September 7, 2012
In December 1919, the young Ernest Hemingway confessed his fledgling literary aspirations in a letter to his sister Ursula. “You know,” he gushed, “I really do think that I will be a heller of a good writer some day. Every once in a while I knock off a yarn that is so bludy good I can’t figure how I ever wrote it. … Everything good takes time and it takes time to be a writer, but by Gad I’m going to be one some day.” Still only twenty years old, and without a single publication to his name, Hemingway’s hubristic visions of future glory have turned out, in hindsight, to fall short of the mark. He became much more than just “a good writer” churning out vaguely entertaining literary amusements. He became one of the most stylistically radical writers of his age and one of the greatest in the American pantheon.
That letter to Ursula and scores of others to friends and family have now been collected in The Letters of Ernest Hemingway: Volume 1, edited by Sandra Spanier and Robert W. Trogdon. The first in a projected sixteen-volume collection of Hemingway’s complete correspondence, Letters covers the years from July 1907 to December 1922. This period takes the young writer from his eighth birthday through to age twenty-three and the piecemeal publication of the work that would reappear in his first collection of fiction and poetry. Although replete with critical notes aimed squarely at Hemingway scholars, the scholarly apparatus is unobtrusive and the volume as a whole seems targeted at non-academic readers. Letters requires only broad familiarity with and affection for Ernest Hemingway, not a detailed knowledge of his life and labour.
But what exactly is the value of reading Hemingway’s letters at all? If his major literary achievements took the form of short stories and novels, what can a reader possibly gain from browsing his private outpourings? Three possible gains come to mind: the biographical, the stylistic, and the aesthetic. Perhaps the letters reveal the sources of Hemingway’s later literature, the real events that flowed out from the life he lived into the fiction that made him famous. Or perhaps the letters mark the stages in his stylistic development, the discovery and refinement of the rhetorical manipulations which would eventually allow him to produce his more celebrated work. Or perhaps the letters offer their own sort of stimulation, an exploitation of the letter as a literary form whose artistic rewards rival the rewards of alternative forms.
The bad news is that readers who turn to Hemingway’s letters for either the first or the last reason are bound for disappointment. With the exception of the wartime injury that worked its way into A Farewell to Arms, none of the life events covered in the letters were a major influence on the Hemingway oeuvre and, as for the artistry of the letters, the author himself acknowledged their simplicity and occasional banality. “I am sorry to write such dull letters,” he confessed to his mother, Grace, in February 1922, “[but] I get such full expression in my articles and the other work I am doing that I am quite pumped out and exhausted from a writing stand point and so my letters are very common-place. If I wrote nothing but letters all of [my passion for other literary forms] would go into them.” The good news, however, is that readers who turn to the letters with an eye towards Hemingway’s stylistic development are in for a treat — and particularly since the letters display varieties of stylistic experimentation which do not at all resemble the minimalism that made Hemingway famous.
Although the letters are presented chronologically without categorization, they fall into three phases which only faintly overlap. The first phase takes Hemingway from his childhood in Michigan to his early manhood on the Italian front. The second phase takes him from his wartime injury to the courtship of his first wife, Hadley Richardson. The third phase takes him from his marriage to Hadley to the brink of literary success following their emigration to Paris.
Hemingway’s childhood in rural Michigan seems to have consisted of a series of boys’ own adventures in the spirit of his Nick Adams stories, as the idyllic outdoors perfectly suited the young author’s rugged, rambunctious, and occasionally violent temperament. Here, for instance, is a letter he wrote to his father on July 23, 1909, two days after his tenth birthday:
today Mama and the rest of us took a walk.
We walked to the school house.
Marcelline ran on ahead.
Wile we stopt at Clouse’s.
In a little wile she came back.
She said that in the Wood Shed of the Scool house there was a porcupine.
So we went up there and looked in the door, the porcupine was asleep.
I went in and gave I[t] a wack with the axx.
Then I cave I[t] anthor and another.
Then I crald in the wood.
Wrane to Mr Clous and he got his gun and Shot It.
Hear some of the quills.
He learned to suppress his violent streak over the following years, but otherwise he rarely hesitated to unleash his inner provocateur. In September 1910, he wrote a letter to his sister, Marcelline, in which he recalled accompanying his mother to a women’s suffrage meeting “thru which I slept soundly.” In May 1913, he was forced to write a “Confessional Letter” to his father, Clarence, in penance for some unspecified misbehaviour: “My conduct at the Coloseum yesterday was bad and my conduct this morning in church was bad my conduct tomorrow will be good.” In July 1915, he wrote a letter to an acquaintance, ‘Carissimus,’ in which he admitted to reading through some letters that Marcelline had received from her friends. He was “trying to find out what the dames think of me,” he said, when he came across a note from a mutual friend who had confessed to Marcelline her attraction to ‘Carissimus.’ “Gosh but [that letter] is mushy,” Hemingway went on. “I tell you guy beware! All females are alike.”
Hemingway’s attraction to literature first became evident between 1914 and 1916, at around the time he wrote that last letter, just as he entered adolescence. It seems to have manifested first as a tendency to conceive of his own life in literary terms, likening his unruly behaviour to that of a young boy who lived only on the page. On September 8, 1914, he wrote to his mother, Grace, about his adventures at school that day. A delayed train left him two hours late for his classes, he said, so that he arrived to find himself in a scenario straight out of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: “There was a report circulated around that I was drowned and some of my pals thot I was a ghost.” On July 13, 1916, he again alluded to Huckleberry Finn when he complained to a friend about his family’s views of his distaste for schoolwork. “Just think how pleased My family would be,” he said, “if they would civilize me and inculcate a taste for Math and a distaste for Fishing.”
Since the older Hemingway would someday hail Huckleberry Finn as one of the greatest works of American literature, perhaps it isn’t so surprising that his younger self should have been so in thrall to Twain’s most memorable characters. What is surprising, however, is that Twain appears to have been the exception to the rule of what the young Hemingway chose to read, the sole American writer in a reading list dominated by classicists and contemporary British authors and headed by Rudyard Kipling. And, at the same time that Twain exerted an influence on how the young Hemingway saw his own life, it was the stylistic stiff-upper-lip of Kipling that emerged as the clearest influence on the young author’s early literary output. “Well old soak,” he wrote to Marcelline in June 1916, “I suppose you have had quite the ‘Je su pas’ time as it were. While commencement was going on Lew and I were fishing all night on a pool of the Rapid River 50 miles from no-where. Murmuring pines and hemlocks — black still pool — roar of rapids around bend of river — devilish solemn still — deuced poetic.”
