Saturday, June 16, 2012

Michael Gold On Ernest Hemingway: Excerpts from 1928 `New Masses' article

In an article that appeared in the March 1928 issue of New Masses magazine, U.S. working-class writer and literary critic Mike Gold wrote the following about the early 20th century U.S. novelist Ernest Hemingway (who died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound nearly 51 years ago in July 1961):

“…Fashion is as whimsical as a butterfly, neurotic as a race horse with hives, crazy as the New York weather.

“What causes the cycles of fashion? The average `literary critic’ can’t tell you; the world is all accident to him. He is as incompetent as the average university `economist’ who describes perfectly the cycles of economic expansion and depression, but knows…little of their basic laws…

“Ernest Hemingway is the newest young writer to leap into fashion among American intellectuals. He deserves recognition; he is powerful, original, would be noticed anywhere, and at any time. He has a technical control of his material as sure as a locomotive engineer’s. He sees and feels certain things for himself, for 1928.

“Hemingway became a best seller with his novel The Sun Also Rises. He had already published a volume of short stories, and a satirical novel. Neither was very popular. Hemingway was considered a member of a cult. The advance guard of American writing, most of whom live in Paris, looked upon Hemingway as one of their bannermen. He expressed their mood of irony, lazy despair, and old-world sophistication.

“Suddenly this esoteric mood became popular. Thousands of simpler male and female Americans, not privileged to indulge in café’ irony and pity in Paris, but rising to alarm clocks in New York and Chicago, discovered and liked Hemingway. Why? His novel was an upper-class affair, concerned with the amours and drinking bouts of Americans with incomes who rot in European cafés; self-pitying exiles and talkers…Why did the hard-working Babbitt Americans accept…the gilded sorrows in Hemingway?

“It was no accident.

“…America is the land where the businessman is the national hero. A big section of the middle-class youth, however, hates in its heart the rapacities, the meanness, the dollarmanias of business.

“American business simply cannot satisfy the mind and the heart. A thousand voices rise every day to testify against it…The war was a profound shock to all the youth…And now they can sense the next war, and they have no illusions about the past or present, and they have no hopes for the imperialist future.

“Mencken, Hemingway, Sherwood Anderson, all the bourgeois modern American writers, whom do they write for? Not for workingmen, and not for the bankers of Wall Street. They write for, and they express the soul of, the harried white-collar class.

“I know a hundred…haggard, witty, hard-drinking woman-chasing advertising men, press agents, dentists, doctors, engineers, technical men, lawyers, office executives. They go to work every morning and plough their weary brains eight hours a day in the fiercest scramble for a living the world has ever known…

“Hemingway offers the daydreams of a man. Liquor, sex and sport are his three chief themes, as they are in the consciousness of the American white-collar slave today…

“The young American `liberal’ writes advertising copy meekly all day, then at night dreams of Hemingway’s irresponsible Europe, where everyone talks literature, drinks fine liqueurs, swaggers with a cane, sleeps with beautiful and witty British aristocrats, is well informed in the mysteries of bullfighting, has a mysterious income from home.
“That is why Hemingway is suddenly popular. He has become the sentimental storyteller to a whole group of tired, sad, impotent young Americans, most of whom must work in offices every day--`white collar slaves.’…

“Ten years ago Hemingway could not have written in this mood; he would not have felt the mood , and no one else would have understood him, in this mood. His mood is that of the betrayed young idealist.

“There is no humanity in Hemingway, as there is in Dreiser, Stephen Crane, Upton Sinclair, Carl Sandburg, all the men of the earlier decade. He is heartless as a tabloid. He describes the same material as do tabloids, and his sole boast is his aloofness, last refuge of a scoundrel. What one discerns in him as in those younger writers close to his mood, is an enormous self-pity….

“…Hemingway…has led American writing back to the divine simplicities of the prosaic; he has made a great technical contribution.

“The revolutionary writers of the future will be grateful to him; they will imitate his style. But they will have different things to say. A new wave of social struggle is moving on the ocean of American life. Unemployment is here; hints of a financial depression; the big conservative unions are breaking up; another world war is being announced by Admirals and Generals.

Babbitt was one of the evidences of the desperation and pessimism of the middle-class idealists during the Judas decade, Hemingway was another sign…Upton Sinclair is coming back in popularity in his own land. There is surely something brewing. Hemingway is not the herald of a new way of feeling, but the last voice of a decade of despair.”
(New Masses, March 1928)

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