Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Ernest Hemingway: Plain but Never Simple

Most of Ernest Hemingway’s writing is a nearly perfect example of the Plain Style. He was a journalist before he became an author, and journalism is a career that highly values writing clearly, concisely, and directly without any frills. He told the Paris Review, in an interview that you can find here, that “On the Star you were forced to learn to write a simple declarative sentence. This is useful to anyone. Newspaper work will not harm a young writer and could help him if he gets out of it in time.” He did, apparently, get out in time, and his novels and short stories often reflect the style of writing that he learned while working as a reporter. He famously uses short sentences, clear vocabulary, and the active voice in order to convey meaning. When he departs from this writing style, for example, writing long sentences, it is usually because he wishes his reader to take note of that particular sentence or section of writing. The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway’s first novel, is a great example of the Plain Style of writing. I chose the first paragraph to analyze for the purpose of this blog, which reads:
Robert Cohn was once middleweight boxing champion of Princeton. Do not think I am very much impressed by that as a boxing title, but it meant a lot to Cohn. He cared nothing for boxing, in fact he disliked it, but he learned it painfully and thoroughly to counteract the feeling of inferiority and shyness he had felt on being treated as a Jew at Princeton. There was a certain inner comfort in knowing he could knock down anybody who was snooty to him, although, being very shy and a thoroughly nice boy, he never fought except in the gym. He was Spider Kelly’s star pupil. Spider Kelly taught all his young gentlemen to box like featherweights, no matter whether they weighed one hundred and five or two hundred and five pounds. But it seemed to fit Cohn. He was really very fast. He was so good that Spider promptly overmatched him and got his nose permanently flattened. This increased Cohn’s distaste for boxing, but it gave him a certain satisfaction of some strange sort, and it certainly improved his nose. In his last year at Princeton he read too much and took to wearing spectacles. I never met anyone of his class who remembered him. They did not even remember that he was middleweight boxing champion.
Just because Hemingway writes in the Plain Style does not mean that his writing is simple; rather, it means that he successfully utilizes the aspects of the style in order to convey meaning deeper than his words appear. His writing appears deceptively simple, but Hemingway is often considered among the most prolific of American writers. Is his use of the Plain Style intentional? In other words, does he purposely use this style in order to shock people when the underlying content is incredibly complex? These are the questions that I am interested in trying to answer, if answers do, in fact, exist.

This is clearly an example of a text written in a plain, straightforward style, and the readability statistics reflect this. The Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease is 69.8. The average number of words per sentence is 16.7, and the average grade level is 8.6. Based on these statistics, a student midway through eighth grade should be able to read the words on the page. But it is absolutely absurd to expect an eighth grader to read and comprehend Hemingway’s meaning in this novel. I, personally, read it my junior year of college and struggled with it. Hemingway, in the same interview with the Paris Review that I cited before, told his interviewer, “I always try to write on the principle of the iceberg. There is seven-eighths of it underwater for every part that shows. Anything you know you can eliminate and it only strengthens your iceberg. It is the part that doesn’t show. If a writer omits something because he does not know it then there is a hole in the story.” This is one of his more famous quotes from the interview (which is hilarious, I might add, and I would highly recommend reading it in its entirety) and explains a lot about his writing in general. He essentially says that seven-eighths of his writing must be read between the lines. The real bulk of what he’s trying to say is never put explicitly into words, which makes his writing all the more complicated. Although it appears simple, it is anything but. This begins to answer one of the questions I pose about Hemingway and his work: does he purposely use this style in order to shock people when the underlying content is incredibly complex? Although “the principle of the iceberg” doesn’t perfectly answer this question, it gives me the impression that yes, Hemingway purposely juxtaposes the Plain Style and complex subject matter. This raises questions about the Plain Style as a whole. Do other writers do this, as well? What are the implications of writing plainly?

Context is very important to Hemingway’s work as a whole. Most of his writing deals with World War I, whether directly or indirectly. This ties back to the “principle of the iceberg” in that the War is always present, even if Hemingway rarely mentions it. Hemingway begins The Sun Also Rises with a description of Cohn instead of a description of himself. The Plain Style would tell someone reading the novel to take this description at face value, but this is misleading. The “principle of the iceberg” suggests that there is much more to this description than what meets the eye. He starts by telling us that Cohn was a boxer, a fighter. To portray him in this way from the first sentence is extremely important in that it sets up the rest of the novel. Here, Hemingway uses metabasis as a rhetorical device to explain what will follow. Describing a fighter in the first sentence gives us the impression that there will be a lot of fighting; what we don’t yet know is whether it is literal or figurative, physical or emotional and psychological, fighting. This is where we have to consider symbolism, one of the tools that Hemingway often uses to his advantage. When asked to explain his symbolism by the interviewer from the Paris Review (really, read the interview; it’s amazing), Hemingway told him, “It is hard enough to write books and stories without being asked to explain them as well. Also it deprives the explainers of work. If five or six or more good explainers can keep going why should I interfere with them? Read anything I write for the pleasure of reading it. Whatever else you find will be the measure of what you brought to the reading.” He knows that he writes plainly, so that anyone can “read anything [he] write[s] for the pleasure of reading it,” but also that the people reading his work are more than capable of finding the meaning below the surface. He does not need to spell everything out. Using the Plain Style only enhances his writing; it is precisely because he uses short, clear prose that the symbolism and deeper meaning must be searched for. Because of his style of writing, critics are still discussing his work, decades later, and new interpretations are constantly considered.

When asked about his style of writing, which has come to be known as particularly unique and has even inspired thousands of imitations, Hemingway told his interviewer, “That is a long-term tiring question and if you spent a couple of days answering it you would be so self-conscious that you could not write. I might say that what amateurs call a style is usually only the unavoidable awkwardnesses in first trying to make something that has not heretofore been made. Almost no new classics resemble other previous classics. At first people can see only the awkwardness. Then they are not so perceptible. When they show so very awkwardly people think these awkwardnesses are the style and many copy them. This is regrettable.” The irony of Hemingway imitation contests is not lost on me, considering this quote. Imitation is precisely what he warns against, and precisely what his style has inspired. But regardless of what Hemingway himself thought of his style, you can’t argue that it is “something that has not heretofore been made.” He did succeed in creating something new to writing. In my opinion, Hemingway is the father of the Plain Style. Don’t confuse what I’m saying and assume that he invented it, because it surely existed before him, but as a novelist and fiction writer, he brought this style of writing to the genre; he created something new. It wouldn’t be fair to compare Hemingway to a journalist or anyone else who writes in the Plain Style, because he took it and did something new and unheard of with it. So, although there may be similar texts in existence, Hemingway is unique in that he essentially created the Plain Style in novels meant to be critically studied. Within his particular activity system of scholars, writers, and readers, Hemingway novels are fresh and new. His use of plain language was, at the time, and still is considered revolutionary. Hemingway is to the Plain Style what Faulkner is to the Official Style. Hemingway is incredibly complex and his use of the Plain Style only highlights that, complicating the style of writing by showing that plain doesn’t necessarily mean simple.

Because I know you're all dying to read the interview with Hemingway, I've included the link for you again:

--Ashley Dillard

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