Insofar as echoes of the ‘black still pool’ and ‘roar of rapids’ appear in stories like ‘Big Two-Hearted River’ and in A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls, Hemingway clearly never lost his adolescent attraction to a particular sort of natural imagery, but those masterpieces are conspicuously lacking in phrases like ‘devilish solemn’ and ‘deuced poetic.’ Fancying himself a literary legend in the making, the young Hemingway seems to have turned to Kipling, one of the literary legends of the time, and set about aping his style. True to his temperament, Hemingway also sought to bolster his own legendary status by playfully but provocatively diminishing the literary skills of writers clearly more accomplished than himself. When he was living away from home and received word that Marcelline had been accepted as a member of a local writing group, his letter of congratulations included more barbed comments than evident good will: “You poor bonus caput how in the name of all things just and unjust did you get in the story club,” he wrote. “If I couldn’t write a better story than you I’d consign myself to purgatory. Congratulations.” More audaciously, he used a letter to his parents to reveal a jaundiced view of no less a writer than Cicero. “Cicero is a pipe,” he declared. “I could write better stuff than he could with both hands tied behind me.”
Until 1917, Hemingway rarely wrote letters in which his emerging literary sensibilities cast an overt stylistic veneer over his retellings of his adventures. On the one hand, he expressed admiration for certain literary heroes and confessed to holding literary aspirations. On the other hand, he simply went about living his life and wrote plainly about the life he lived. Only once in Letters does an incident from his life receive overt stylisation: the hyperstylisation of exaggeration and grotesquerie. “Another item of information,” he wrote to his friend Emily Goetzmann in March 1916, “is that my beautiful Graeco Roman Etruscan Irish nose, or to use the Language of the Vulgar my pulchritudinous proboscis has wandered over on one side of my face as a result of a little boxing bout. However it has about got back to normal and people can now pass me on the street without emmitting loud coarse guffaws of touching mirth.”
Those are the words of an aspiring writer just discovering the versatility of his craft — the elasticity of rhetoric — and flying high on the bravado of the discovery but apparently uncertain about how to take it more seriously after this point. A few pages later, when he discovers that the process of revision can refine the prose on the page and sharpen the imagery and invest the whole with new vitality, it’s hard to fight off a tingle down the spine. In his classic interview with the Paris Review, the fifty-nine-year-old Hemingway admitted to being an extremely disciplined rewriter: “I always rewrite each day up to the point where I stopped,” he said. “When it is all finished, naturally you go over it [again]. You get another chance to correct and rewrite when someone else types it, and you see it clean in type. … I rewrote the ending to Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, thirty-nine times before I was satisfied.” Included in Letters is a brief, wistful note that Hemingway wrote to his parents from rural Michigan on September 14, 1917, in which appears his first recorded attempt to affectively enhance a piece of prose by subjecting it to revision:
Probably I will be home in time for the Worlds Series in the middle of Oct. All the trees are turning red up here now. All the birds are putting on their beautiful autumn foliage and the trees are gathering in twittering flocks ready for their flight to the glorious south land.
Within weeks of writing that letter, Hemingway raced head-first towards a radical stylistic variation and a more disciplined writing practice. On scarcely a moment’s notice he left Michigan for Kansas City, Missouri, where he landed a job as a reporter at the Kansas City Star. According to the legend which he himself later bolstered, it was the house guide at the Star that formed the basis of his mature prose style. “All you have to do is write one true sentence,” he famously declared in A Moveable Feast, revealing the advice he gave himself when he made his first conscious efforts to write and fiction. “Write the truest sentence you know. … [C]ut the scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence” — and, as he told the Paris Review, “[o]n the Star you were forced to learn to write a simple declarative sentence.”
But Hemingway’s workload at the Star seemed to continuously replenish itself, and, not long after he took up his position, all those countless declarative sentences drove his more personal writing in an entirely different, opaque, and fragmented stylistic direction. “All cops live me like a brotherhood,” he wrote to Marcelline in October 1917:
I am Editor of Public Mind like Vox of the Pop. but am now promoted and edit mind with less frequency. This is copy paper. On it is written with a typewriter solely. Poor hand-writing has not handicapped me yet. At St. Josephine I was and have chance to work on St. Josephine Gazette. But the Salary! Merci! It is nought. A mere pittance! Here I receive 60 of them per month. A princely stipend. and why is it I hear from you not? Loneliness consumes me theoretically; practically I am all business and have no time but at the office there is a frequency of the Tempus.
As his workload increased towards the end of the year, the Star came to affect his literary style not only by demanding that his professional writing meet rigorously declarative standards but also by leaving him with almost no time in which to write anything but reportage. “I am sorry that I didnt get a letter off oftener last week,” he wrote to his parents in December, “but I aws right up to my neck in work and havn’t had a single minute¾.” The following month he sent a letter to another sister, Madelaine, in which his style suffered a devolution into borderline nonsense — “Was the old brute glad to hear ffn you.? Hw was that. He was that. He surely was that. … Some Damsel. Show this to jigggs will you.&%$#”_(&)” — and the devolution continued throughout the following months. “I’ve just time to scribble a little to you,” he wrote to his parents in March 1918. “We are awfully busy.”
On April 16, the workload finally took its toll on the young Hemingway, not yet nineteen years old, and drove him to the point of absolute exhaustion. He snapped, suffering a minor breakdown, and saw only two options before him: “a vacation or bust.” In a long and unusually intimate letter to his father, Hemingway gave voice to his demons:
This is the way things are lined up at present. I have been down here about seven months, granted. Until lately I have neen making not enough to live on. See High Cost of Living figures. I am only a kid of nearly 19 granted, and have been hitting the pace pretty blame hard. Working in competetion with men with threee to ten years more experience than I have. I have had to work like sin and have concentrated about three years work into one. … And now Pop I am bushed! So bushed that I cant sleep nights, that my eyes get woozy, and that I am loosing weight and am tired all the time. I’m mentally and physically all in, Pop, and there isn’t any body Knows it better than myself. Look at it this way. It is as though I had gone to college and been under the strain of cramming for an examination for seven months straight. For that is the way it is. Responsibility, absolute accuracy, thousands of dollars hinge on your statements, absolute truth and accuracy. A middle initial wrong may mean a libel suit. And allways working under a strain.
This is what makes you mentally fagged. Having to write a half column story with every name, address and initial verified and remembering to use good style, perfect style in fact, an get all the facts and in the correct order, make it have snap and wallop and write it in fifteen minutes, five sentences at a time to catch an edition as it goes to press. To take a story over the phone and get everything exact see it all in your minds eye, rush over to a typewriter and write it a page at a time while ten other typewriters are going and the boss is hollering at some one and a boy snatches the pages from your machine as fast as you write them.
Having resolved to quit his job at the Star, Hemingway decided to head north to Canada in order to do what he truly wanted to do and volunteer for military service in Europe. When the Red Cross sought a new intake of medical officers in June 1918, Hemingway took the chance to sign up. He travelled to Europe and spent some time seeing the sights — on June 3, in remarks that would become atypical of him, he wrote home with the verdict that “Paris is a great city but not as quaint and interesting as Bordeaux” — and then, stationed in Italy on June 9, he dashed off a note to a friend at the Star just after he had been briefed on his duties. “I go to the front tomorrow,” he wrote. “Oh, Boy!!! I’m glad I’m in it. They love us down here in the mountains.” But his service as an ambulance officer lasted barely a month, ending with an explosion that gave him both a lifelong injury and the basis for the novel that is perhaps his very best.
