Somewhere, come July 21, Ernest Hemingway will be celebrating his 100th birthday. In less ethereal realms, the celebrations, or preparations for them, already have begun. In April, at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, a gaggle of high-profile writers gathered to debate the wisdom of posthumously publishing manuscripts that authors leave behind, such as is being done now with Hemingway's True at First Light. (Their consensus: not wise at all.)
Elsewhere, around the time of his natal day, the celebrations will start in earnest (no pun, et cetera) in places associated with Hemingway: his hometown of Oak Park, Illinois; Petoskey, Michigan, where his family had a summer home; Piggott, Arkansas, the family home of Hemingway's second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer, where he wrote much of A Farewell to Arms; Key West, site of his most famous residence; and the area of Sun Valley/Ketchum, Idaho, where the author departed this life in 1961 via a self-inflicted shotgun wound to the head.
Is all the celebrating warranted? After all, the professoriate laid the ax to the base of this mighty oak in the 1970s and just about succeeded in bringing Hemingway's reputation down. Postmodernists, feminists, and assorted other academicists took exception to his public persona and private failings and threw the art out with the artist: misogynist, they called him, and war lover, promoter of blood sports, boor, bully, drunk, anti-Semite, self-promoter, womanizer, betrayer of wives and friends.
Well, nobody's perfect. On the other hand, all he did was help change the way we perceive our existence -- a shift of continental proportions -- and, even more, the way we express that perception. His great achievement is his plain, telegraphic prose, learned as a newspaperman, a medium that perfectly reflected its message. A generation or more of hopeful writers strove to imitate that style.
Hemingway was part of a time, before the book culture broke down, when writers could be heroes and young men and young women set them as their models. Hundreds of thousands may admire John Updike today, but few try to write like him and no one wants to be him (aside from possibly Nicholson Baker). James Jones, for example, not only imitated Thomas Wolfe, he seemed to want to be him. And almost everybody with literary pretensions wanted to be Hemingway.
Some of this imitation was good and some bad. I happen to think one of the best is Signed with Their Honour, a 1942 novel by the Australian James Aldridge. Hemingway himself could write bad Hemingway with the best of them, notably in Across the River and into the Trees (wickedly parodied by E.B. White in an essay, "Across the Street and into the Grill.") Even For Whom the Bell Tolls, while a great novel, borders on self-parody.
Some say that, aside from a few short stories, Hemingway wrote only one work of towering stature, The Sun Also Rises. I say you must add to that A Farewell to Arms and, one floor down, For Whom the Bell Tolls -- and throw in The Old Man and the Sea, which spurred his being awarded the Nobel Prize, for good measure.
Two big things Hemingway challenged -- old values and old ways of expressing them. That is why Sun begins with a long discussion of Robert Cohn, a relatively minor character. Cohn represents the false, romantic values that Hemingway attacks, using Romero, a young bullfighter, as his chief instrument.
Hemingway called Farewell his Romeo and Juliet. It is both a wonderful love story and, together with All Quiet on the Western Front (published in the same year, 1929), one of the century's first great antiwar novels.
If Hemingway was bad at anything in his great novels, it was dialogue. But his narrative style, with that deceptively lulling repetition of "and," is justly adulated. A too-brief excerpt from Farewell: "In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees."
Plain and simple, so plain and simple it would seem to be unexceptionable. Yet it was like nothing that had gone before, and it changed everything. Now that the vogue for imitating him is past, his like will not be seen again. And that, my children, is the real reason he deserves to be called Papa.