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Michael McNamara: Into Something Rich and Strange
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Although still considered one of the greatest American authors of the twentieth century, Ernest Hemingway has left behind a legacy more pervasive than his actual literature— his status as a cultural icon. American popular culture often portrays Hemingway as the prototype of many of the most negative characteristics of the oppressive dominant paradigm of the white heterosexual male – anti-Semitic, racist, sexist, and homophobic. In criticism regarding ethnicity, gender, and sexuality, Hemingway is often mistakenly regarded as the enemy. Instead of carefully analyzing Hemingway’s work, critics sometimes attack Hemingway for the sins of the oppressive culture that he represents. These attacks are unfounded because Hemingway’s cultural legacy and what his text actually represents are wildly different. In fact, analyzing the text to overcome this cultural legacy may lead to a deeper understanding of sort of legacy Hemingway really meant to leave. In particular, his treatment of male homosexuality shows a certain empathy for gay men that he gained through his own struggle with issues pertaining to gender and sexual roles.

The Cultural Charges Against Hemingway

Charges of ethnic prejudice, particularly anti-Semitism, plagued Hemingway in his life, and allegations of intolerance are still attached to his novels. On a recent episode of the television program Law and Order the leader of a extremist high-school hate group defended his use of the phrase "Kill All Kikes" in the school yearbook by telling officials that Hemingway shared his beliefs. "That’s why the fool [Robert Cohn] in The Sun Also Rises was a Jew," he argued. The fact that Hemingway’s works are peppered with racist and anti-Semitic epithets leaves any more neutral mention of ethnicity to be interpreted with bigoted undertones.
However, a more layered reading of his work sees through these mistakes. For example, the fact that he is Jewish does not mean that Cohn is a "fool." It does, however, provide background information about his insecurities. Hemingway opens The Sun Also Rises talking about Cohn’s boxing prowess but this is not done to compliment him. In the Hemingway Text, the sporting life is held in high esteem; however, although Cohn is a boxing champ at Princeton, this means nothing because he did hold sports in such high regard: "He cared nothing for boxing, in fact he disliked it, but he learned it painfully and thoroughly to counteract the feeling of inferiority and shyness felt on being treated as a Jew at Princeton (11)". He has taken up boxing for the wrong reason, and this is one of many things that make him foolish. His insecurities explain his foolish actions. If his ethnic background is related to his foolishness, it is only because society has caused his insecurities. Hemingway is not an anti-Semitic author showing the foolishness of a Jew; instead he shows the insecurities that a Jewish man developed in an anti-Semitic society and the foolish actions that these insecurities caused him to take.
Likewise, Hemingway’s use of epithets is not motivated by racial prejudice. He used them to create a more realistic text. In The Green Hills of Africa, Hemingway criticizes American literary giants like Emerson and Hawthorn saying "They did not use the words that people always have used in speech, the words that survive in language. Nor would you gather that they had bodies" (21). Realism is important to Hemingway, especially in dialogue, and this has always caused controversy. In 1933, he responded to criticism from Everett R. Perry, a reader who was concerned about the vulgarity in Death in the Afternoon:

The fundamental reason that I used certain words no longer a part of the usual written language is that they are very much a part of the vocabulary of the people I was writing about and there was no way I could avoid using them... I am trying, always to convey to the reader a full and complete feeling of the thing I am dealing with; to make the person reading feel it has happened to them. In going this I have to use many expedients, which, if they fail, seem needlessly shocking. Because it is so hard to do I must sometimes fail. But I might fail with one reader and succeed with another. (5, 1).

More so than for his supposed ethnic prejudices, Hemingway is attacked for being sexist, and this supposed sexism is seen in his cultural legacy. For example, a recent three-page spread for Diesel Jeans shows what is supposedly the typical Hemingway aficionado. It begins with a sleazy-looking man marrying a woman in a white dress. The story unravels in the two-page spread where we see the same man in bed with a different woman. She is sleeping with her arm around him; he is awake, looking slyly at the camera. On his bed stand is a frame of the previous wedding picture along with four other similar shots— each with different women. Also on the bedside table are dice, casino chips, a wad of hundred dollar bills, and a large diamond wedding ring. Along with these possessions of the womanizing gigolo is a stack of books - the most prominent being The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway, according to this advertisement, wrote the manual by which chauvinists should live.

With this as his cultural legacy, Hemingway is immediately criticized for either being absent of women or full of fantasy women who exist only to be objectified by serving a role for a male. A quick judgment like this ignores the fact that while these female characters may seem two-dimensional, through his use of negative space, all of Hemingway’s characters, both male and female, could seem this way. Nancy R. Comely and Robert Scholes note that "to a much greater extent than most writers of his stature, Hemingway worked all his life with a relatively simple repertory of male an female figures, modifying and individuating them with minimalist economy" (23). Hemingway’s repertory of female characterization, however similar, spans from the free-spirited sophistication of Lady Brett in The Sun Also Rises to the seeming servitude of Catherine Barkley in Farewell to Arms to the to the powerful Pilar in For Whom the Bell Tolls to the risk-taking Catherine Bourne in The Garden of Eden. The wide spectrum that these characters span shows the depth that Hemingway was able to explore in his female characters.
Perhaps the hardest element to defend in Hemingway is his treatment of male homosexuality. Comely and Scholes write, "The usual view of Hemingway’s interest in sexuality is that it is of the locker-room sort, kidding-with-the-guys but fiercely heterosexual in its focus, treating homosexuality as either a joke or horror" (110). This especially seems true in the two novels published during his lifetime that deal with the subject the most, The Sun Also Rises and Death in the Afternoon. One cannot deny the existence of these attacks, and at face value, they are indefensible. However, read in the context of Hemingway’s life, his and American society’s ideas about masculinity and homosexuality, and his other short stories, another viewpoint becomes more obvious. Hemingway’s work really shows the struggle of fitting into fixed societal gender roles while struggling with non-fixed ideas about gender. Hemingway felt empathy toward male homosexuals because of his own viewpoints about masculinity in American society and the difficulty of maintaining one’s apparent manhood.