On July 14, 1918, Theodore Brumback, an old friend of Hemingway, contacted Hemingway’s parents with a summary of their son’s accident and news of his present condition. Brumback’s note is the only document in Hemingway’s Letters that does not belong to Hemingway himself. “I have just come from seeing Ernest at the American Red Cross hospital,” he wrote. “He is fast on the road to recovery and will be out a whole man once again, so the doctor says, in a couple of weeks. Although some two hundred pieces of shell were lodged in him none of them are above the hip joint. Only a few of these pieces was large enough to cut deep; the most serious of these being two in the knee and two in the right foot.” In the week before the incident, Hemingway had acquired a bicycle and had been cycling out to the frontline to deliver chocolate to the Italian soldiers. “[A]bout midnight on the seventh day,” wrote Brumback, “an enormous trench mortar hit within a few feet of Ernest. … The concussion of the explosion knocked him unconscious and buried him with earth. There was an Italian between Ernest and the shell. He was instantly killed while another, standing a few feet away, had both his legs blown off. A third Italian was badly wounded and this one Ernest, after he had regained consciousness, picked up on his back and carried to the first aid dug-out. He says he does not remember how he got there nor that he had carried a man until the next day when an Italian officer told him all about it and that it had been voted upon to give him a valor medal for the act.”
On July 21, his nineteenth birthday, Hemingway wrote to his father, a doctor, with an account of his condition that amounts to one of his most tender letters. When writing to his mother about a week later, he offered a self-deprecating but frank assessment of his recovery prospects. “[F]rom present indications I will never look well in kilts as the old limbs present a somewhat cut up appearance,” he joked. “They look a bit disgruntled. For a time Maw I resembled a walking blacksmith shop.” When he wrote to his father, however, he began by sugarcoating the severity of his injuries — “Everything is fine and I’m very comfortable and one of the best surgeons in Milan is looking after my wounds” — and then he cast his recovery prospects in terms that deftly walk the line between the physician’s professional desensitisation to injury and the young masculinist’s determination not to let his injuries make him flinch. Taking a no-nonsense view of the physical damage that left him incapacitated for weeks, the young writer attempts to meet his father in exclusively rhetorical terms: to represent his injuries with a stylistic austerity that strikes a balance between his own fascination with masculine stoicism and his father’s presumed interest in the bodily particulars of his wounds:
There are a couple of pieces still [stuck] in [my legs]. One bullet in my knee that the X Ray showed. The surgeon… is going to wait for the wound in my right knee to become healed cleanly before operating. The bullet with then be rather encysted and he will make a clean cut and go in under the side of the knee cap. By allowing it to be completly healed first he thus avoids any danger of infection and stiff knee. That is wise dont you think Dad? He will also remove a bullet from my right foot at the same time. … All the other bullets and pieces of shell have been removed and all the wounds on my left leg are healing finely. … There will be no permanent effects from any of the wounds as there are no bones shattered. Even in my knees. In both the left and right the bullets did not fracture the patella. One piece of shell about the size of a Timken roller bearing was in my left knee but it has been removed and the knee now moves perfectly and the wound is nearly healed. In the right knee the bullet went under the knee cap from the left side and didnt smash it a bit.
During his recovery period, of course, Hemingway met Agnes von Kurowsky, the young Red Cross nurse who later became the inspiration for Catherine Barkley in A Farewell to Arms. Although their relationship is known to have been a passionate one, very little of the passion appears to have made its way onto the page as Kurowsky is mentioned in only two letters. “In regard to the question you asked I will reply,” Hemingway wrote to Marcelline: “Yes. She is a Cross Red Nurse. Further more I cannot state I am of a dumbness.” But the dumbness had worn off by the time he described Kurowsky to his lifelong friend Bill, with whom he tended to be less guarded. “Bill this is some girl and I thank God I got crucked so I met her,” he wrote. “Damn it I really honestly can’t see what the devil she can see in the brutal [Hemingway] but by some very lucky astigmatism she loves me Bill. … Why man I’ve only got about 50 more years to live and I don’t want to waste any of them and every minute that I’m away from that Kid is wasted.” An aura of tragedy settles over those words for readers who know that the young man who wrote them could not have foreseen that his romance was doomed or that Frederic Henry, Hemingway’s eventual fictional stand-in, would love Catherine Barkley much more than Hemingway himself ever appeared to love Agnes von Kurowsky.
The letters that follow the dissolution of Hemingway’s relationship with Kurowsky are littered with oblique references to other people whose names would eventually trickle down into Hemingway’s fiction — Neroni, Krebs, Wemedge, and others — until he suffered a renewed cri de coeur at the beginning of 1919. The end of the war left him uncertain of his direction in life and his attempts at becoming a writer were marked by a distinct lack of progress. Although he had not yet spent any time as an American expatriate in Spain, he felt himself burdened by much the same sense of ennui and listlessness as that which colours The Sun Also Rises and he yearned for an opportunity to prove himself worthy of some sort of greatness. His hopeful, enthusiastic, and hubristic remarks to his sister Ursula — “I really do think that I will be a heller of a good writer some day” — were written at the tail end of this period.
“I’ve written some darn good things Jim,” he declared in a spirited letter to Jim Gamble, editor of the Saturday Evening Post, in March 1919. “That is good for me. And am starting a campaign against [the Post]. I sent them the first story Monday last. … Tomorrow another one starts toward them. I’m going to send ‘em so many and such good ones, no I havn’t really got the big head, that they’re going to have to buy them in self defence.” A footnote spells out the young writer’s disappointing fate: “The stories EH mentions submitting remain unidentified: nothing he wrote would ever appear in the Saturday Evening Post.”
“I’m all up in the air about what to do next fall,” he confessed to Gamble about a month later. “Wish a war would come along and solve my problems. Now that I don’t have to do to work I can’t decide what the devil to do. The family are trying to get me to go to college but I want to go back to Italy and I want to go to Japan and I want to live a year in Paris and I want to do so damned many things now that I don’t know what the deuce I will do. … It was very simple while the war was on. Then there was only one thing for a man to do.” It was at this time that Hemingway experienced the crystallisation of the worldview and the attendant moral dilemma that would together preoccupy his imagination for decades yet to come. “Idealists lead a rough life in this world Jim,” he told Gamble. “But like hermit crabs they acquire shells that they cover their ideals with and that they can retreat into and protect the ideals with. But sometimes something comes along with a heavy enough tread to crush the shell and the ideals and all.” What is an idealist then to do? A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Old Man and the Sea, and others all offer varying responses to that one unanswerable question.
