By Ernest Hemingway
The 1920’s in both Europe and America saw what has become the stuff of artistic legend. In the same time and place, and often between visits to the same bars and cafés, such luminaries as James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Pablo Picasso, Wyndham Lewis, Joan Miró, T.S. Eliot, and many others, produced a generation of work that avant-garde enthusiasts and critics (particularly those in search of a movement to champion) have been discussing and attempting to recreate ever since.
The most recent homage to this time is Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, in which these figures and others are portrayed, and often lampooned. Allen’s poking fun is understandable. While he does not deny that the Paris of the Twenties was a time worthy of sincere admiration, he makes clearer the more necessary observation that the hero-worship these artists have inspired can reach the point of hysterics. The writer who is perhaps most susceptible to both hero-worship and its attending scorn is the American novelist Ernest Hemingway. The release of a new edition of his second novel, A Farewell to Arms, acts as a reminder of why Hemingway stands out, and of certain elements of the world he deplored that remain with us.
Born in Oak Park, Illinois in 1899 to a middle class family, Hemingway worked for a time as a reporter for the Kansas City Star before shipping out to serve as an ambulance driver on the Italian front of an increasingly desperate First World War. He was wounded during his service, and, while in recovery, fell in love with a young nurse named Agnes von Kurowsky. Following the war and brief stays in Chicago and Toronto, Hemingway married his first wife, Hadley, and moved to Paris, where he mingled with and made friends and enemies of the many of the bright artistic lights of the day, including several of those mentioned above, as well as James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
With the encouragement of his new friends and the financial support of his new wife, Hemingway honed his abilities as a writer, and crafted marvelously refined and powerful short stories. Then, in 1926, a novel: The Sun Also Rises. This successful roman à clef follows the sexually and spiritually frustrated soldier-turned-journalist, Jake Barnes, and his group of American and English expatriate friends, all of whom live in Paris and travel to Spain for a week-long bull-fighting fiesta. By the end of the week, the group suffers complete dissolution, and each participant his or her own sense of disillusionment and loss. The book was interpreted by many at the time as an indictment of the ‘Lost Generation,’ a term whose origins are attributed to Gertrude Stein in the first epigram of the book. Hemingway later made it clear that he did not feel his characters lost, only damaged, and that the second epigram, a quote from Ecclesiastes, which holds that the ‘earth abideth forever,’ was what he wished to affirm. A collection of short stories, entitled Men Without Women, a divorce from Hadley and a new marriage to Pauline followed this first book. Then, in 1929, when Hemingway was 30 years old, A Farewell to Arms was released by Charles Scribner.
The novel, which brought Hemingway an audience stretching far beyond the literary in-crowd that The Sun Also Rises had reached, is based loosely on the author’s wartime experience, told from the perspective of Lieutenant (Tenente) Frederic Henry who, like Hemingway, is an ambulance driver on the Italian front. The central story, which is interspersed with long descriptions of life in war, Henry’s Italian friends, and expressions of a worldview that hard living cultivates, is the love story between Henry and the English nurse, Catherine Barkley. They meet through the war and fall in love. When Henry is wounded, Barkley puts in for a transfer to his hospital and they spend the months of his recuperation together, strengthening their bond and, eventually, becoming ‘married,’ though never officially. They are separated by Henry’s return to combat, but not before Barkley reveals that she is several months pregnant. After the Italian defeat at the Battle of Caporetto, Henry flees police, who are interrogating and shooting officers they believe to be responsible for the loss. He reunites with Barkley and flees in a rowboat to Switzerland, where they live quietly in a mountain cabin until Barkley goes into labor. The child is stillborn, and the mother dies shortly thereafter. Henry asks the attendants if there is anything he can do, and when he is told there is not, he walks ‘back to the hotel in the rain.’
The novel as a whole can be read in many ways. Its vibrant lyricism, tightly-wound structure and intense moral contemplation have fascinated students and critics. Young men and women in love have held Henry and Barkley as the epitome of tragic love and passion. The intensity of Hemingway’s descriptions of war and the couple’s exciting escape from the police read as a superb blend of emotion and adventure. All of these points come together in several narrative asides which, in a characteristically understated tone, express the thoughts, and feelings that underlie the action of the book. The most famous of these:
If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.
