Art Works Blog

Simply Hemingway

"…When you read Hemingway as a young writer, you begin to really focus on the importance of every word. It's not about coming up always with the new word or the flashy diction, but it's about getting to a larger truth about subjectivity and character through the simple turns that language makes on a page." -Dr. Tyler Hoffman

Taking simple language and making it into something extraordinary is no simple task, but for Ernest Hemingway, mastering this skill proved to be his claim to literary fame. Hemingway wrote truthfully from his own life experiences and infused his works with meaning that goes beyond his straightforward prose. He inspired a new school of literary style called “minimalism,” and though many have attempted to imitate his iconic style, Hemingway’s writing is still considered truly unique. 

This fall, Rutgers-Camden Center for the Arts will participate in The Big Read by celebrating Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms, an American classic that builds on events from Hemingway's service in World War I. The novel tells the story of Lieutenant Frederic Henry, an American soldier serving in the Italian army during the war. When Henry becomes injured and is confined to a hospital in Milan, he makes an intense connection with English nurse's aide Catherine Barkley. Their complicated relationship is explored through Hemingway's style of uncomplicated sentences and honest dialogue.

As part of their Hemingway festivities, Rutgers-Camden will be featuring a lecture by professor and chair of the English department, Dr. Tyler Hoffman. We got a chance to preview Dr. Hoffman's lecture by chatting with him recently about the life, literary style, and impact of Ernest Hemingway and his novel A Farewell to Arms. 

NEA: Can you start off by talking a little bit about Ernest Hemingway's background and what events led to his successful writing career?

DR. TYLER HOFFMAN: I think his journalistic career was very important in terms of his development as a fiction writer. In his journalistic career, he really trained himself to write without a lot of ornament, in a very straightforward, simple, declarative style. I think we can see that easily when we turn to the fiction, that he's reducing language to its basic elements. He's not using a lot in the way of adverbs and adjectives to decorate the writing or to paint a picture for the reader. He's writing in a very spare way that calls on the imagination of the reader to fill in whatever gaps there are.

NEA: Do you think that plays into the theme of his quote from Death in the Afternoon, which says, "The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water?"

HOFFMAN: Exactly. The so-called "iceberg theory" which he expostulates in Death in the Afternoon is something he talks about in interviews as well. In essence it's a theory of omission, with the idea that the good writer—the writer who truly knows his subject inside and out—can write the most effective fiction by leaving out a lot of what the author himself or herself knows. There's a kind of suggestiveness to the writing that again calls for the reader to fill in certain gaps. There are several short stories he wrote that pivot on a particular character, but we aren't told a lot about what the character's experiences have been up to the point of the present moment in the story.

So it is a really interesting idea, and something of a dichotomy. On the one hand, Hemingway is known for writing very clear, straightforward sentences, and he had the idea that when he wrote down a sentence, he wanted his reader to understand exactly how to posture that sentence when they hear it in their own head. On the other hand, there's this suggestiveness where he's not telling you everything, but asking you to trust your own experience of the rhythms of the sentences to come to an understanding of the essential nature of the subject or the psychic disposition of the subject. 

NEA: How do you think his relationships with writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein might have impacted his writing?

HOFFMAN: In terms of a basic writing style, Hemingway owes a lot to Gertrude Stein. Gertrude Stein was writing prose that had a lot of repetition in it. So you're reading some of Stein's early short stories, and then later novels like The Making of Americans, and there's this aggressive attention on repetition, so that the sentences vary only slightly as you move from one to the next…. [Y]ou see that the same words and strings of words keep coming up over and over again, in sentence after sentence.

And yet Stein's theory was that in the accumulation of these repetitions, there is difference. That every time something reappears, it reappears somewhat differently. I think she took as her model cubist visual art, so you're getting multiple perspectives on a single canvas. I think what Stein was reaching for was the same effect, where you've got a subject on the page that is being seen from multiple points of view, and each point of view is just slightly different from the last take. Like a motion picture camera and separate frames, but all of these frames then added to each other, having a cumulative effect where ultimately you get a better picture, Stein would argue, of the emotional and psychic disposition of the subject.

If you just took the first couple of paragraphs of A Farewell to Arms, there's so much repetition. First of all, the sentences are either simple declarative sentences or compound declarative sentences with the use of the word "and." So it's "this and that" and "this and that," so there's this compounding of these simple statements that are meant to have the same kind of cumulative effect. Again, he will go from one sentence to the other and he won't look for flashy new nouns to use. Although a lot of his fiction is driven by the noun, it's often the same noun, reappearing again but colored differently.

NEA: What kind of influence do you think Hemingway has on today's writers? Do some of his stylistic elements appear in contemporary novels?