Surprisingly, though, Hemingway’s own response during the onset of this listlessness was not so far removed from the response of Jack Kerouac, Hemingway’s successor as the spokesman of a generation but very much his opposite in terms of literary style. In August 1919, with the autumn fast approaching, Hemingway wrote to his friend Bill with a proposed plan of action. That plan now reads like a missing fragment of Kerouac’s On the Road scroll, written almost thirty years before Kerouac and Neal Cassady ever hit the road:
Bill if you want to keep the old ideals straight and cut loose from the damned dirty money grubbing for a year I’m your man. There is so much of this world we haven’t seen and it is just a little while that we’re here anyway.
We are Simpatico Bill and we could go anywhere and have a good time. If you want to go out to Hawaii and the South Seas meet me in Chicago this fall. We’ll bum — it may take us quite a while to get there. But you know we’ll have a good time together. The more money we had to start with the better. But it isn’t a necessity. We’ll go through the South West to the coast and you can get to Hawaii for 45 dollars from the coast. And we’ll discover every place we go. And we’ll have thousands of adventures. And we’ll work when we have to and we’ll loaf. And we’ll live Bill! We’ll live!
Hemingway certainly lived, but he didn’t live as he dreamed of living when he sat down to write to Bill. Between that one letter and the end of Letters there is scarcely any correspondence in which Hemingway elucidates the circumstances he fell into, but the suddenness with which he fell into them is implicit in the scarcity of such elucidation. In December 1920, Hemingway met Hadley Richardson through mutual acquaintances: Richardson’s roommate, who would eventually marry John Dos Passos, had a brother who shared a house with Hemingway in St. Louis. Hemingway and Richardson were married less than a year after meeting, and, in December 1921, Hemingway landed the job at the Toronto Star that enabled the two of them to move to Paris. The last pages of Letters reveal Hemingway’s Parisian attempts to establish himself as a writer of fiction and poetry by impressing writers already established and carefully cultivating his ties to them. Fresh off the success of Winesburg, Ohio, it was Sherwood Anderson who had originally suggested that Hemingway would benefit from a relocation to Paris, and so it was Anderson who received one of the earliest letters in which Hemingway described his impressions of the city. The floweriness of its language contrasts with the more utilitarian rhetoric of concurrent letters and suggests that Hemingway wanted as much to maintain contact with Anderson as to appeal to his literary sensibilities:
Well here we are. And we sit outside the Dome Café, oposite the Rotunde that’s being redecorated, warmed up against one of those charcoal brazziers and it’s so damned cold outside and the brazier makes it so warm and we drink rum punch, hot, and the rhum enters into us like the Holy Spirit.
And when it’s a cold night in the streets of Paris and we’re walking home down the Rue Bonaparte we think of the way the wolves used to slink into the city and Francois Villon and the gallows at Montfaucon. What a town.
The poetic imagery of the second paragraph is a reference to Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘A Lodging for the Night,’ but beyond that point all the poetry belongs to Hemingway himself:
In a couple of days we’ll be settled and then I’ll send out the letters of introduction like launching a flock of ships. … There’s a deathly, tired silence you can’t get anywhere else except a railway compartment at the end of a long ride. … We came via Spain and missed all but a day of the big storm. You ought to see the spanish coast. Big brown mountains looking like tired dinosaurs slumped down into the sea, gulls following from behind the ship holding against the air so steadily they look like property birds raised and lowered by wires. Light house looking like a little candle stuck up on the dinosaurs shoulder.
Other mainstays of Hemingway’s years in Paris make their debut appearances towards the end of Letters. The volume includes a striking photograph of the young author standing amid stacks of books inside Shakespeare & Company, supposedly in the spot where he first met Ezra Pound, while the photographer’s byline credits Sylvia Beach herself as the woman behind the camera. “Gertrude Stein who wrote Three Lives and a number of other good things was here to dinner last night and stayed till mid-night,” Hemingway writes in one of these Parisian letters. “She is about 55 I guess and very large and nice. She is very keen about my poetry. … [And on] Friday we are going to tea at Ezra Pounds. He has asked me to do an article on the present literary state of America for the Little Review.”
That was in February 1922. The following months appear to have given Hemingway little opportunity for further stylistic experimentation, at least in his letters, but they certainly afforded him the material for his early short stories as his duties for the Toronto Star took him to other European destinations, to Constantinople, and to war-ravaged Smyrna. Before the year was out, he lost almost his entire body of work when Hadley misplaced a suitcase full of his manuscripts — an incident that will open the next volume of letters, since Hemingway did not write about it until he described it to Ezra Pound in January 1923 — after which six more years in Paris and a lifetime of literary greatness awaited the unsuspecting aspiring author.
Within the next twelve months, Hemingway would become both a father and a published writer of fiction and poetry. He would also visit Pamplona, Spain, and witness the first of the many bullfights that gave him literary inspiration. In the two years after that, he would edit the transatlantic review with Ford Madox Ford, twice return to Pamplona, publish the legendary In Our Time, dedicate a solid eight weeks to producing a draft of The Sun Also Rises, and begin a long affair with the woman who would become his second wife. These experiences will no doubt shape Letters: Volume 2, as will perhaps Hadley’s discovery of her husband’s affair, the slow death of their marriage and their divorce, Hemingway’s brief but traumatic battle against anthrax, the publication of Men Without Women, his new marriage, and his decision to leave Paris in pursuit of the sun and the sea in Key West, Florida.
It remains to be seen how those experiences might have shaped Hemingway’s style and driven him decisively in the direction of minimalism, particularly as he engaged in further stylistic experimentation and developed greater awareness of the affective properties of various styles. For now, though, it is enough to be able to watch him coming into an awareness of style as a repository of affective power and of endless potential for manipulability. If Letters offered little more than a catalogue of autobiographical details, a rote record of Hemingway’s experiences and the people he encountered, it would be effectively interchangeable with a more straightforward biographical study — and, to the extent that readers approach the volume as a de factoautobiography, it is bound to be disappointing because so interchangeable. What makes it valuable is its status as a record of Hemingway’s initially tentative but increasingly confident modulation of rhetoric in service of a variety of private disclosures and for an extraordinary range of readers. What emerges from letter to letter is a gradual but steady accretion of literary ability via experimentation, a sketch, in words, of a writer enmeshed in becoming a writer. Letters is as much the opening chapter in the story of Hemingway himself as it is the opening chapter in the story of the Hemingway style, and to watch that style slowly resolve itself on the page is a privilege available nowhere else but here.
August 21, 2012
Links to Jacob Silverman’s notes “against enthusiasm” have been popping up in my RSS and Twitter feeds for a few of weeks now, first when they appeared as brief remarks on Silverman’s blog and again when Silverman turned them into an article published last week on Slate. In most instances the links have been accompanied by either praise for Silverman’s argument or an absence of commentary which I take as tantamount to an acknowledgement that, at the very least, he’s on to something. In his notes, Silverman diagnoses the preeminent problem with today’s online culture of literary criticism and proposes a solution for it. I think his diagnosis is spot-on, so I’m glad to see a sustained interest in his notes — and particularly since so many of the venues that have linked to them are the very sorts of venues he faults.
