Hemingway on American Literature

In an earlier post I wrote in March about deadlines that was inspired by Hemingway’s Green Hills of Africa, I promised to write about any other perils of wisdom from the book I’d come across. While the narrative is mostly about Hemingway’s hunting journey in East Africa describing the landscape, his travelling company, the tribesmen and, of course, the hunts, there was little to make for an exciting or an intellectual read. But Hemingway being Hemingway, if you are an admirer of his style, then the writing itself is a pleasure to read.

The chosen passages below are from early on in the book, which I found both informative and stimulating.


The discussion begins in a dialogue where Hemingway is probed about American literature by an inquisitive expat. Hemingway discusses his take on American literature at the period (circa 1935):

“We do not have great writers,” I said. “Something happens to our good writers at a certain age. I can explain but it is quite long and may bore you.”

He then talks about Melville where he believes: “They [people] put a mystery which is not there.” And then he goes on to talk about Emerson, Hawthorne, Whitter and Company as “…exiled English colonials from an England from which they were never a part…”

Then there’s this curious utterance by Hemingway:

Some writers are only born to help another writer to write one sentence. […] Writers should work alone. they should see each other only after their work is done, and not too often then. Otherwise they become like writers in New York.

It does make me think whether Hemingway’s insight is as relevant today as it was then.

The Famous Quote

And when talking about the good writers, Hemingway refers to Henry James, Stephen Crane and Mark Twain. He says: “Mark Twain is a humorist. The others I do not know.” And then the often referenced passage about Twain:

All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. If you read it you must stop where the Nigger Jim is stolen from the boys. That is the real end. The rest is just cheating. But it’s the best book we’ve had. all American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.

The Demise

Hemingway explains the fall of writers as particularly due to extra costs and hurried work:

We destroy them [American writers] in many ways. First economically. They make money. It is only by hazard that a writer makes money although good books always make money eventually. Then our writers when they have made some money increase their standard of living and they are caught. They have to write to keep up their establishment, their wives, and so on, and they write slop. It is not slop on purpose but because it is hurried. Because they write when there is nothing to say or no water in the well. Because they are ambitious. Then, once they have betrayed themselves, they justify it and you get more slop.


These exchanges and others not quoted here helped reveal a lot about Hemingway’s views on the literature of his time. The manner in which Hemingway expresses these viewpoints is original, bearing in mind this is neither an article, journal, memoir, essay or any other strict form. Green Hills of Africa is a non-fiction book (perhaps what is termed today ‘Creative Non-fiction’) depicting a certain time frame in Hemingway’s life involving one theme – hunting. What, then, made him keep these exchanges when editing his book for publication? And why the need to share these personal viewpoints about his contemporaries in such an out-of-context theme?

Do you think established writers should take their time writing and preparing their books? Or do you believe material should be churned out and transformed into books as fast as possible to keep up with the competition and maintain sales?



20 thoughts on “Hemingway on American Literature

  1. People seem to be under the impression that wisdom is not perilous …

    More on topic, I sometimes think that the things (conditions?) that make for great writing are quite divorced from the things that make for successful writing. They’re different skill sets and different priorities.

    1. I think I understand your point. I would have to say I’m inclined to agree. Great writing requires different skills and priorities, the advantage though is that ‘great writing’ is often ‘successful writing’ but not vice versa.

  2. I think being ‘caught’ applies to all artists, actors, painters, etc. But it doesn’t always lead to a falling of standards or ‘lying’. Dickens, for instance worked to a strict and hectic schedule but his artistry if anything increased.

    1. I suppose it all depends on the person behind the work. Different people have different habits which in turn require different pressures.

  3. Great quotes. I think that writers should write good books. Some writers produce a good book every 4 years, some every year, some every 6 months. It should be about the reading experience and producing the best product they can. Some good writers are prolific and some only write one book in a lifetime. But I am forever better for reading each writer. 🙂

    1. The reading experience should be the ultimate judge, shouldn’t it… thanks for grounding me again Kourtney 😉

      I’d have to say that this book didn’t convey the best experience because of the amount of pages devoted to hunting. What did strike me was Hemingway’s use of this narrative to talk about a few of the things mentioned here and in a couple of places more.

