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.
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?