Sunday, May 13, 2012

Short Story Month: Dorothy Parker on Ernest Hemingway

All this week, I've been celebrating National Short Story Month with guest blogs from great contemporary practitioners of the short form.  Now it gives me great pleasure to bring you one more voice to chime in on the art of the short story: Ms. Dorothy Parker.  As the Jazz Age Quip Queen, Parker filled our literary vaults with enough treasures to keep us well-supplied for a thousand years.  True to the nature of her witty asides, she wrote in the short form: stories, essays and poems.  When The Paris Review asked her if any novels were in the works, she replied: "I wish to God I could do one, but I haven’t got the nerve."  In 1927, the tart-tongued writer penned a delightfully-sharp review of Ernest Hemingway's collection of short stories Men Without Women for The New Yorker.  Here are some of the most exquisite parts of that review.

Ernest Hemingway wrote a novel called The Sun Also Rises.  Promptly upon its publication, Ernest Hemingway was discovered, the Stars and Stripes were reverentially raised over him, eight hundred and forty-seven book reviewers formed themselves into the word “welcome,” and the band played “Hail to the Chief” in three concurrent keys.  All of which, I should think, might have made Ernest Hemingway pretty reasonably sick.

For, a year or so before The Sun Also Rises, he had published In Our Time, a collection of short pieces....That’s no way to start off.  People don’t like that; they feel cheated.  Any bookseller will be glad to tell you, in his interesting argot, that “short stories don’t go.”  People take up a book of short stories and say, “Oh, what’s this?  Just a lot of those short things?” and put it right down again.  Only yesterday afternoon, at four o’clock sharp, I saw and heard a woman do that to Ernest Hemingway’s new book, Men Without Women.  She had been one of those most excited about his novel.

Literature, it appears, is here measured by a yard-stick.  As soon as The Sun Also Rises came out, Ernest Hemingway was the white-haired boy.  He was praised, adored, analyzed, best-sold, argued about, and banned in Boston; all the trimmings were accorded him.  People got into feuds about whether or not his story was worth the telling....They affirmed, and passionately, that the dissolute expatriates in this novel of “a lost generation” were not worth bothering about; and then they devoted most of their time to discussing them.  There was a time, and it went on for weeks, when you could go nowhere without hearing of The Sun Also Rises.  Some thought it without excuse; and some, they of the cool, tall foreheads, called it the greatest American novel, tossing Huckleberry Finn and The Scarlet Letter lightly out the window.  They hated it or they revered it.  I may say, with due respect to Mr. Hemingway, that I was never so sick of a book in my life.

Now The Sun Also Rises was as “starkly” written as Mr. Hemingway’s short stories; it dealt with subjects as “unpleasant.”  Why it should have been taken to the slightly damp bosom of the public while the (as it seems to me) superb In Our Time should have been disregarded will always be a puzzle to me.  As I see it —I knew this conversation would get back to me sooner or later, preferably sooner—Mr. Hemingway’s style, this prose stripped to its firm young bones, is far more effective, far more moving, in the short story than in the novel.  He is, to me, the greatest living writer of short stories; he is, also to me, not the greatest living novelist.

After all the high screaming about The Sun Also Rises, I feared for Mr. Hemingway’s next book.  You know how it is—as soon as they all start acclaiming a writer, that writer is just about to slip downward.  The littler critics circle like literary buzzards above only the sick lions.

So it is a warm gratification to find the new Hemingway book, Men Without Women, a truly magnificent work.  It is composed of thirteen short stories, most of which have been published before.  They are sad and terrible stories; the author’s enormous appetite for life seems to have been somehow appeased.  You find here little of that peaceful ecstasy that marked the camping trip in The Sun Also Rises and the lone fisherman’s days in Big Two-Hearted River, in In Our Time.  The stories include “The Killers,” which seems to me one of the four great American short stories.  (All you have to do is drop the nearest hat, and I’ll tell you what I think the others are.  They are Wilbur Daniel Steele’s “Blue Murder,” Sherwood Anderson’s “I’m a Fool,” and Ring Lardner’s “Some Like Them Cold”....)  The book also includes “Fifty Grand,” “In Another Country,” and the delicate and tragic “Hills Like White Elephants.”  I do not know where a greater collection of stories can be found.

Ford Madox Ford has said of this author, “Hemingway writes like an angel.”  I take issue.  Hemingway writes like a human being.  I think it is impossible for him to write of any event at which he has not been present; his is, then, a repertorial talent, just as Sinclair Lewis’s is.  But, or so I think, Lewis remains a reporter, and Hemingway stands a genius because Hemingway has an unerring sense of selection.  He discards details with a magnificent lavishness; he keeps his words to their short path.  His is, as any reader knows, a dangerous influence. The simple thing he does looks so easy to do.  But look at the boys who try to do it.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for posting the Parker review! Of course, Parker could have included many of her short stories in the great American short stories list, but for her modesty. I have always felt a little disappointed after reading short stories; I suppose most make me feel left hanging at the end. Dorothy Parker's are among the few that satisfy. And, as a novelist, I have never been able to write that form. It takes a particular skill to do it well. Agata Stanford, Dorothy Parker Mysteries