Ernest Hemingway: A legacy of influence, not importance –

I don't want to make too much of this, but I don't think I could disagree more with this assessment of Hemingway's literary legacy. It's true; he's always been the writer you love to hate, and I don't think I would have abided him were I a regular at his table at Toots Shor's. 

In too many ways, it's difficult to separate the man from his writing, but it's possible. And here lies the source of what I believe is the ambivalence – even a sneering dislike – many hold for his writing: He was the quintessential macho man, but he was one of the first openly "sensitive" American male writers. He was a political idealist, but he took to hunting German submarines during WWII with gusto. He braved many dangers others wouldn't dare, but  at times he could be all too reserved when in the company of people he didn't know.

True, his subject matter and the tone of his writing seems as dated today as a John Ford movie, but he depicted his time – at least the parts of it he experienced – all too accurately. He never lurked behind his protagonists; instead, they were often Papa, thinly veiled. When his physical and mental health began to crumble, so did his writing. But this, I think, is the crucial point: he wrote himself, as well as his time, into literary history, and he rarely colored or embellished his literary self-portrait – at least no more than he did his real-life persona.

He was, then, the first great tinkerer with imaginative non-fiction. And, yes, his writing style changed the way American writers think about sentence structure, narrative and dialogue. Unlike most of Faulkner's writing, however, Hemingway's ground-breaking fiction was accessible. That's hardly a tarnished or a diminished legacy.

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For much of the 1980s, beginning when I was in college, I used to read a Hemingway book a year. The point was not self-improvement but rather a kind of exploration: What was it, exactly, about his writing that I'd missed? I had read "The Sun Also Rises" in high school and had admired its spare portrayal of 1920s expatriate life. But I'd also thought of it as more than a little stilted, even melodramatic in its way.



Approaching a Milestone – – Sort Of

With this post, and combining my Gridley Fires and Wordsmith blogs, I've amassed almost 700 posts. And there've been almost 150 comments between the two. Not bad, considering most people read but don't comment. 

graphic from

How many regular readers?  Hard to say. I monitor hits through Sitemeter, and I note readers from all over Europe and the British Isles, the U.S., of course, the Middle East, and even a few in China and the Pacific Rim.

Do comments always agree with what I post? No, of course not. But such diversity of topics and my often curmudgeonly posts are going to draw a spectrum of comments. And that's the way I like it. 

The Complex T.S. Eliot

T.S. Eliot – Selected Essays, 1917-1932


Eliot was born in the U.S., but following grad work at the Sorbonne and Oxford, Europe must have seemed more comfortable, because he stayed there for years. During that time, he began to make his mark as a poet, dramatist, and literary critic. This book contains some of his most provocative literary critiques.

The book begins with Eliot’s view of literary talent and the role of criticism. In these two initial essays, he seems to presage postmodernism in his view that the writer can’t be extracted from his/her culture and literary traditions; nor can the writer thrive without the influence of subsequent criticism. Criticism to Eliot, then, is a traditional/cultural effort to direct the writer from creativity’s blind spots – but first to shepherd him/her into writing’s traditions so as to allow the writing to touch ground there before extrapolating into literature’s future.

Many of the essays following these early two concern his view of Elizabethan drama and the poetry of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Here, Eliot’s tendency to prefer the traditions of the past, instead of the emerging ones, help depict him as a complex figure – willingly trapped in the literary past but writing some of the most modern poetry of the twentieth century.

With his stay in England, his religious views took a conservative turn, from Unitarianism to the Church of England. Tradition surfaces here, too, in the book’s final essays, in which he takes Irving Babbitt’s humanistic views to task. Babbitt, who seemed to discard religion altogether as a valid human enterprise, dwelt on humanism as a secular substitute. Eliot’s argument, while eloquently put, seems not to understand the evolution of secularism as a social phenomenon, preferring to see humanism (i.e., ethics, morality, et al) as secondary to the mysteries religious faith is determined to perpetuate.


But what of Eliot’s writing? He's eloquent throughout, but his opinions, reflections, and arguments, while witty and full of life, seem longwinded – blather, for the most part. Still he can’t escape the poet and dramatist within himself, and there’s enough here to coach the aspiring poet to a higher level of accomplishment. For that reason alone, the book is worth the read.


My rating: 3-3/4 of 5 stars



Intangible Greatness in Cinema

An article in the July 2011 issue of Harper's Magazine asks "When is a Movie Great?" This article, by movie maven David Thomson, skirts the issue for the most part by declaring what isn't great about a given movie: "Hot on Friday, compost by Monday." And he brings up a few oldies that are undeniably great ones: The Birth of a Nation. The Nights Of the Hunter. Citizen Kane.


He does examine briefly the lure and pitfalls of declaring movie greatness: Technology (special effects) a la Avatar. Jaws, being released on a massive scale; thus seeming "greatness" is thrust on it. Publicity comparatives, i.e., The Social Network is the new Citizen Kane. Great acting, as in The King's Speech.

But, really, what does he believe constitutes cinematic greatness? What's great about Citizen Kane, for instance, that isn't about The King's Speech? He throws out the term "endurance," i.e., the test of time. And he indirectly isolates the nebulous term art.

I think I have a decent handle on greatness in print, but War and Peace in print doesn't equate to its cinematic weak sister. Still, some common ground exists between print and film: a story told in such a way that it transcends era. A tale that reaches into the depths of humanity's nature. A combination of scene, narrative, and setting.

The trouble with such declarations, regardless of medium, is that greatness is an intangible. We know when we're in the midst of it, but analyzing it, depicting it – that's another matter.

The Millions : Six Egyptian Writers You Don’t Know But You Should

The "Arab Spring" was led by Egypt, a country with an emerging literature much like that of South Africa 30-40 years ago. If the recent governmental overthrow produces nothing more than a louder voice for writers there, it will be a great success, for Egypt and the Middle East.


In Cairo, in March, the city had a surplus of intellectual energy. Literature, it seemed, might just be at the vanguard of Egypt’s social change. Novelists were writing columns for every significant newspaper; the opinions of fiction writers like Alaa Al Aswany were hotly debated on satellite news channels and in streetside cafes, over backgammon.


NEWSWEEK and Journalism’s Burdens

I've said it before: I haven't been a big fan of NEWSWEEK since Tina Brown became its editor; still, it's better now than the royal mess it was. Its limitations remain those of a society with a thirty-second attention span and a blogosphere with cranky, sensationalistic rants.


Why do I read it? For the occasional good article. That good one comes, in the June 27, 2011, issue, in the form of an op-ed piece by former Prez Bill Clinton. One never knows, but I suspect Clinton wrote this piece (It's Still The Economy, Stupid) himself. It has all the bubbly optimism and down to earth assaying he's always been known for. In this piece, he lays out what he believes are 14 ways to "put America back to work." Nine of his talking points are no-brainers, the others need the concise explanation Clinton gives. In the end, he's still thinking like a president, not an ex-prez. 

On the down side, NEWSWEEK gives us an article (The Triple Agent) that promises an inside scoop on the suicide bomber attack on a CIA base in Afghanistan in 2009 that killed seven CIA operatives. The writing here is skillful; it opens as if a real-life, suspense novel look at this attack. We do get an eyeful of the perp – Humam al-Balawi. Otherwise we get little more than we could have GOOGLED a year later. 

Journalism, even the weekly kind, has to bear the burden of a reading audience that wants only the bottom line, and wants it NOW! NEWSWEEK, TIME, and U.S. NEWS & WORLD REPORT have survived as weeklies because they follow journalistic trends. Hopefully, now they can lead a trend back to objective journalism that informs, not titillates.