“[I]f you spend time in the literary Twitter- or blogospheres,” writes Silverman,
you’ll be positively besieged by amiability, by a relentless enthusiasm that might have you believing that all new books are wonderful and that every writer is every other writer’s biggest fan. It’s not only shallow, it’s untrue, and it’s having a chilling effect on literary culture, creating an environment where writers are vaunted for their personal biographies or their online followings rather than for their work on the page. … Critics gush in anticipation for books they haven’t yet read; they <3 so-and-so writer, tagging the author’s Twitter handle so that he or she knows it, too; they exhaust themselves with outbursts of all-caps praise, because that’s how you boost your follower count and affirm your place in the back-slapping community that is the literary web.
One problem with this situation is that, for Silverman, “it’s a critical dead-end, a conversation nonstarter. It’s opinion without evidence — or, really, posture without opinion. For every ‘+1,’ ‘THIS,’ or ‘<3′ we offer next to someone’s fawning tweet, a feeling is expressed without saying much at all.” And because such “cloying niceness and blind enthusiasm are the dominant sentiments” of online literary criticism, their very dominance gives rise to a second problem: “biting criticism has become synonymous with offense; everything is personal — one’s affection for a book is interchangeable with one’s feelings about its author as a person.” The result is a literary culture “dependent on personal esteem and mutual reinforcement,” in which criticism has ceased to function as such. Because every member of this culture wants their own writing to be read, they seek to receive praise for their writing by praising the writings of others and, as a result, the culture overflows with writings of which none are ever not worth reading.
Glancing at the archives of this blog over the last few months, and looking through the computer documents and notebooks in which I also write, I see that I have brought nothing to completion: no new posts, reviews, or articles. There are two reasons for this recent silence, each of which, in its own way, dovetails with Silverman’s criticisms and proposed solution.
The first reason is that I have spent three months struggling with enormous practical impediments to writing. On August 1, I took up a new teaching position in Switzerland. I began preparing for the overseas move in May and tying up loose ends in Australia in June, and I finished all that and moved here towards the end of July. Co-ordinating the overseas move was a drawn-out, demanding process that left me with almost no time to sit down, uninterrupted, long enough to find words to set on a page and twist them into intelligible form.
How does the move to Switzerland dovetail with Silverman’s notes? It dovetails inasmuch as it entails a retreat from the literary culture of Melbourne. “To the uninitiated, this might seem immaterial,” Silverman writes of his opposition to the culture of enthusiasm, “or [it might seem] like the kind of navel-gazing tabulation of credentials that can make the New York literary world insufferable.” What’s true of New York is probably true of any city with a thriving literary culture, Melbourne included. With few exceptions, Melbourne’s literary culture — on which the city prides itself, and which can seem so vibrant from afar — strikes me as insular, shallow, and self-congratulatory, the physical manifestation of the literary Twitterverse. It functions more on the logic of a professional support network for writers than on the logic of an impassioned engagement in literary evaluation. One book launch after another is attended by the same aspiring authors, each of whom proceeds to wax enthusiastic about the book in question before soliciting enthusiasm for his or her own book when the time comes for it to be launched. Week after week, month after month, enthusiasm coalesces around one mediocre title after another before it dissipates and moves on to the next title in the line of succession. Perhaps this is inevitable in any literary culture where, in terms of labour hours, the process of becoming a writer demands less time spent putting words on a page and more time spent marketing and publicising whatever you can manage to actually write in your spare hours, and networking to ensure that other writers will contribute to your later marketing and publicity efforts.
Whatever the cause of it, I realised not long after moving to Melbourne that this sort of culture wasn’t for me. That was at the beginning of 2009. By the end of 2011, I saw that any pursuit of literary professionalisation in Melbourne would require participation in this culture. Knowing then that I couldn’t bring myself to participate, I began looking outside Melbourne for ways to professionalise my love of literature while at the same time preserving it. What drew me to Switzerland is another story. What matters here is that my departure from Melbourne — one source of my recent silence — was partly a reaction to a literary culture whose atmosphere matches that of the online culture that drew a reaction from Silverman.
The second reason for my recent silence is that I have in some sense been driven to it by a renewed appreciation for literature. Part of this renewed appreciation arises from the collapse of the demand to approach literature through an exclusively academic lens, a demand I no longer face in my new position in Switzerland. Part of it, too, arises from having spent the first half of this year reading a number of works of literature which made such forceful impressions on me that my words no longer seem adequate to the task of conveying those impressions. None of these works are obscure — all of them have been written about in several major publications both online and in print — but my final reaction to each of them was inertia, an inertia based on an inescapable sense that to attempt to dilute their effects on me into some synoptic and analytic form would be to risk diminishing those very effects.
How does this appreciative silence dovetail with Silverman’s notes? It dovetails inasmuch as it casts me into a grey area in Silverman’s proposed remedy for the cloying enthusiasm of online literary criticism. In attempting to countervail that enthusiasm, Silverman contends that a better culture of criticism “would not treat offense or disagreement as toxic. [Its participants] wouldn’t want so badly to be liked above all. We’d tolerate barbed reviews, some quarrels, and blistering critiques, because they make our culture more interesting and because they are often more sincere reflections of our passions.” What Silverman wants to see, then, is greater openness to frank evaluations of mediocre literature. Frank disapproval is one way of responding to mediocrity, of course, but my preferred response is dismissive silence — the very sort of silence that Silverman rejects. “[S]ome publications don’t publish negative reviews,” he complains,
[because they treat] even considered pans as hatchet jobs. Time‘s Lev Grossman has said that he won’t review books he doesn’t like. He recently published an essay titled “I Hate This Book So Much: A Meditation,” which he drained of any details that might be used to identify the book or the writer. For quite some time, NPR.org’s main books feature was called “Books We Like,” and negative reviews were discouraged…
Silence is obviously a problem for Time and NPR. As venues with a defining interest in current affairs, their literary coverage is necessarily chained to the current publishing market and is thus rendered inadequate by a failure or even a calculated refusal to issue a verdict on works that achieve transitory cultural prominence solely by way of marketing processes. For literary blogs, however, the absence of a necessary interest in current affairs means that silence is an affordable response to underwhelming books and, for me, a silent response is one that holds an increasing appeal. If a venue for literary criticism is unconstrained by fealty to the vicissitudes of the market, then it suffers no need to warn readers away from a particular title. If literary criticism does not suffer that need, then those who write it are therefore free to assume that the only titles worth writing about are those that are first worth reading, and those who read it are induced to assume that any title worth reading about is by definition worth reading in full.
