August 10, 2012

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

Given the gift of the literary Spirit every two years

Cynthia DewesEvery two years, a bunch of Ernest Hemingway enthusiasts gather for an international conference. The membership of the Ernest Hemingway Society, which sponsors these meetings, includes people from many countries who are academics, scholars, graduate students of language and literature, and just plain aficionados—to use a Hemingway-type term for a fan. We number ourselves among the latter.

Conferences are held alternately in the United States and in countries abroad, always in places in which Hemingway lived or wrote about. To date, we’ve been fortunate to enjoy conferences held in Paris; Stresa, Italy; on the shores of Lake Maggiore; Ronda in Spain, Key West, Fla, and Petoskey, Mich. In addition to hearing lectures, we have been taken to Hemingway family homes, raised a glass in his memory at the Ritz bar in Paris, straddled the streams he fished as a youth, and shouted “Ole!” at a bullfight.

Although Hemingway’s literary reputation plummeted for a few years during the 1960s or ’70s, I’ve always been loyal to him as someone I consider the greatest literary stylist of the 20th century. He invented what he called the “iceberg” theory of writing—creating lean and simple prose as the tip of an iceberg, which never states, but implies, the larger mass of meaning beneath it. His work is certainly more subtle than the surface action some critics love to scorn.

In addition, appreciation of Hemingway’s fiction has sometimes been eclipsed by his bad behavior over the years. He was married four times, cruelly discarded wives, friends and mentors who had loved him and helped his career, and was an inattentive father to his three sons. Sometimes the conferences become too wrapped up in such personal issues at the expense of literary criticism. But still, gossip or not, it’s been great at the conferences to hear in person from his sons and others who knew him.

I believe that one aspect of Hemingway’s life which shadows his fiction is his religious faith. Raised in a strict Victorian Protestantism against which he rebelled, he converted to Catholicism when he married his second wife. According to later reports, he was a faithful and often daily Mass attendee.

Although this became an inconsistent practice, he was always respectful of the Church, its representatives and its beliefs. He dedicated the Nobel Prize he received for Literature to a shrine of the Virgin Mary in Cuba. Prominent scholar H.R. Stoneback believes that Hemingway may have lapsed, but never gave up faith, and I tend to agree.

Throughout his life, Hemingway had compassion for children in pain. Early in his career, he visited and sent books and gifts to the dying teenaged son of his friends, the Murphys. He always answered letters from children, and he once invited an awestruck youth to his home for writing advice. Just before his suicide, when he was physically and mentally sick, he managed to write a tender letter of encouragement to the seriously ill son of an acquaintance in Idaho.

The themes in Hemingway’s work reflect the great concerns of the human condition, including fear, passion, understanding of natural beauty, loyalty and a sense of place. He was a flawed man who tried to do what he knew was good, but often failed.

Sound familiar?

When we read his stories we are made to reflect on our own human condition. God gave Ernest Hemingway a great gift, which, as damaged a person as he was, he shared so beautifully with us.

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.)

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