  4. Hemingway was clearly talking about his romantic conception of himself as a writer – and forecasting the depressing way things would end up for him. This book is where EH begins playing up to his public image for readers back home. That strain led to several mediocre books. These laconic/sardonic pronouncements about everything are very tiresome in ‘To Have and Have Not’, ‘The Fifth Column’, etc., and finally just plain stupid.

    Let’s face it – the pros just sit down and write because they enjoy the opportunity to make a living out of what they love doing.

    See my ‘Green Hills of Africa’ article ‘Man and Mannlicher: Papa Searching For The Frontier’ at my blog Honey for the Bears

    1. ‘Let’s face it – the pros just sit down and write because they enjoy the opportunity to make a living out of what they love doing.’ – Indeed, well said. It’s sad really, to see his writing subjects slip.

      Thank you for stopping by and commenting, and for introducing me to your blog.

  5. i like the expression “perils of wisdom” (if a little knowledge is a dangerous thing…) but perhaps you meant to write pearls of wisdom?

    1. Thank you for the correction and for commenting. It does make me wonder though what my subconscious was trying to say…

  6. “Perils of wisdom”? Don’t think so. But in terms of your question, it is a “have you stopped beating your wife yet?” question. Established writers should certainly spend time writing their books, but what money has changed is that preparing books often falls to staff or independent contractors. But even the first part of the question is not a useful question. The amount of time taken doesn’t translate into quality. And why do ask it about “established” writers? What does that mean? How many sales equals established? How many words published?

    Bear in mind that Hem’s complaint in that quote is that the market, and marketing, are driving writers to write when they have nothing to say. His bitch was books to fill the shelves. Youngblood Hawke by Herman Wouk is a very good novel on the same subject. Read it and you well better understand what Hemingway was referring to, as it had a lot to do with life in that era, not just some vague economic pressure. It was a time of radical cultural change, like now.

    1. “Established” in this context means writers whose name is rather well-known amongst readers. Absolutely, the amount of time taken doesn’t translate into quality. However, a rushed book may not have the overall qualities originally sought after by the author himself. Which brings me back to “established” writers, if they are established then they have the team necessary to do all the nitty-gritty stuff at the publishing house while they begin their next project. If, on the other hand, the writer is still trying to break in to the market, then there is seldom any hope of having this excess help unless hired by the author. This, of course, is all in the context of traditional publishing.

      Thank you for the book tip. It’s always important to know the context in which things are said to better understand the implications.

  7. That last Hemingway quote is interesting…so, writing is no different from other careers where, when you make money and live to the edge of your means, you then have to scramble to keep up. In another job, you might take a position you don’t enjoy as much just for the higher pay, but the equivalent in writing seems worse because writing is more intimate. Maybe writers then sacrifice quality to earn money and when they finally have enough to relax, they find themselves able to make their writing more intimate again.

    1. An interesting juxtaposition, I wonder if that does happen. I’ve read about writers who use different pseudonyms for different genres and then write prolifically. Although I’ve never read any such authors across the genres so it would be difficult for me to make a comparison.

      My feeling is that at the end of the day, it’s a question of attitude: Am I someone who wants to write for the purpose of money or am I someone who wants to write the best book I can within my abilities? And there is the other factor of reputation, once a book is deemed inferior by a reader, does that reader still which to read books by the author (and why)?

      It’s interesting to see the different viewpoints of readers with these questions. Thanks Jeanette for commenting.

  8. I see “writing with deadlines” as writers who write Harlequin novels and have to methodically churn out material as dictated by the publishing house. But without a deadline, writing itself would be impossible. I think there will always be a trade-off, and part of writing is finding how to balance deadlines with your intrinsic sense of completion.

  9. Great excerpts and great questions. While I’m a huge fan of prolific authors who manage to publish a book every year or so, I cringe at the thought of writing purely for the sake of the paycheque rather than the art itself. I’m in the final stages of my first indie novel, and although I’m entirely novice, I’m confident that I would create crap if driven by the demand to keep up with competition and maintain sales. Then again, high demand means that you’re creating art that is relevant to your readership. A total Catch-22!

    1. I’d side with you that writing purely for the pay cheque would make me cringe. The fact that money can be the objective motive rather than a reward to hard work bewilders me. To each his won, of course.

      I’m not sure if I admire that many prolific authors, if by books that implies novels or short story collections and excludes other forms – the only one that comes to mind at present is John Updike, whose work I do admire and I consider prolific.

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