Rather than following Silverman’s cues and engaging in the wholesale demolition of books that leave me unsatisfied, I want to disengage from a literary culture utterly beholden to marketing and instead work in a form of literary criticism that operates on the assumptions above. Silverman wants a literary culture in which “we all think more and enthuse less,” as if thoughtful and enthusiastic responses to literature were somehow mutually exclusive. I’d prefer a response in which the articulation of thought is predicated on the experience of enthusiasm, a response in which enthusiasm for a book does not need to be expressed in words because its mode of expression is the very act of using words to articulate one’s thoughts of a book.
Where I find myself now is a position in which, professionally, I can concentrate my critical efforts exclusively on this blog even though, personally, I am not sure that my efforts would do justice to the very works of literature to which I most want to devote them. I’m able now to spend much more time on these pages than I have done over the last year or so, but what will appear on them is likely to be less occasional and less responsive to discourses of the moment than what has appeared here so far. My hope is that, far from advancing a situation in which enthusiasm for literature is cloying and shallow, the medium of the blog can allow for a mode of literary criticism that emerges from enthusiasm, that treats close attention to textual details as a symptom of literary appreciation rather than a path towards it, and that thereby positions the intellectualism of critical analysis as the appreciative extension of the sensuality of reading.
July 4, 2012
I worried about my father. Throughout his illness (that is the word that now, for the first time, came to my mind, and it shocked me and suddenly made me frightened), he had remained kind and remote toward me, as he had always been, but I had lately noticed him looking at me with a sort of wistfulness, as if he were not looking at me, but at a drawing or photograph of me, as if he were remembering me.
It seemed to me as if my father simply faded away. He became more and more difficult to see. One day, I thought he was sitting in his chair at his desk, writing. To all appearances, he scribbled at a sheet of paper. When I asked him where the bag for apple picking was, he disappeared. I could not tell whether he had been there in the first place or if I had asked my question to some lingering afterimage. He leaked out of the world gradually, though. At first, he seemed merely vague or peripheral. But then he could no longer furnish the proper frame for his clothes. He would ask me a question from behind the box on which I sat shelling peas or peeling potatoes for my mother, and when I answered and received no reply back, I would turn around, to find his hat or belt or a single shoe sitting in the door frame as if placed there by a mischievous child. The end came when we could no longer even see him, but felt him in brief disturbances of shadows or light, or as a slight pressure, as if the space one occupied suddenly had had something more packing into it, or we’d catch some faint scent out of season, such as the snow melting into the wool of his winter coat, but on a blistering August noon, as if the last few times I felt him as another being rather than as a recollection, he had thought to check up on this world at the wrong moment and accidentally stepped from whatever wintry place he was straight into the dog days. And it seems that doing so only confirmed to him his fate to fade away, his being in the wrong place, so that during these startled visits, although I could not see him, I could feel his surprise, his bafflement, the dismay felt in a dream when you suddenly meet the brother you forgot you had or remember the infant you left on the hillside miles away, hours ago, because somehow you were distracted and somehow you came to believe in a different life and your shock at these terrible recollections, these sudden reunions, comes as much from your sorrow at what you have neglected as it does from dismay at how thoroughly and quickly you came to believe in something else. And that other world that you first dreamed is always better if not real, because in it you have not jilted your lover, forsaken your child, turned your back on your brother. The world fell away from my father the way he fell away from us. We became his dream.
Another time, I found him fumbling for an apple in the barrel we kept in the basement. I could just make him out in the gloom. Each time he tried to grab a piece of fruit, it eluded him, or I might say he eluded it, as his grasp was no stronger than a draft of air threading through a crack in a window. He succeeded once, after appearing to concentrate for a moment, in upsetting an apple from its place at the top of the pile, but it merely tumbled down along the backs of the other apples and came to rest against the mouth of the barrel. It seemed to me that even if I could pick an apple up with my failing hands, how could I bite it with my dissipating teeth, digest it with my ethereal gut? I realized that this thought was not my own but, rather, my father’s, that even his ideas were leaking out of his former self. Hands, teeth, gut, thoughts even, were all simply more or less convenient to human circumstance, and as my father was receding from human circumstance, so, too, were all of these particulars, back to some unknowable froth where they might be reassigned to be stars or belt buckles, lunar dust or railroad spikes. Perhaps they already were all of these things and my father’s fading was because he realized this: My goodness, I am made from planets and wood, diamonds and orange peels, now and then, here and there; the iron in my blood was once the blade of a Roman plow; peel back my scalp and you will see my cranium covered in the scrimshaw carved by an ancient sailor who never suspected that he was whittling at my skull — no, my blood is a Roman plow, my bones are being etched by men with names that mean sea wrestler and ocean rider and the pictures they are making are pictures of northern stars at different seasons, and the man keeping my blood straight as it splits the soil is named Lucian and he will plant wheat, and I cannot concentrate on this apple, this apple, and the only thing common to all of this is that I feel sorrow so deep, it must be love, and they are upset because while they are carving and plowing they are troubled by visions of trying to pick apples from barrels. I looked away and ran back upstairs, skipping the ones that creaked, so that I would not embarrass my father, who had not quite yet turned back from clay into light.
Paul Harding, Tinkers
June 11, 2012
“What we need here is a montage, music over. How she: talked to her father and xxxx and xxxxx—
“xx,” he said.
“xxx,” she said.
“How she did this and why she did that and what the music was when they did x and x and xxx—
“How he, and also she—”
So begins chapter nineteen of Joan Didion’s Blue Nights. “The above are notes I made in 1995 for a novel I published in 1996,” Didion explains. “I offer them as a representation of how comfortable I used to be when I wrote, how easily I did it, how little thought I gave to what I was saying until I had already said it. In fact, in any real sense, what I was doing then was never writing at all: I was doing no more than sketching in a rhythm and letting that rhythm tell me what it was I was saying.” The symbols that anticipated words to come were not random, she says, but were “arranged in specific groupings. A single ‘x’ differed from a double ‘xx,’ ‘xxx’ from ‘xxxx.’ The number of such symbols had a meaning. The arrangement was the meaning.”
“I supposed th[e] process [of writing over the arrangements] to be like writing music,” Didion continues. “I have no idea whether or not this was an accurate assessment, since I neither wrote nor read music. All I know now is that I no longer write this way. All I know now is that writing, or whatever it is that I was doing when I could proceed on no more than ‘xxx’ and ‘xxxx,’ whatever it was I was doing when I imagined myself hearing the music, no longer comes easily to me. For a while I laid this to a certain weariness with my own style, an impatience, a wish to be more direct. I encouraged the very difficulty I was having laying words on the page. I saw it as evidence of a new directness. I see it differently now. I see it as frailty.”
This admission dovetails with two scenes from Didion’s previous book, The Year of Magical Thinking, about the twelve months following the sudden death of her husband John Dunne.
