exhibited later in his life?
No. Those attitudes were there already, as suggested. Do I think that it could have exacerbated whatever behaviors he was already exhibiting? Certainly. Could those multiple concussions have impacted him in a major way?
Definitely. There's no way that it could not have. It cripples him in many ways, in the cruelest of ways: he becomes that writer who cannot write anymore. We see Hemingway's unraveling before our eyes in the Burns film. Dr. Andrew Farah and the film speak to this beautifully, tragically.* Did you learn anything in the film you didn't already know?
Yes. A couple of things in particular. While I'd known about some of the concussions, I'd not known about all of them and I'd not put together the extent of the damage done to him by them. The film captures it movingly in that third act. Also, the film pulls together lots of material from his letters marking the demise of his various marriages. Some of that material was new to me as well. As such it was revelatory. I also marveled, like so many others out there watching the film for the first time, at the new photos and found footage and moving images of Hemingway. I'd not seen some of that. Marvelous stuff to see, to be sure. Did anything in the film change my opinion of him?
No. If anything, the film solidified opinions I'd long held. The man, as the film suggests repeatedly, is so much more interesting than the myth. The surprise was in realizing the degree of those complications. And that's usually where I start with my own students and with those others I'm looking to initiate into the club of Hemingway.
*Dr. Farah is a High Point-based psychiatrist who wrote a book about Hemingway's brain called - wait for it - Hemingway's Brain. He was also featured in the fabulous documentary.