Sunday, September 8, 2019

July: Hemingway and Lovecraft-Part One

You don't ordinarily see the names Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) and H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) together in one place, but they're in Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural (1944), Hemingway near the end of the section called "Tales of Terror," Lovecraft at the very end of "Tales of the Supernatural." They're also in Love and Death in the American Novel by Leslie A. Fiedler (1960, 1966). Lovecraft is barely mentioned in that book. Hemingway gets a little more space. If Fiedler was right, both fit within the mainstream of American literature.

I wrote the other day that Hemingway "was not an escapist and did not seek to retreat into otherworldly fantasy," also that he "was not an arrested adolescent." Those things aren't entirely true; my purpose in writing them was to draw a contrast between men of Hemingway's generation and those of today. The contrast appears strong, but it may also be deceptive and due more to time and circumstance than to anything else. More to the point, today's Star Wars fans may simply be acting out a natural evolutionary process that began long before Hemingway came into the world and of which he was only a part. Maybe there's less of a difference than I indicated.

Hemingway killed himself on July 2, 1961. A year later, literary critic Maxwell Geismar (1909-1979) wrote an evaluation. My emphasis here is on the twin questions of fantasy and arrested adolescence. Geismar began in that regard by writing:
Hemingway . . . had very early trapped himself into the stereotype of the romantic and virile literary "man of action," so American in essence, and so little conducive to either intellectual or emotional development.
The suggestion here is that by trapping himself in this stereotype, Hemingway was never able to move beyond a kind of childishness, immaturity, or arrested adolescence either in his personality or in his writing. Geismar was not the first nor the last to see the author in this light, nor was Hemingway the first nor the last American author to act out the stereotype of a "virile literary 'man of action'."

A second quote from Geismar:
"For Whom the Bell Tolls"--a novel of the Spanish Civil War which sold close to a million copies. Sometimes called Hemingway's best novel, too, it is a curious mixture of good and bad, of marvelous scenes and chapters which are balanced off by improbably or sentimental or melodramatic passages of adolescent fantasy.
Here, then, are the words themselves, adolescent and fantasy. Along those same lines, Geismar wrote towards the end of his essay, using here the words youth and romantic instead:
Hemingway . . . continued to pour the romantic emotions of youth, now somewhat stereotyped and stylized, into his aging later heroes. In this respect, "Across the River and Into the Trees" (1950) was probably his worst novel. (1)
And so we have Hemingway and his work characterized, first, by youth, adolescence, and a lack of "either intellectual or emotional development"; and, second, by romanticism, sentimentality, melodrama, and fantasy. So Hemingway wasn't given to fantasy and was not an arrested adolescent? Maxwell Geismar had a different opinion on all of that.

You'll find the same kind of thing in Love and Death in the American Novel, the main thesis of which is that the American novelist repeatedly acts out a flight not only from women and mature, erotic, and progenitive love with women but also from everything that women might represent, including domesticity and civilization. Put another way, in and through our literature we flee into the wilderness and into worlds of men without women, wherever those worlds might be found (2). Like Geismar, Fiedler remarked on the immaturity of the American novelist:
     There is a real sense in which our prose fiction is immediately distinguishable from that of Europe, though this is a fact that is difficult for Americans to confess. In this sense, our novels seem not primitive, perhaps, but innocent, unfallen in a disturbing way, almost juvenile. The great works of American fiction are notoriously at home in the children's section of the library, their level of sentimentality precisely that of a pre-adolescent. This is part of what we mean when we talk about the incapacity of the American novelist to develop; in a compulsive way he returns to a limited world of experience, usually associated with childhood, writing the same book over and over again until he lapses into silence or self-parody. (Delta/Dell edition, 1966, p. 24)
What Fiedler wrote here about the American novelist in general can be applied more specifically to Hemingway, including that last part where the American author "lapses into self-parody." We can't rule out that Geismar was influenced by Fiedler, or vice versa. In either case, both seem to have been on to the same thing, namely, that in Hemingway in particular and in the American novelist in general, there is, first, childishness, juvenility, immaturity, arrested adolescence, and an overall lack of emotional or psychological development; and, second, a tendency towards romanticism, sentimentality, melodrama, and fantasy of one kind or another.

