Ernest Hemingway is revered by some and despised by others. But regardless of one’s personal perspectives on the man or his writing, it is impossible to assess the history of American fiction without acknowledging his influence.
And because of that, PBS recently aired a six-hour documentary on his life and work.
Hemingway’s prose style was unique, and immediately recognizable. John Steinbeck, one of my favorite American authors, had this to say about Hemingway’s style:
In my time, Ernest Hemingway wrote a certain kind of story better and more effectively than it had ever been done before. He was properly accepted and acclaimed. He was imitated almost slavishly by every young writer, including me, not only in America but in the world. He wrote a special kind of story out of a special kind of mind and about special moods and situations. When his method was accepted, no other method was admired. The method or style not only conditioned the stories but the thinking of his generation. Superb as his method is, there are many things which cannot be said using it. The result of his acceptance was that writers did not write about those things which could not be said in the Hemingway manner, and gradually they did not think them either.
I agree strongly with what Steinbeck had to say about Hemingway’s style. The novels I write feature themes as far from Hemingway’s obsessions with fearlessness and machismo as one can get, and my style is nothing like his.
But that was not always the case.
In 1969, near the end of my senior year in high school, I was thrilled to learn that I had just won first prize in that year’s national short story contest sponsored by Scholastic Magazine. At the time I wrote the winning entry, I had been reading lots of short stories by Edgar Allan Poe, as well as a good many by a more contemporary but relatively obscure writer named Gerald Kersh, whose writing was somewhat similar to Poe’s. My award-winning tale, “Fumatorium,” was influenced primarily by the style of those two authors.
My story had also been very skillfully edited by my high-school English teacher, Miss Ruth Goldstein (no relation), who was probably in her seventies at the time, used a fat cane to walk, and took me under her wing and acted as my mentor and editor. I guess she liked me and thought I had some talent—and perhaps our common surname had something to do with it too.
She was a short, stout woman, with a very dry wit and direct manner, and apparently had been in some sort of accident some years back, which left her dependent on that thick cane to walk. And she was evidently in chronic pain. Once, when the two of us were alone in her office, she locked the door, and revealed to me that the top of her cane could be unscrewed, and when removed it revealed a cylindrical glass chamber within the broad wooden barrel, inside of which she kept a healthy reservoir of Scotch. She took a couple of hearty swigs right then and there. “For the pain, dear,” she assured me.
She had done some professional editing, and had actually authored a number of Cliff Notes and Monarch Notes booklets on well-known novels. So she was a very accomplished editor. I learned a lot from her, and the improvements she made to my story were, I believe, very instrumental in its winning the prize that it did.
She and I agreed to stay in touch after I graduated and left Brooklyn to go to college.
It was right around that time that I started reading Hemingway voraciously, and of course, like so many young aspiring authors, began trying to write in Hemingway’s style.
About six months later, I was a freshman at a university in upstate New York, and I’d written a distinctly Hemingway-esque short story, which, at the time, I didn’t realize was very bad—in fact, I was quite proud of it. I excitedly stuffed a copy of it into an envelope and mailed it to old Miss Ruth Goldstein back in Brooklyn, expecting her to compliment it fervidly.
Miss Goldstein soon sent me a back a loving, but scathingly critical letter, lambasting my work. Sadly, in the decades that have passed, I’ve lost that letter. But I will never forget her first sentence.
It said: “Get that man out of your head!”