Gay-Bashing in Hemingway’s Novels

In The Sun Also Rises, Jake Barnes, a writer whose genitals were rendered non-functional by a war wound, attends a bal musette in Left Bank Paris with a prostitute, Georgette, whom he met earlier that evening. While there, they encounter Jake’s "true love," Lady Brett Ashley, in the company of a group of male homosexuals. Jake remarks, "I could see their hands and newly washed, wavy hair in the light from the door...As they went in, under the light I saw white hands, wavy hair, white faces, grimacing, gesturing, talking" (28). Their feminine physical traits – marked by their paleness and attention to grooming along with their dramatic grimaces and gestures – label these men gay for Jake. Jake and a police officer at the door exchange a smile, mocking the men and their overly dramatic actions.
Seeing these homosexuals with Brett upsets Jake: "I was very angry. Somehow they always made me angry. I know they are supposed to be amusing, and you should be tolerant, but I wanted to swing on one, any one, anything to shatter that superior simpering composure." Instead of gay-bashing, Jake excuses himself from the situation to get a drink. When he comes back, Georgette is dancing with one of the homosexuals. Jake remarks, "She had been taken up by them. I knew then that they would all dance with her. They are like that." Ira Elliott writes that Jake means "that homosexuals enjoy flirting with what they perceive as the exotic or marginalized, for the prostitute represents yet another form of ‘deviant’ desire or ‘perverted’ sexuality...While Georgette is unaffiliated with the homosexual men in terms of their sexuality , she is aligned with them because of her professional promiscuity" (81). Although most of the Left Bank inhabits the fringe of society, the homosexual men and the prostitute are even further removed into their own fringe. Just as Georgette is mocked by Hemingway’s friends, the men too should be mocked.
The mocking continues when, later in the novel, Jake and his friend Bill Gorton escape to go fishing. In their conversation, Bill says to Jake:

Listen. You’re a hell of a good guy, and I’m fonder of you than anybody on earth. I couldn’t tell you that in New York. It’d mean I was a faggot. That was that the Civil War was about. Abraham Lincoln was a faggot. He was in love with General Grant. So was Jefferson Davis. Lincoln just freed the slaves on a bet. The Dred Scott case was framed by the Anti-Saloon League. Sex explains it all. The Colonel’s Lady and Judy O’Grady are Lesbians under their skin. (121)

These slurs and jokes show the aforementioned locker-room sexuality that most people and popular culture associate to Hemingway.
spacer.gif (67 bytes)Even more reprehensible seeming are Hemingway’s attacks of male gayness in Death in the Afternoon. The most obvious is this definition from the novel’s "Explanatory Glossary":

Maric—n: a sodomite, nance queen, fairy, fag, etc. They have these in Spain too, but I only know of two of them among the forty-some matadors de toros. This is no guaranty that those interested parties who are continually proving that Leonardo da Vinci, Shakespeare, etc., were fags would not be able to find more. Of the two, one is almost pathologically miserly, is lacking in valor but is very skillful and delicate with the cape, a sort of exterior decorator of bullfighting, and the other has a reputation for great valor and awkwardness and has been unable to save a peseta. In bullfighting circles the word is used as a term of opprobrium or ridicule or as an insult. There are many very, very, funny Spanish fairy stories. (417-18)

This demeaning definition is a perfect companion to a story that the narrator relates to the Old Lady when she asks him about homosexuals. Hemingway’s inclusion of this sidebar story seems to be nothing more than a denunciation of the male gay lifestyle. Staying in a hotel in Paris, a journalist was visited late at night by a young American man hysterics. Apparently the man had just had a fight with a friend who was his traveling companion through Europe: "His friend had plenty of money and he had none and their friendship had been a fine and beautiful one until tonight" (180). After this fight, everything was ruined but he still insisted that nothing in the world could get him to go back into that room— "He would kill himself first" (181). The other young man appeared; a little older, the friend convinced the journalist that the man was just tired from the excitement of the trip, and after each were calmed down, the men returned to their room. The journalist went to sleep but was awakened by another struggle next door: "‘I didn’t know it was like that. Oh, I didn’t know it was that! I won’t! I won’t’ followed by what the newspaperman described as a despairing scream" (181). This sort of seduction into the world of homosexuality by a man, because of a financial situation, empowered over a weaker man, culminating in a anal rape, is just the sort of "degenerate perversion" that it seems that Hemingway was trying to portray.
Hemingway was often critical of gay artists. Perhaps the most discussed Hemingway passage dealing with homosexuality is his defense of Greco and his judgment on other gay artists. Hemingway believes that Greco is gay because of the androgyny of the figures he creates, but he still respects Greco as an artist because he tried to paint the city of Toledo realistically:

El Greco believed in the city of Toledo, in is location and construction... in the holy ghost, in the communion and fellowship of saints, in painting, in life after death and death after life and in fairies. If he was one he should redeem, for the tribe, the prissy exhibitionistic, aunt-like withered old maid moral arrogance of a Gide; the lazy, conceited debauchery of a Wilde who betrayed a generation; the nasty, sentimental pawing of humanity of a Whitman and all the mincing gentry. (205)

Although he respects Greco’s artistry for his holistic approach, he still attacks the lifestyles of the other homosexual artists.

 

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