HOFFMAN: In some ways I think writing today is often more decorated, more embellished than Hemingway's was. I'll hear passages of novels being read out on NPR by the book reviewer, and there seems to be, in a lot of the best fiction happening today, a lot of embellishment, a lot of adjectives and adverbs. I think we find less Hemingway style prevailing. Certainly the author that came after Hemingway that was the most impacted by Hemingway was Raymond Carver. He was writing a number of years ago now, but his style was called "minimalist." There has been a school of minimalist writing that I think clearly flows out of Hemingway's example, where they're boiling down the language to the bare foundations in a way, and leaving a lot for the reader to do in terms of filling the space with his or her own feelings and imaginations.

So there's definitely a minimalist school of fiction that comes out of Hemingway, but I find that that's not the prevailing mode today. There's a very fine line between slavish imitation of that and doing something new and different with it. In other words, a writer who might try to write like Hemingway today, even not consciously but in a minimalist vein, could suffer from the sense on some people's parts that it's just imitation Hemingway. Because Hemingway is so well-known for it, I think you have to be really quite deft at it to make your own mark and not be seen simply as Hemingway-esque and nothing more. 

NEA: Coming off of that, do you think that reading Hemingway's work is beneficial for young writers to learn from today?

HOFFMAN: I think it's crucial. I think what reading Hemingway does for young writers is to teach them that you don't have to rely on highly decorative vocabulary to get to the heart of character. Hemingway's the master of dialogue too. If you really pay attention to the way Hemingway instructs his dialogue, so much character comes out in every line. You don't even have to be told who's talking; it's very clear who's talking, and the rhythms of the language you're sensing are symbolic of the characters themselves. So I think when you read Hemingway as a young writer, you begin to focus on the importance of every word. It's not about coming up always with the new word or the flashy diction, but it's about getting to a larger truth about subjectivity and character through the simple turns that language makes on a page. 

NEA: Why do you think that A Farewell to Arms is such a celebrated American novel?

HOFFMAN: I think [A Farewell to Arms] and The Sun Also Rises are usually seen as Hemingway's great achievements. And I think in large part they are seen as his great achievements because that's where his mastery of form is most evident. And the short stories, I would say. But in terms of full-length novels, all of these things that are prized about Hemingway, and the truth of characterization that he's able to achieve, are best evidenced in those two novels. I think there is a pretty strong school of thought that after those novels there is something of a decline in Hemingway. This speaks to a point I made earlier, [that] a lot of people feel like Hemingway starts to parody his own style as he matures. It is almost a trap of being such a distinctive prose stylist that you can then be heard by others as somehow parodying yourself. It kind of paints you in a corner. You can't abandon the stylistic principles you believe in. So I would say it's as famous as it is [because] it's about a historical event of great importance. I think most people would agree it's one of the most outstanding representations of World War I and its effects. But I think beyond that it is in many ways the mastery of style, the mastery of form that allows that book to enjoy the canonical status it does.

NEA: Hemingway has said he wrote best about what he knew about best; how do you think this influenced his writing of A Farewell to Arms?

HOFFMAN: I think it's crucial to it; it speaks directly to his sense of style. He's all about having good writers omit what they already know. But you're a bad writer if you omit things that you just don't know yourself about the subject. So it's about knowing the subject inside and out, it's about knowing the truth about a certain experience that allows you to be the kind of writer he is. A Farewell to Arms is very much about the experiences he had in World War I, and it's flowing out of this dictum that you need to know thoroughly the subject that you're writing about to be an effective writer. 

NEA: In A Moveable Feast, Hemingway writes, "…All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know." What would you write as the truest sentence that you know?

HOFFMAN: This whole notion of a true sentence, it's kind of a strange concept. I guess we've lived with that echo from Hemingway for long enough that it doesn't strike us [to be] as strange as it really is. But this idea that there could be such a thing as a true sentence is a little bit odd. But I think it goes to what we've been talking about, and that is the central question of authenticity. You have to know and experience a subject thoroughly in order to represent it in writing. Hemingway senses that if you don't know it thoroughly, if you are not coming at it from your own experience of it, something about any sentence you would write about it in an effort to represent it will ring false. There will be some element in that sentence that just does not square with the actual emotion of the experience. And so I think it's a really resonant notion, this idea that somehow a writer is charged with writing a true sentence. It's got to be true to experience, true to reality, and anything less than that is simply going to mark the piece of writing as bad. He could have said "a good sentence," or used some other adjective than true, but I think that adjective does speak to how important Hemingway's sense of the writer cleaving to reality is. And that there's a kind of ethical responsibility on the part of the writer to imagine circumstances and subjects that are true to life and not concocted for the sake of fiction.


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