AUGUST 13, 2016
To read or reread Hemingway is always, in part, to inquire into the mystery of his significance. The ideals he symbolized are dated — masculinity and “heroic dissipation,” to quote Edmund Wilson in his collection The Wound and the Bow — while the appeal of his deceptively lean style seems to have eluded several generations of American novelists who valued excess over omission. However, if we can’t explain why, we also can’t evade the proposition that Ernest Hemingway continues to matter.
Lesley M. M. Blume’s Everybody Behaves Badly: The True Story Behind Hemingway’s Masterpiece “The Sun Also Rises” offers an opportunity to visit the question afresh. It isn’t just an account of Hemingway’s writing of his first major work, but also of an animating moment in literary history, when modernism was maturing in the barrel and Hemingway readied to pour the United States its first major dose. Like Hemingway’s posthumously published A Moveable Feast, Blume’s book covers the author’s search for a style, as well as a subject that would be thoroughly modern but would also capture the wider public’s imagination.
Published in 1926, The Sun Also Rises partly owed its success to good marketing. Charles Scribner’s Sons’s efforts to advertise the book’s timeliness were standard by then for a house that was banking much on a reputation for curating the most current and urgent writing, implicitly (or even explicitly) tagging those who didn’t embrace its titles as glaringly behind the times. If there was ever a moment to double down on this strategy, The Sun Also Rises was it. Even before the novel’s opening lines, with an epigraph in which Gertrude Stein called him and his postwar cohorts a “lost generation,” Hemingway defined the moment.
The Great War generation had bestowed on its successors a broken world, shaped by extremism and rife with uncertainty, lies exposed, institutions discredited, honor codes renounced. The artistic conventions of the day couldn’t express how young writers like Hemingway, who had been on the battlefields of a massive, senseless war, experienced this new reality. As Alfred Kazin wrote, “They had leaped at one bound from the Midwestern world of their childhood into the world of Caporetto, of Dada, of Picasso and Gertrude Stein, and their detachment from the native traditions now became their own first tradition.” This would entail a new emphasis on individual will. In the arts, personality and subjectivity would be central, overturning the prevailing norms that had conceded too much to “objective” truths.
Hemingway’s literary birth, as Blume says, occurred amid a “small movement of writers […] trying to shove literature out of musty Edwardian corridors and into the fresh air of the modern world.” But Hemingway’s ambitions were even larger. His wasn’t going to be the experimental modernism of Stein, his early patron, or e e cummings, both of whom found only a specialized audience. Hemingway was determined to be not just admired but widely read, and to cultivate a voice that would cut straight to the texture of life. Picasso was already achieving the equivalent in paintings; now Hemingway, according to Blume, was “attempting a similar high-low approach in the realm of literature.” The first step was to reject the refinement of Henry James and Edith Wharton, whose baroque adjectives, reflecting Victorian habits of mind, concealed more than they revealed and provided a sense of comfort. But a world that had just tried to self-destruct had nothing to comfort itself about. What had to be exposed were the terrifying basics of modern life, without the false consolations of beauty; Picasso’s hard lines, Hemingway’s lean sentences — what Blume describes as “bare, savage content rendered in a bare, savage style.”
The novel’s first sentence could have been that of any novel of the previous century: “Robert Cohn was once middleweight boxing champion of Princeton.” But the next line subverted the Victorian age and elevated in its place an intensely personalized, idiosyncratic translation of events: “Do not think I am very much impressed by that as a boxing title, but it meant a lot to Cohn.” In conceding authority to an individual rather than a collective voice, the novel announced itself as a modernist work.
Despite some beautifully neurotic stream-of-consciousness bursts, however, The Sun Also Rises was by no means abstract — nor was it an insurgency on the scale of Ulysses, published four years earlier. Moreover, though controversial for its time, the element of scandal in the novel is obviously negligible by today’s standards: four-letter words, a promiscuous female protagonist in Lady Brett Ashley, and the decadence of the drinking classes might have pushed the envelope back then but don’t qualify today as a particularly compelling subject of study. Joyce did much more to shake the puritanical mainstream, inviting book burnings, bans, and battles that ultimately led to victory not just for himself and his publishers but also for literature over state suppression. On that score, therefore, Ulysses remains indisputably relevant and was given its due in Kevin Birmingham’s beautiful 2014 work, The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses. But why a book devoted to Hemingway’s novel?
