Should we still read Ernest Hemingway in the 21st century? Also, 7 other things worth knowing today.
Preamble: Yesterday’s newsletter was all about the U.S. intelligence agency’s Simple Sabotage Field Manual. But the link had a typo. Here’s the corrected link. (If that forwards you to another page, click “[open pdf - 2MB]” once it loads.)
Is there a 20th century writer who had greater reach and sparked more controversy than Ernest Hemingway? Today would have been his 123rd birthday, and as it happens I’d been talking with Jay Alan Wolfe about his legacy in the 21st century. Put it in writing, I said, and Jay obliged. Here’s what he has to say.:
by Jay Alan Wolfe
Does Hemingway still matter?
That’s nothing new. Cutting Hemingway down to size is a cottage industry in the book world.
It makes sense.
Hemingway’s being — too macho, too swaggering — is out of favor with the present critical moment. His books are often reduced to “honor” and “grace under pressure,” so it’s no surprise that he’s dismissed on college campuses.
But in my experience, Hemingway’s writing still matters both here and abroad.
My first newspaper job was covering sports in a small town in Montana. I wrote on the sports page one day about “The Old Man and the Sea” — essentially nothing more than how much I liked it. (There were pages to fill and school sports were out of session).
Writing that story led to a long conversation with a reader named Chris, who was a veteran boxing trainer.
Chris said he knew what Hemingway was talking about in the book, how at some point in the struggle with the fish the old man Santiago had lost all sense of where he ended and where the fish began. It was a hard thing to describe, probably impossible for people who had never felt it, but Hemingway had done it and written it.
Chris said that he had felt that, too, in hard sparring sessions and certain fights when his opponent had pushed him to someplace he didn’t know he could go. It was like dancing, he said.
An invitation to “hit some mitts” followed—to box a little.
Despite my early clumsiness, I was tolerated at the gym. A year later, I left a sparring session bloodied and slathered in sweat, for a few rounds having lost all sense of dimension. The literary had become physical. I felt an appreciation and a calm, like a Buddhist upon the understanding of things.
Not long after, I went to Spain. As my girlfriend and I took our seats in the upper level of the arena for our first bullfight, someone shouted, “Eh-ming-way” in our direction.
A group of tanned old men beckoned us toward their seats. In pitiful Spanish I confirmed what was obvious — si, we’re Americans — and what was slightly less obvious: that Hemingway was a favorite author of mine and I had read his books.
What followed were introductory lessons in the dying art of the aficionado.
A few weeks later, in a smaller Spanish city, my girlfriend and I each held the muleta, the matador’s sword. We made clumsy attempts to slay bales of hay while the young students of the local bullfighting school laughed.
In an even smaller Spanish town, we walked into an abandoned-looking tapas bar, thanks to a recommendation from a friend who lived nearby. It was near closing time. The perfectly bald but thickly mustached bartender poured a round of drinks for us, his only customers.
In a brief conversation I asked what else he liked to do. Did he have another job?
He beamed. He was a poet.
Lorca, Miró, I offered, exhausting my reading of Spanish poets. When I told him I was a writer—a reporter at least—he growled, “Eh-ming-way” and grabbed my shoulder and brought my forehead close to his.
We each attempted to explain the literature we loved. And as we raised each shot, those beautiful Spanish syllables became a toast, “Eh-ming-way!”
At dawn my girlfriend and I stumbled home, the Mediterranean a dozen feet to our right and roaring against the rocks …
... I still think of my father’s office sometimes, with its dark wood bookshelves that reached the ceiling. They towered over me as a boy. In pride of place centered on a single shelf sat a handful of paperbacks all by the same writer.
Long before I was old enough to actually read it, I took down a worn, soft-cover copy of “A Farewell to Arms” from my father’s shelf and opened its creased spine, delicate as an artifact, and saw that each page had been yellowed, colored by age and handling like a sunburst — the edges were darkened, but the middle, the text, was still bright.
Any writer, 60 years after his death, who is still shutting down bars at dawn, introducing people at bullfights, and bringing strangers together … still matters.
7 other things worth knowing today
For the first time in its 76-year history, the Navy’s famed Blue Angels aerial demonstration team will feature a female pilot. The Navy on Monday named Lt. Amanda Lee as one of the Blue Angels’ newest core members. (NBC News)
A West Virginia woman woke up from a two-year coma after being attacked, and accused her brother of trying to kill her. The local sheriff's department said Daniel Palmer had been arrested and charged with Palmer's attempted murder as well as malicious wounding. (WCHS)
I wrote a little something for Inc.com about the plan to reopen Toys ‘R’ Us, by creating “shops within a store” in all 500+ Macy’s locations in America—plus the power of nostalgia in business. (Me, on Inc.com)
It’s not only the photos from the James Webb Space Telescope that have wowed people. Many have also been struck by the "poetically striking and scientifically accurate" descriptions that have accompanied them. Example:
“The image is divided horizontally by an undulating line between a cloudscape forming a nebula along the bottom portion and a comparatively clear upper portion. Speckled across both portions is a starfield, showing innumerable stars of many sizes. The smallest of these are small, distant, and faint points of light. The largest of these appear larger, closer, brighter, and more fully resolved with 8-point diffraction spikes. The upper portion of the image is bluish, and has wispy translucent cloudlike streaks rising from the nebula below." (WashPost)
Magnus Carlsen, the world chess champion and by acclamation one of the very best players in history, announced Wednesday he said he will voluntarily surrender the title he originally won in 2013 at age 22: “The matches themselves have been at times interesting, at times a little bit of fun. But overall, I feel like it’s my time to go from the world championship matches.” (NYT)
The French government called on citizens to switch off lights, unplug the wifi and lower air conditioning to save energy as Russia’s war in Ukraine leads to soaring power costs and threatens supply: “When you go away for the weekend or on vacation, switch off as many electrical appliances as possible Unplug your wifi, lower the AC a bit. And of course turn the lights off when you’re not in the room.” (Bloomberg)
A woman in Alabama who was accused of shoplifting at a Walmart store won a $2.1 million settlement against the store. Lesleigh Nurse used a self-checkout lane to pay for her items and thought she had paid and the transaction was completed when she was stopped on her way out of the store. She tried to explain what had happened but she ended up being arrested. (WIMP)
Thanks for reading. Photo credit: Pixabay. Want to see all my mistakes? Click here.