We find ourselves in the midst of a reckoning, centuries in the making. The cry to denounce racial and patriarchal constructs has increased across the world. Societies have begun to open their eyes to the inequities that have long existed. With this closer examination of culture, past and present, there has also been heightened (and justified) scrutiny of public figures, many of whom until now have held iconic status. We see this especially in literature.
An often asked question: How does a contemporary audience come to terms with a “problematic,” and likely long-dead, writer? It’s difficult, particularly when you narrow your scope to American literature. The foundation of what was deemed great literary works in the past (and still, to a slightly lesser extent today) was decided upon by those in positions of power; white males. They were the ones who published and marketed the books after all. So, when we go down the list of the most influential classic American novels, you’ll see titles from writers like Hawthorne, Twain, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, and of course, Hemingway. And this isn’t to discount these individuals as writers. Their talent was unquestionable. Their works, extraordinary. But I do often wonder about the voices that went unheard. Perhaps writers of equal or greater talent, who unfortunately didn’t fit the mould. Their desks piled high with rejection letters. Their potential untapped.
I became an avid reader at a young age. As I grew into adolescence and graduated to more “serious” novels, I began reading works that have long been categorized as American classics. And although I enjoyed many of these novels, I always had to brace myself when reading them. Depending on the plot, setting, and characters, I was well aware that any story rooted in the past would likely present scenarios and language that for me, as a black female reader, would be disturbing. I’m sure literary academics would audibly tisk at my strong dislike of William Faulkner, who professionally and personally made his thoughts on race well known. The Sound And The Fury, with its stream of consciousness, reads like racist/sexist jibber-jabber in my opinion. Sorry, Scholars, that’s just how I see it. But with other writers, at least for me, it becomes a bit more complicated.
Which leads me to Ernest Hemingway.
In light of the aforementioned reckoning, and influenced by the recent Ken Burns/ Lynn Novick documentary, I decided to re-read The Sun Also Rises. It’s such an interesting book, and captivating in a way I’ve never been quite able to describe. It’s the story of a group of expats; some are writers, others are unemployed bon vivants. They plan a trip from Paris to Spain, in order to take part in the festivities surrounding an annual bullfight. Each is unhappy in his or her own way brought on by failed relationships, bad luck, ill-temperedness, and the scars of war. But their interior lives are never fully fleshed out; a great deal of the action is overshadowed by alcohol consumption, detailed descriptions of European transit, and a desperate need to keep the party going. The story thrives predominantly in what isn’t said. And then, there are the problem areas. In one scene, Bill Gorton relays his recent travel experiences to his friend, and quasi-leader of the group, Jake Barnes. Gorton talks of an encounter with a black boxer in Austria, a man who he consistently refers to as “The N****r.” In more than one scene, members of the group complain about one their own travel companions, Robert Cohn. Cohn is desperately in love with Lady Brett Ashley, who is also along for the trip and clearly doesn’t share his ardent feelings. His hovering obsessiveness creates tension within the group. But the behaviors that they find most reprehensible in Cohn, they often attribute to the fact that he’s Jewish.
So, I ask myself again, what draws me to this book? I don’t like feeling uncomfortable when I read. I don’t derive pleasure from wincing at disturbing language and sentiment. This novel harbors a degree of ugliness that can never be explained away. Yet something keeps me coming back. Maybe, it’s the character of Brett. A troubled woman, with a dark past. Brett lives by her own rules, bucking conventional stereotypes of what is and is not considered lady-like. Perhaps, it’s the glimpse one gets of the life and times of expats in a by-gone era. We witness Paris in the 1920s, a haven for creative types, where romance is fluid, and the champagne is overflowing. Or maybe I’m drawn to Hemingway’s distinctive style; a hard staccato rendering of information. There’s honesty in his lack of flourish, and that appeals to my sensibilities. But more than likely, it’s just because Hemingway, a man with enormous personal demons, also happened to be a damn good story-teller. Honestly, I don’t think I’ll ever sort it out.
There is, however, one thing I’ve come to understand with certainty, Ernest Hemingway was a man of his time. A white man. And the beliefs he held were no different than that of many other white men of his time. Therefore, his work must be viewed within that context to assess its value. The Sun Also Rises is an enthralling narrative in spite of being “problematic.” Do those problems tarnish a bit of its shine? Why, of course! As it should. But, I know I’ll likely read it again and again.
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