Presenting at ETSU



Today was the day for my long-awaited presentation to the national Graduate Liberal Arts Studies Conference (yes, that's me above), which was hosted this year by the MLA staff at East Tennessee State University. I always seem to want to talk about either books or writing, but one has to find an entryway into such a conference's subject matter, so my presentation incorporated some thoughts on the expatriation phenomenon and the American expat writing community in Paris in the 1920s – as seen through Hemingway's eyes. 

Hemingway was the one person who chronicled the Paris scene – albeit filtered through his ego and sometimes jaundiced viewpoint. I had a great crowd, with many comments and questions, and I'm immensely grateful for that.

The conference included many fine presentations on compelling and topical subjects. If anyone is wondering whether the interdisciplinary approach to MLA curricula is worthwhile, let me assure you, MLA students in this environment are smart, caring, forward-looking, and they are all in the hands of the most capable of faculties.


Honesty In Memoir

A Moveable Feast, by Ernest Hemingway


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I hadn’t given this book a read in many years, and so after reading Hemingway’s Boat, I decided to take it on again. It’s funny, but it was as if I had never read it the first time. I think that as a writer and as an adult, and the commensurate growth in both, it’s possible to understand things in a well-written piece of nonfiction – particularly a memoir – at a much greater depth.  But then that depends on the skill set of the author. And whatever one might think about Hemingway, during his better years he had the skills and the understanding to put together such a piece of writing.

A Moveable Feast has endured because of its romanticization of Paris’ writing scene during the 1920s, and because he wrote about many of the other literary luminaries of that era. He wasn’t a name-dropper, per se; his sketches of such persons as Ford Madox Ford, Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, and Ezra Pound, as well as a lesser cast of writers, are in-depth looks at these friends and acquaintances and how they interacted within this literary garden.

Hemingway can be taken as smug in these sketches. But he did have insight into people, places, situations, and these made him the preeminent writer of his era. During this read, though, I couldn’t shake the feeling that he was trying damned hard to see these personalities in the objective light of a journalist, but a journalist involved emotionally and professionally with his all-too-real characters.

Of course, Paris itself is a character here, as well as a backdrop. Its importance to Hemingway and the other writers of that time and place can't be ignored. It was a haven, a crucible, a way to live and grow as writers – and on the cheap. 

With so much talent in one place, success was eventually going to explode for them. And this is in a way what Hemingway laments. If you read the historical novel, The Paris Wife, by Paula McLain, you’ll understand more of how rich sycophants all but distracted these writers from their talent. In Hemingway’s case, it ruined his first marriage, perhaps his only successful one, with Hadley Richardson. This drove him to look back on Paris romantically and at the same time with sadness, and thus he created perhaps his best piece of writing in A Moveable Feast.


My rating 20 of 20 stars




Romance and Relevance

I've been remiss in posting on movies the missus and I have seen this holiday season, so this will be the first of a cinematic hat trick.

We've both liked Woody Allen movies for years, although it seems at times he's left his movie mojo in the garage. Still, we figured, there'd be moments in Midnight in Paris that would make the price of admission worthwhile. 

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We were right. This one is vintage Woody, although now he's letting a surrogate play his part – in this case Owen Wilson. The premise is partly Woody-as-he's-always-been and part Woody-as-senior-citizen. Meaning: Were the "good old days" really that good? To examine this idea, he allows his alter ego, Wilson as a screenwriter named Gil, who wants to be a novelist, to travel at various midnights back in time to see if things were really as romantic in the 1920s (and farther back) as those times seem now.

Gil meets, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Stein, Toklas, and others and is appropriately in awe of them. There is romance – in the here-and-now as well as then – and both, like Gil's romantic superimposition over that romantic age, erode under ever-closer examination.

What lies beneath Woody's whimsy is a question: With the romance of the eras through which Gil travels suffering from loss of their rosy glow, does it mean the work these artists and writers spent their lives expressing will lose its artistic relevance?

We won't know – perhaps our children's children will – but with a sly wink, Woody seems to be asking the same of his age, his own work. As always, he gives us amusement, relevance, and something to take home and think about. The casting is topnotch, characters from Toulouse Lautrec to Hemingway look the part, and almost all play their parts well. Perhaps Kathy Bates is the weakest casting – for Gertrude Stein – but you can't help liking her anyway.

My rating: 17 of 20 stars

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.


The Perils of Paris

The Paris Wife, by Paula McLain


This is an important book – deeply researched and near-perfectly written. Were it not about a subject I know well – Ernest Hemingway, his early years in Paris with the likes of Gertrude Stein, John Dos Passos, Scot and Zelda Fitzgerald, and Ezra Pound, I wouldn’t have noticed the rather anemic early press it’s been receiving. I hope to rectify that here.


The story is from the point of view of Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson, how they met, married, and found themselves within the arty set in post-WWI Paris. Much of the story is so widely known that I’ll just drop in a few of my most memorable moments from my reading of the book.


Hadley’s father committed suicide in the same manner that Hemingway did, much later.

Hadley was nine years older than Hemingway, and paid most of the bills until he established himself as a money-making writer.

Hemingway despised the expatriates’ rich patrons at first, but soon became seduced by the money, fame, and their "good life."

Pauline, Hemingway’s second wife, was a friend of both Ernest and Hadley, and she and Ernest had an affair while Hadley and Ernest were married.

Hemingway “used” his friendships with Fitzgerald, Pound, and Stein, and then turned on them in his writing.

While all this sounds a lot like a tawdry romance novel, it was the life of this bunch – affairs, drunkenness, social cattiness – with a tremendous amount of good writing thrown in.

McLain’s skills here are numerous. Just a few points on the subject:

With the exception of the first few pages, she shows mastery of the Hemingway writing style, of his voice, of the tone and temper of her characters.

While she writes from Hadley’s viewpoint, she’s not unsympathetic to Ernest, and as their marriage founders, she shows both to remain deeply in love but torn by too many outside influences to have made the marriage work.

She depicts Paris as well, and she also does a bang-up job of setting the story in Italy, Austria, and especially, Spain, during the time in which Hemingway writes The Sun Also Rises.

If McLain has a villain here, it’s Pauline, with her growing possessiveness of Ernest, which cast a deep shadow over her relationship with Hadley. Still, Pauline isn’t spared the emotional wear and tear Hadley and Ernest are going through.


As I wrote at the outset here, this is an important book. First, because of the subject matter: while fiction, McLain burrows deeply into the Hemingways’ marriage, what drew them together, and the bond that kept them together far longer than it should have.

Second, it’s more than an imitation of the Hemingway style and sensibility – it goes far beyond that – it depicts the deeper strata of this Paris bunch, how each one’s life was, in the end, irretrievably a part of all the others. This, I think, is the most significant take-away from McLain’s book – that in such a creative crowd, it was hard to keep one’s self intact, much less a marriage.


My rating: 5 of 5 stars



I’ve Just Seen a Face #4

Who did yesterday's face belong to? Does the name John Dos Passos ring a bell? Dos Passos was one of the expatriate writers who came of age in Paris following WWI and who were known as the Lost Generation. The trilogy mentioned? USA – composed of The 42nd Parallel (1930),  1919 (1932), and The Big Money (1936). 

Today's face belongs to one of the U.S. preeminent non-fiction writers. Need I hint more?