Much of the biographical lead-up to The Sun Also Rises is familiar. In the early 1920s, Hemingway moved with his wife Hadley from the U.S. to Paris — the unofficial “laboratory of innovative writing and the supposed creative center of the universe,” in Blume’s words — on a journalistic assignment. There, armed with a written endorsement from Sherwood Anderson, the aspiring 20-year-old was admitted into the expatriate literary crowd, whose matriarch Stein nurtured his ambition and talent and enabled him to befriend the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, Picasso, and others. In addition to journalism, he published stories, vignettes, and parodies, while still searching for the subject for his first novel. A visit to Pamplona, Spain, introduced him to bullfighting, a passion that became intimately connected to his literary ambition not only to join the ranks of those masters, but also to surpass them. (Blume suggests that Hemingway’s first visit to Pamplona was the one that inspired The Sun Also Rises, but according to most accounts he’d visited at least once before with Hadley.)
In retreading this well-worn turf, Blume presents a sharp portrait of a young nobody desperately, sometimes maliciously, trying to become a great — if not the great — writer of his time. In retrospect, that outcome seems inevitable: how could a force like Hemingway become anything but a star? Blume, however, breaks down the laborious process, illuminating the importance of patrons like the dynamic Scribner editor Max Perkins who overcame objections from those colleagues who found The Sun Also Rises morally objectionable.
The result is a spirited account of a spirited age, when writers saw an opportunity to change the culture — although only a few of these would-be revolutionaries competed for a mainstream audience. Foremost among them was F. Scott Fitzgerald, with The Great Gatsby (1925), his best-selling tragedy about the darkness present within Jazz Age glamour. Gatsby was nevertheless a conservatively told tale, and, as Blume writes:
A writer couldn’t simply write about modern life; one had to do so in a thoroughly modern and revolutionary way. Gatsby had not achieved that […] This meant that there was still a major prize left to be claimed: authorship of a voice-of-a-generation novel that was both modern in subject and a stylistic groundbreaker.
This is a little like reading of that last and still accounted-for ticket to Willy Wonka’s factory. The yet-to-be-claimed prize wouldn’t in this case be wrapped in a chocolate bar, but rather in a muse, and Hemingway seemed to have chanced on her in Lady Duff Twysden, a British expatriate in Paris who would provide the model for Lady Ashley. Blume describes Twysden as “a sensual, dissipated English aristocrat with a penchant for men’s fedoras and casual lovers.” Another visit to Pamplona, this time with Twysden, her partner Pat Guthrie, a second lover (the writer Harold Loeb), and other expats, provided the novel’s tropes and themes — alcohol, jealousy, rage, the sometimes violent contest for a single woman’s affections, against the backdrop of fiestas and bullfights.
The story of The Sun Also Rises was indeed bare. A small cast of foreigners go from Paris to Pamplona and drink and fall in love and lust and get jealous and fight and fall out of love and lust, and drink some more. All of this amid the gory, pointless deaths of bulls and spectators. No order and no moral lessons, for what lessons were possible when the august institutions of morality no longer held the center? The narrator is Jake Barnes, a self-described “rotten Catholic,” whose impotence, levied by a war wound, imposes some basic limitations on his depravity, as well as his love affair (tenderly unconsummated) with Lady Ashley. As such, he’s the ideal observer, and heartache and damnation run through every aspect of his account. In one of those occasional stream-of-consciousness bursts, he goes down on his knees in a cathedral to ask “that the bull-fights would be good, and that it would be a fine fiesta, and that we would get some fishing,” and some other minor things. As his thoughts meander, the spiritual gulf between Jake and the church expands. Eventually, he becomes overly self-aware, his act one of mimicry rather than prayer. His final thought before he’s back outside is of the grandeur of Catholicism. “I only wished I felt religious,” he reflects, “and maybe I would the next time.”
The Great War had established a new sense of magnitude in human affairs. On the morning after, there remained a residue in the guts of men, an appetite for extreme experience. For the impotent Jake, who lives vicariously at least to some extent, bullfighting replaces battle: he tells Cohn, “Nobody ever lives their life all the way up except bullfighters.” War has given Hemingway (and Jake) the interpretative apparatus to fully behold the sport, and the descriptions of the fiesta, too, are replete with war imagery: the café that’s “like a battleship stripped for action,” and the rocket that officially inaugurates the celebration leaving a “gray ball of smoke” that “hung in the sky like a shrapnel burst.”
