As well as spending my own time this term teaching AP Literature and Composition, I’m happy to see that my article on Ernest Hemingway’s iceberg principle is being used as a resource in AP Literature classes elsewhere.
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. Continue reading →
Unlike The Road, and unlike virtually any first-person narrative you might care to name, Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea seems to provide a textbook example of strictly naturalist third-person omniscient narration. The narrative voice is plain and simple, lacking any obvious narratorial interjections as well as any stylistic peculiarities that would imply a narrative history for the controlling intelligence behind the narrative voice. And yet, there are moments at which it becomes clear that someone, some entity with a particular personality, narrates — or at least thinks — The Old Man and the Sea. A little under halfway into the story, it is remarked that the old man “knew no man was ever alone on the sea,” and the remark itself demonstrates the truth of what is remarked upon. Who makes the remark? Who is out there at sea with the old man, and close enough to him to know what he knows? Whose is the controlling intelligence of the narrative, of which the narrative voice is the intelligible mask? Continue reading →
Once in camp I put a log on top of the fire and it was full of ants. As it commenced to burn, the ants swarmed out and went first towards the centre where the fire was, then turned back and ran towards the end. When there were enough on the end they fell off into the fire. Some got out, their bodies burnt and flattened, and went off not knowing where they were going. But most of them went toward the fire and then back toward the end and swarmed on the cool end and finally fell off into the fire. I remember thinking at the time that it was the end of the world and a splendid chance to be a messiah and lift the log off the fire and throw it out where the ants could get off onto the ground. But I did not do anything but throw a tin cup of water on the log, so that I would have the cup empty to put whisky in before I added water to it. I think the cup of water on the burning log only steamed the ants.
A Farewell to Arms
At the height of his celebrity in the 1950s, Ernest Hemingway gave a now‐famous interview in which he credited the emotional power of his fiction to what he called “the principle of the iceberg.” An iceberg, he noted, floats in the Arctic with only one‐eighth of its mass above water while the greater, more potentially devastating portion hides beneath the surface and attracts our concern precisely because it is hidden. In the same way, he reasoned, the drama of a story can attract our concern if we are allowed to glimpse only a fragment of visible action that implies an earlier, unseen experience of far greater magnitude and emotional significance. In other words, Hemingway would rarely detail a sequence of narrative events so that we may witness a drama, but would more often depict only the consequences of such events in a single representative scene from which we then infer the drama. In story after story, he effectively positions his readers as voyeurs eavesdropping on the aftermath of a dispute between two lovers, or as snoops lingering alongside some lonesome individual whose company we have entered by illicit means. He draws our attention to a dramatic scenario by carefully denying us a clear view of its causes. He concentrates our concern on the dramatic tensions that he keeps outside the story by meticulously foregrounding their deliberate absence.
I have a short article on Ernest Hemingway’s iceberg theory and the resurgence of interest in his notorious six-word story (“For sale: baby shoes, never worn”) in the latest issue of Philament.