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Michael McNamara: Into Something
Rich and Strange
|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 Hemingways work, critics sometimes attack Hemingway
for the sins of the oppressive culture that he represents. These attacks are unfounded
because Hemingways 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. "Thats why the fool [Robert Cohn] in The Sun Also Rises
was a Jew," he argued. The fact that Hemingways 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 Cohns 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, Hemingways 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 Hemingways 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). Hemingways 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.
the hardest element to defend in Hemingway is his treatment of male homosexuality. Comely
and Scholes write, "The usual view of Hemingways 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 Hemingways life, his and American societys ideas about masculinity
and homosexuality, and his other short stories, another viewpoint becomes more obvious.
Hemingways 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 ones apparent manhood.
Gay-Bashing in Hemingways 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 Jakes "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
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 Hemingways
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. Youre a hell of a good guy, and Im fonder of you
than anybody on earth. I couldnt tell you that in New York. Itd 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
Colonels Lady and Judy OGrady 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.
Even more reprehensible seeming are Hemingways attacks
of male gayness in Death in the Afternoon. The most obvious is this definition from
the novels "Explanatory Glossary":
Maricn: 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. Hemingways
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 didnt know it was like that. Oh, I
didnt know it was that! I wont! I wont 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
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 Grecos artistry for his holistic approach, he
still attacks the lifestyles of the other homosexual artists.