Fiedler didn't otherwise devote a lot of space to Hemingway, but here is an apt quote:
     In Hemingway the rejection of the sentimental happy ending of marriage involves the acceptance of the sentimental happy beginning of innocent and inconsequential sex, and camouflages the rejection of maturity and of fatherhood itself . . . . and surely there is no writer to whom childbirth more customarily presents itself as the essential catastrophe. (p. 317)
Again we see an American author in flight from maturity, erotic and progenitive love with a woman, and adult responsibility into perpetual childhood or adolescence. (3) That flight, which began in our earliest literature, continues even today in our most popular forms and genres, namely, in movies, television, comic books, video games, science fiction, fantasy, and the literature of mystery, crime, and detection. It is also within our general society, in which men have run away from women (or have been driven away) for whatever reason and seem determined to stay there.

Back to my original point, it's not really accurate to say that Hemingway was not an arrested adolescent, but compared to countless men of today, he might be called a paragon of masculinity and adulthood. Likewise, I wrote that he "was not an escapist and did not seek to retreat into otherworldly fantasy." Hemingway obviously was an escapist, though, the difference being that his was an escape into the West, Spain, Africa, or wartime Europe. In every case he remained in the real world and played at real-world games of life and death. He definitely did not play video games. He obviously also indulged in fantasy. In staying in the American mainstream, though, his fantasies were romantic, sentimental, or melodramatic in nature. (4) They were not otherworldly, and he did not dress up as Yoda. (Of course there weren't video games and Star Wars during his lifetime, but you get my point.) In any case, maybe what I have described as a hard break between generations of the past (B.S.W.) and the present (A.S.W.) is actually more of a natural evolution, a kind of stepping down from the conventional American romantic, sentimental, or melodramatic fantasy of the past and into the more extreme otherworldly fantasy of the present: Star Wars as a natural outgrowth of the Leatherstocking Tales. So maybe there isn't after all a strong contrast between the men of yesterday and the men of today. Like us, Hemingway was a man of his time, he remained in a state of arrested adolescence as many men of his time did, and he indulged in the romantic, sentimental, or melodramatic fantasies of his time. Maybe we of today are not very much different from him, for we are also arrested adolescents, and we all indulge in our own types of fantasy. The difference is that after Star Wars our fantasies detached themselves from the real world and became otherworldly--and we have followed them where they have led to the point where we have become ridiculous, even contemptible.

Leslie Fiedler's idea is that American literature is essentially gothic in nature. Although I would not describe Hemingway as a writer of gothic works, he still remains within the mainstream of our literature by writing on themes of death, violence, and the flight from women. But if we have never grown up and will never grow up--if we have always fled and will always flee from reality into fantasy, from women into the company of men, from civilization and domesticity into the wilderness--then what we are witnessing today is really just a continuation of an old story. Maybe in fifty or sixty years, once we have all retreated into our FaceGoogle virtual fantasy pods and our gender-fluid bodies have wasted away into soft, white, maggot-like masses, we will look back on the grown men of today--those who wear flip-flops, shorts, baseball caps, and t-shirts and wield plastic light sabers--as like Ernest Hemingway. And using our Amazoft brain-to-brain interfaces we'll say to each other, Now that's when men were men. Except that by then men and maleness will have been extirpated from the earth and we'll all be happier for it.

Notes
(1) Quotes are from "Was 'Papa' a Truly Great Writer?" by Maxwell Geismar in the New York Times, July 1, 1962, accessible by clicking here.
(2) A phrase that--with or without irony--forms the title of an early collection of short stories by Ernest Hemingway, Men Without Women, from 1927.
(3) Fiedler also commented on suggestions of homosexuality in Hemingway's life and work. You could easily follow that line of inquiry into another issue involving the men of today.
(4) Even the hardest American authors seem incapable of escaping sentimentality in their work.

Original text copyright 2019 Terence E. Hanley

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