In the first scene, Didion recalls her birthday on December 5, 2003, some forty years after she and Dunne were married and only twenty-five days before he suffered a fatal heart attack:
I remember [my] last present from John. … Snow had begun falling in New York around ten that morning and by evening seven inches had accumulated, with another six due. I remember snow avalanching off the slate roof at St. James’ Church across the street. … Before dinner John sat by the fire in the living room and read to me out loud. The book from which he read was a novel of my own, A Book of Common Prayer [published in 1977], which he happened to have in the living room because he was rereading it to see how something worked technically. The sequence he read out loud was one in which Charlotte Douglas’s husband Leonard pays a visit to the narrator, Grace Strasser-Mendana, and lets her know that what is happening to the country her family runs will not end well. The sequence is complicated (this was in fact the sequence John had meant to reread to see how it worked technically), broken by other action and requiring the reader to pick up the undertext in what Leonard Douglas and Grace Strasser-Mendana say to each other. “Goddamn,” John said to me when he closed the book. “Don’t ever tell me again you can’t write. That’s my birthday present to you.”
In the second scene, not quite twelve months later, Didion recalls a writing assignment she completed for the New York Review of Books in the lead-up to the 2004 presidential election:
In August and September, after the Democratic and Republican conventions but before the election, I wrote, for the first time since John died, a piece. It was about the campaign. It was the first piece I had written since 1963 that he did not read in draft form and tell me what was wrong, what was needed, how to bring it up here, take it down there. I have never written pieces fluently but this one seemed to be taking even longer than usual: I realized at some point that I was unwilling to finish it because there was no one to read it. I kept telling myself that I had a deadline, that John and I never missed deadlines. Whatever I finally did to finish this piece was as close as I have ever come to imagining a message from him. The message was simple: You’re a professional. Finish the piece. … When I checked the piece for publication I was startled and unsettled by how many mistakes I had made: simple errors of transcription, names and dates wrong. I told myself that this was temporary, part of the mobilization problem, further evidence of those cognitive deficits that came with either stress or grief, but I remained unsettled. Would I ever be right again? Could I ever again trust myself not to be wrong?
If these disclosures about her writing process cast a certain light on the aesthetics of Didion’s work, in what ways do they particularly illuminate the aesthetics of Blue Nights?
John Dunne was Didion’s first reader and fact-checker, as well as a voice of what seems to have been deep appreciation and reliable encouragement. Even though, as she reveals in Blue Nights, Didion was once able to write almost without thought of it, Dunne was nearby, as in Magical Thinking, both to amend the lapses of thought that left her work shot through with factual errors and to devote his own thoughts to the ways in which her literary skills left him in awe. In a formal sense, then, Blue Nights inevitably internalises the content of its predecessor: its architecture is an outgrowth of the events related in Magical Thinking.
Following on from Magical Thinking, Blue Nights does not revisit the death of John Dunne. It focuses instead on the death of Didion’s adopted daughter, Quintana, in 2005, and, more broadly, on “illness [and] the end of promise, the dwindling of the days, the inevitability of the fading, the dying of the brightness.” But Dunne’s death appears in every sentence, as the absence of his corrections and appraisals leaves the prose in a shape it presumably would not have taken if he had still been alive at the time of writing. The Year of Magical Thinking thus offers a prospective explication of the aesthetic that governs Blue Nights, while Blue Nights retrospectively recasts Magical Thinking as a licence with which to explain away its own errors, infelicities, and awkwardnesses, and to even transform them into aesthetic virtues.
One result of all this is a hazy, elliptical style which combines the two stylistic trends Didion identifies in her own work — the insistent forward momentum of “sketching in a rhythm” and the conscious encouragement of the “difficulty [of] laying words on the page” — and suggests an intensification of the “frailty” she sees emerging. This style manifests in Didion’s repeated questioning of herself and of the origins of the world in which she now finds herself. By my guess, somewhere between one fifth and one quarter of all the sentences in Blue Nights take the form of direct but largely unanswerable questions, and questions about questions and the significance of asking them. Consider some early examples. From page seven:
Was that another sentimental choice?
Did [Quintana] remember the stephanotis?
Is that why she wanted it, is that why she wove it into her braid?
From pages nine and ten:
Why then did I feel so sharp a sense of betrayal when I exchanged my California driver’s license for one issued by New York? Wasn’t that actually a straightforward enough transaction? Your birthday comes around, your license needs renewing, what difference does it make where you renew it? What difference does it make that you have had this single number on your license since it was assigned to you at age fifteen-and-a-half by the state of California? Wasn’t there always an error on that driver’s license anyway? An error you knew about? Didn’t that license say you were five-foot-two? When you knew perfectly well you were at best… five-foot-one-and-three-quarters?
Why did I make so much of the driver’s license?
What was that about?
Did giving up the California license say that I would never again be fifteen-and-a-half?
Would I want to be?
Or was the business with the license just one more case of ‘the apparent inadequacy of the precipitating event’?
From page eleven:
‘The hair, the golf, and the canary’ had each been assigned an exaggerated value… but why? Dr. Menninger himself asks this question, although only rhetorically: ‘But why should such extravagantly exaggerated over-estimations and incorrect evaluations exist?’ Did he imagine that he had answered the question simply by raising it? Did he think that all he had to do was formulate the question and then retreat into a cloud of theoretical psychoanalytic references? Could I seriously have construed changing my driver’s license from California to New York as an experience involving ‘severed emotional bonds’?
Did I seriously see it as loss?
Did I truly see it as separation?
Or consider other, later examples, from pages chosen at random. On page eighty-four: “A question occurs to me: Did she emphasize ‘new’ when she mentioned ‘the new problem’? Was she suggesting that there were also ‘old’ problems, undetailed, problems with which she was for the moment opting not to burden us?” On page ninety-two: “When we noticed her confusions did we consider our own?” On page one hundred and fifty-two: “Did anyone use the word ‘syncope’? Did anyone use the words ‘pre-syncope symptoms’?” These sharp sentences all possess something akin to the rhythm of Didion’s more confident writing — “How she did this and why she did that and what the music was when they did x and x and xxx” — but they lack the directness of that writing because, as unanswered questions, they render opaque our view of a life that declarative sentences would render starkly but possibly falsely.
With each unanswered question, Didion affirms an unwillingness to commit decisively to a particular view of the events of her life. With each unanswered question, she traces the course of those events while also leaving them shrouded in doubt. With each unanswered question, Didion hedges her bets. But what else can she do? On the one hand, those questions are a blessing, an escape route from compositional paralysis. They allow her to gesture towards the facts of her life after having been robbed of the scrutiny of her lifelong fact-checker. On the other hand, those questions are a curse, an impediment to the usual directness of her diction. They drain her prose of the steely confidence it displayed when she wrote it in the company of a lifelong admirer who would read it aloud to reminder her of her own capabilities. If Didion allows Dunne’s death to occupy only the background of Blue Nights, Dunne’s absence nevertheless reaches into the foreground by touching the form of the book — the stringing together of sentences — and repeatedly calling attention to itself with each one of these: ?
June 8, 2012
Literary rejoinders don’t often appear as bluntly as this one in Philipp Meyer’s American Rust.
From Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, published in 2005, the soft-spoken Sheriff Bell wallows in soul-searching nostalgia as he approaches retirement:
I think we are all of us ill prepared for what is to come and I dont care what shape it takes. And whatever comes my guess is that it will have small power to sustain us. These old people I talk to, if you could of told em that there would be people on the streets of our Texas towns with green hair and bones in their noses speakin a language they couldnt even understand, well, they just flat out wouldnt of believed you. But what if you’d of told em it was their own grandchildren? Well, all of that is signs and wonders but it dont tell you how it got that way.
From Meyer’s novel, published in 2009, here’s Glen Patacki, chief of police in Buell, Pennsylvania, indulging in nostalgia with the world-weary sergeant Bud Harris:
“You should have been here for the seventies, Bud. The department was buying new cruisers with Corvette engines maybe every three years. And then came the eighties, and then it wasn’t just that we lost all those jobs, it was that people didn’t have anything to be good at anymore. … We’re trending backwards as a nation, probably for the first time in history, and it’s not the [fault of the] kids with the green hair and the bones through their noses.”
Meyer’s novel is pretty clearly a response to McCarthy’s, an attempt to provide a corrective to Sheriff Bell’s assessment of what ails the United States. As the only first-person narrator of a novel set in 1985, Bell issues a right-wing critique of American culture typical for his time: after the Greatest Generation suffered immensely to defend a certain way of life — quiet, respectable, humble, and deeply moral — the narcissistic and overly permissive Baby Boomers and early Gen-Xers have trashed it and sent it all to hell in a handbasket. As a character who speaks for the whole of a novel set at the dawn of the Great Recession, Patacki issues a fairly standard left-wing critique of social developments in the time since Bell’s era: from the rise of Reaganomics to the forging of the Washington Consensus, the implementation of NAFTA, and the offshoring of manufacturing jobs, the triumph of neoliberalism has destroyed the dignity of a whole a generation of American laborers and thrown their dependents into despair.
The difference between Bell and Patacki, and between Bell’s first-person portions of No Country for Old Men and the entirety of American Rust, is a disagreement over who should bear the blame for intergenerational ills. Both men sense that American society is on the brink of a descent into chaos. Whose fault is that? Has a generation on the cusp of adulthood selfishly rejected the propriety of the generation before it, or has the older generation failed to bequeath a healthy and just society to the generations that have followed it?
The trouble with the view held by both Patacki and American Rust is precisely that Meyer advances it by taking a shot at Bell. Why bother echoing the line about green hair and nose bones and then putting a different spin on it? What does American Rust gain by pointing to Bell and taking him to task? No Country for Old Men is itself a slow-motion evisceration of Bell’s beliefs, which makes Meyer’s critique somewhat redundant. There’s little need for another novel to stand against the views of Bell because Bell already appears in a novel that stands against those views. McCarthy himself takes shots at Bell and frames the novel’s anarchic violence as a consequence of the darker side of what Bell represents: the Greatest Generation, eclipsed by the Boomers, now paralysed by self-righteousness and moral complacency. With McCarthy having already discredited Bell, Meyer prospectively undercuts his own critique in American Rust when he uses Patacki to summarise it with an explicit invocation of Bell’s lament.
To see how McCarthy rebukes Bell, and to see that he invests No Country for Old Men with a consciousness of the rebuke, you only need to continue reading Bell’s monologue after he decries the prevalence of green hair and nose bones. “It’s a life’s work to see yourself for what you really are and even then you might be wrong,” he says:
And that is somethin I dont want to be wrong about. I’ve thought about why it was I wanted to be a lawman. There was always some part of me that wanted to be in charge. Pretty much insisted on it. Wanted people to listen to what I had to say. But there was a part of me too that just wanted to pull everbody back in the boat. If I’ve tried to cultivate anything it’s been that.
So Bell holds himself to a hierarchy of values. At the very top is perpetual self-awareness. Beneath self-awareness is the spirit of authoritarianism and, beneath that, the spirit of public service, although, by Bell’s own admission, it requires an act of will for him to subordinate his innate authoritarianism to his spirit of public service. But here’s the rub. Bell’s circumstances are such that the last two values serve one another — authoritarianism is what has put him in a position of public service, and his acts of public service bolster the authoritarian spirit through which he has obtained his position — and, worse, he lacks all awareness of that situation.
Bell is a veteran of the Second World War who was decorated for distinguished service in Europe and then elected as sheriff in 1945 on the basis of his wartime bravado. But beneath the surface of the stalwart soldier is a crippled man harbouring a shameful secret. Although he received honours for an incident in which he held ground under enemy fire and only retreated when the rest of his unit had been killed, the truth is that he “cut and run” and left his unit to be slaughtered just after the first shots were fired. He is a coward who has been elected to office by constituents who believe him to be a hero. More than that, as he admits, his office entails essentially unlimited authority within the jurisdiction of his county:
The opportunities for abuse are just about everywhere. There’s no requirements in the Texas State Constitution for bein a sheriff. Not a one. There is no such thing as a county law. You think about a job where you have pretty much the same authority as God and there is no requirements put upon you and you are charged with preservin nonexistent laws and you tell me if that’s peculiar or not. Because I say that it is.
If there is so little crime in his sleepy little county that there aren’t even any county laws for the sheriff to uphold, why would Bell’s constituents feel that the best possible candidate for sheriff is a returned soldier whose distinguishing feature is his heroic service in the bloodiest conflict in the whole of human history? Bell’s concealed cowardice advances McCarthy’s point: when Bell maintains a facade of strength and heroism, his constituents, having assumed that appearances are not deceiving, assume in turn that his apparent fortitude renders him capable of deterring or swiftly resolving county crime. What they want, in short, is an authoritarian lawman of whom they approve, and, with his blanket assumption that he can distinguish “good people” from “bad people” at a mere glance, Bell does nothing to challenge that want.
To the extent that he successfully deters and resolves crime, then, Bell justifies the authoritarian sentiment that swept him into office. The better he serves the public, the more he bolsters the validity of authoritarian law enforcement despite what we as readers know about his cowardice. Yet Bell himself cannot see that his public service strengthens the authoritarian wants of the voting public. Nor can he see that, inversely, the extraordinary bloodshed that arrives in his county brings his cowardice back out into the open — “I walked in front of those eyes once,” he says of the ruthless Anton Chigurh, “[but] I wont do it again” — and thus reveals that the emperor has no clothes, undermining the basis on which Bell was elected and making a farce of the parochial post-War authoritarianism he represents.
Is America in a state of decline? It’s not the fault of the kids with green hair and bones through their noses. It’s the fault of elders too enamored of their own past glories to sensibly commit themselves to resolving the problems of the present. McCarthy already made that point. He didn’t need Patacki to make it again by rebuking Sheriff Bell, and Meyer should have edited out that rebuke to avoid a distraction from the very point he too tries to make.