Like many landmark works, The Sun Also Rises had its detractors. It was criticized, Blume tells us, for hewing too closely to real events, not least by Hemingway’s (former) friends, one of whom who objected to the book as “cheap reporting.” Professional critics sympathized with this view, as in a Saturday Review of Literature piece that “informed readers that not a single one of Hemingway’s characters could be credited with being the product of the author’s imagination […] implying that the book was more an example of incisive reportage than fictional accomplishment.”
But no matter how faithful Hemingway’s reenactments, it is that sensibility of “the specially damned,” to borrow Kazin’s description, that makes The Sun Also Rises an enduring literary text. It takes a keen artistic eye to recognize the literary potential of real-life events, to extract from them patterns that say something about the human experience, and to craft them into illuminating drama. This is where Hemingway triumphed. His other gift was in being the author of his life as well as his stories, consciously shaping events that art could then imitate, squeezing people together and provoking relationships and conflicts between and around them.
And while his prodigious appetite for life is often celebrated, it also accounts for what makes Blume’s book disturbing. Hemingway’s insistence on imposing his tastes on others (“being less than reverential about bullfighting was one of the surest ways to antagonize Hemingway,” Blume tells us); his seeming glee in betraying and parting from friends and patrons like Anderson, Stein, and Ford Madox Ford (as well as lesser-known acquaintances who were unflatteringly depicted in The Sun Also Rises or his earlier parody, The Torrents of Spring); and his apparent disregard for the feelings of those close to him, especially his soon-to-be ex-wife Hadley (who has no fictional counterpart in the novel), all reflect a dark, even totalitarian presence.
And a haunting one, too: appropriately, Blume provides an epilogue that details the lives of all who were depicted in The Sun Also Rises, and in doing so she encapsulates the novel’s unhappier legacy. Loeb, for example, “was never able to escape the shadow of Robert Cohn,” his novelistic counterpart; Twysden had to deal with how “the intrusion of Lady Brett Ashley into her life […] created real fallout in her private affairs,” including being ostracized by her family.
The book’s purely literary legacy, too, is mixed. According to some major critics, Hemingway’s apparent quest to capture the zeitgeist resulted in one of the novel’s major failings. Even those who admired the writing complained of a lack of authenticity in the characters, in that their personalities were secondary to how they served the author’s larger thesis. In The Wound and the Bow, Wilson wrote of the “paradox that Hemingway, who possesses so remarkable a mimetic gift in getting the tone of social and national types and in making his people talk appropriately, has not shown any solid sense of character, or, indeed, any real interest in it,” a critique he applied to The Sun Also Rises as well as the later A Farewell to Arms. Kazin wrote: “The symbols Hemingway employed to convey his sense of the world’s futility and horror were always more significant than the characters who personified them,” adding that the “gallery of expatriates in The Sun Also Rises were always subsidiary to the theme their lives enforced.”
Hemingway seemed especially sensitive to this line of argument, complaining that too much had been made of his descriptions of the “lost generation” and that Stein’s quote had overshadowed the novel’s second epigraph, a biblical passage from which Hemingway drew his title:
One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh; but the earth abideth forever … The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to the place where he arose …
The emphasis here was not on these people or this time and its many misfortunes, but on timelessness. And yet, Hemingway’s success in conveying the postwar moment meant, as Blume says, that “[he] would be cloaked in the Lost Generation’s silks in perpetuity — whether he had buyer’s remorse about the garb or not.”
In any case, despite the wobbly tower of books about Hemingway, it seems we can’t keep from returning to him, and writers like Blume make it worth our while. But it isn’t simply nostalgia that draws us back to a time when a writer had the power to shape a generation’s sense of itself. What moves us about the young author of The Sun Also Rises, his faults notwithstanding, is the earnestness with which he devoted himself to his noble task: to create a new kind of literature. Above all, accounts like Blume’s are compelling because they remind us of our abiding need for language to regenerate itself in order to continue reflecting how we live in the world.