Reading this, one can still call the finale bleak, but it is in no way defeatist. It seems that the point of the novel, and much of Hemingway’s work, is to affirm moral strength, decency, and love in the face of the ultimate tragedy of living. Henry does not leave the hospital to jump off a bridge, smash windows, or drink himself into a stupor. He simply walks back to the hotel in the rain. As Hemingway was known to say, “Il faut durer.”
This brings us back to Hemingway’s place in the literary and artistic intention of his time. Many of the most well-known and studied works from the post-WWI era expressed a deep despair and provided little way out of the situation. The Great Gatsby exposed the frivolity of the Jazz Age upper class and the sadness and weakness underlying it, and was able to respond only with an ephemeral hope. The Waste Land, after the splintering horrors of industrialization and World War I, can present only a bricolage, fragments shored against ruin. The list goes on similarly, from Ulysses to Guernica.
It is ill advised to speak in terms of simple optimism and pessimism when dealing with these complex and difficult works. There were, however, those who attempted to meet this despair with a more positive intention, such as Wallace Stevens and his ‘supreme fiction’ or ‘idea of order.’ But even this effort suggests that a reunification of the self is not really possible, and so requires a fabrication. What all this amounts to is the position that reality is basically chaotic, human life is weak and finite, and all order or meaning is an illusion, even if a necessary one. For this view, the artist is the creator, not the reflector or aesthetic guide of meaning. The expression of this view of the world was powerful and, in its own way, life-sustaining: for all their moral failings, the great works of 20th century modernism are indeed beautiful. This cannot be said of the same sentiment’s more vulgar expression.
Over the last few decades, there has been an explosion in popularity of biographies, biopic films, popular criticism, etc. It can be attributed to a wariness of norms and values (i.e., standards), manifested in a suspicion of achievement. In short, in the wake of the diastrous 20th century, we would rather unweave the rainbow than leave it intact and leave ourselves open to disappointment. But we cannot avoid our fascination with the great achievements. We face these conflicting impulses by addressing the creators’ personalities; their human flaws and inconsistencies put us at ease. This can take the form of a malicious attack, or a seemingly benign but no less damaging dig into work habits and inspirations. This new edition of A Farewell to Arms from Scribner is the latter.
In a 1958 interview with the Paris Review Hemingway famously claimed that he had written the end of the novel thirty-nine times before he was satisfied. Apparently the author underestimated his own tenacity to get things perfectly, as the sum total of alternate endings stands at forty-seven, according to his grandson, Seán Hemingway, who both edited and wrote an introduction for the volume. Also included is a note from Hemingway’s only surviving son, Patrick, the introduction to the 1949 edition, which Hemingway himself wrote, as well as alternate titles and early drafts of several important passages.
It is not likely that the editors of this volume, Hemingway’s son and grandson, have intentions less benevolent than to make A Farewell to Arms, and Hemingway’s work in general, accessible and attractive to a new generation of readers. As the grandson Hemingway submits, this edition affords new possibilities:
This new Hemingway Library Edition enables the reader to dig deeper into the author’s creative process, to understand how Hemingway achieved his art with the inclusion of early drafts and the lists of titles that Hemingway considered for his novel.
This may well be the case; first drafts often give an indication of the personal experience that lead to the creation of a work of art. That information, however, is of exclusively secondary interest, and, if indulged too freely, leads to a moving-away from and eventual misunderstanding of the finished product. For example, a note is made of the ostensibly interesting fact that Hemingway did not witness the retreat at Caporetto, nor even visit that area of Italy. Next they will tell us that Shakespeare never spent any time in Denmark.
Several reviews of this edition have suggested that it was undertaken in order to shift attention away from Hemingway’s mythologized personality, such as the boozing and brawling Midnight in Paris character, and back to his substantial contribution to literature. This is an admirable and correct intention, but it is not carried out here. Hemingway’s central aim as artist was to meet the fragmentation and disillusionment of his age not with a hyper-intellectual collage, nor an edifying myth, but with a natural human strength and decency. His works, when read carefully, reflect this aim. To attach to A Farewell to Arms the scattered and discarded elements of its birth is, whatever the intention, to work against its power and, of course, its author.
Jack Hanson is a student of Literature and Philosophy at Suffolk University.