Friday, August 8, 2008

Forgotten Books Friday: By-Line: Ernest Hemingway

My pick for this week’s Forgotten Books is By-Line: Ernest Hemingway (1967). This compilation highlights Hemingway's work from 1920 to 1956 as a correspondent for the Toronto Star and contributor to magazines like Esquire and Look.

By-Line is perfect for the Hemingway aficionado who’ll revel in discovering many of his later story concepts and other excerpts were introduced in his early work. Poring over his "news stories", it's clear how different he was from, say, an Edward R. Murrow type. Hemingway had no qualms about blurring the line between news and imaginative writing and inserting himself into the proceedings.

His dispatches for the Toronto Star Weekly from 1920 ran the gamut of news reporting. A Free Shave chronicled the mundane experience of, you guessed it, a free shave at a barber college (you can picture Hemingway rolling his eyes when handed this assignment). Plain and Fancy Killings, $400 Up was a biting piece about American gunmen being exported to kill in Ireland, which is more in line with what we'd expect from Hemingway.

His North American Newspaper Alliance dispatches during the Spanish War are another highlight of this collection. Whereas most newsmen were focused on what they assumed was the bigger picture of battles, generals, diplomats, etc., Hemingway’s articles turned attention to the common man and everyday life. In Tortosa Calmly Awaits Assault he even writes about the land:
“Artillery was picking up a little now. Two came in at a fairly useful place, and, as the smoke blew away ahead and settled through the trees, you picked an armful of spring onions from a field beside the trail that led to the main Tortosa road. They were the first onions of the spring and, peeling, one found they were plump and white and not too strong. The Ebro delta has a fine rich land, and, where the onions grow, tomorrow there will be a battle.”

Monologue to the Maestro: A High Seas Letter is an amusing Esquire article from 1935. A young wannabe writer, who Hemingway described as "a tall, very serious young man with very big feet and hands and a porcupine haircut", went fishing with Papa in hopes of learning what it would take to make the cut. Hemingway began dispensing advice on authors to read. Names like Twain, Crane, and Tolstoy, and when the budding writer asked how he can train himself, Hemingway replied:
“Watch what happens today. If we get into a fish see exactly what it is that everyone does. If you get a kick out of it while he is jumping remember back until you see exactly what the action was that gave you the emotion. Whether it was the rising of the line from the water and the way it tightened like a fiddle string until drops started from it, or the way he smashed and threw water when he jumped. Remember what the noises were and what was said. Find what gave you the emotion; what the action was that gave you the excitement. Then write it down making it clear so the reader will see it too and have the same feeling that you had. That’s a five finger exercise.”

A personal favorite because I've done a lot of traveling myself is Christmas on the Roof of the World. He recorded his travels with his wife through Germany, Switzerland, and Italy before ending up in Paris for the holidays, which by then had taken its toll on the weary couple:
“The boy and the girl were homesick. It was their first Christmas away from their own land. You do not know what Christmas is until you lose it in some foreign land.”

Hemingway has always been considered along with Dashiell Hammett a huge influence on early pulp with his sparse, descriptive prose. In this anthology, you’re witness to the creation of that unique writing style and also the birth of a legend. If you’re not a fan of the man who’s considered the 20th century’s greatest writer, then there's probably nothing here that will change your mind, but if you enjoy Ernest Hemingway's work, there are many hidden treasures worth checking out.


Clare2e said...

I think Hemingway's got some good advice there (duh). Lots of people write sparsely and fail to deliver the same oomph. It's including the right detail of the few (and the right moments) that makes such a difference between him and copycats.


Thanks for this post. I've always wanted to learn more about this writer and this post has inspired me to start reading his works.

There are countless classic writers that a person knows because it is impossible to avoid references in everyday life, but has never actually read any of them. Hemingway is one such for me.

Brian said...

Hi David -- thanks for participating.

David Cranmer said...

Clare, you're so right and who remembers those copycats today? Interestingly, Hemingway freed us from the 19th century's excessive use of words, but we seem to be right back there with authors who pack everything but the "kitchen sink" into a sentence. Less is always more to me.

Archavist, I know what you mean. Tolstoy and Checkov are two big names that have escaped me so far. As for Hemingway, I recommend starting with The Nick Adams Stories, A Moveable Feast or The Old Man And The Sea.

Terrie Farley Moran said...

" Hemingway had no qualms about blurring the line between news and imaginative writing and inserting himself into the proceedings."

And that is what made his dispatches so fascinating. Witness the onions and the artillery.


David Cranmer said...

So true. The imagery in the onion passage is really poetic and a joy to read.

No problem... it's a pleasure.