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RETRO: The Wrath of Hemingway (Excerpt)

Ernest Hemingway; courtesy of IMDB

(Note: This is an excerpt adapted from M.J. Moore’s forthcoming biography on novelist James Jones, author of such works as From Here to Eternity and The Thin Red Line.)

Although Leslie Fiedler’s critique was not full of glowing remarks, there still emerged a deep appreciation for the elements in From Here to Eternity that even a dissenter had to admire. There was, for example, “the authority of the documentation that is forever saving the book from its own ambitions,” Fiedler noted with a backhanded compliment. He also stressed that the novel’s “value as literature . . . lies in redeeming for the imagination aspects of regular army life never before exploited, and in making of certain of those aspects (the stockade, for instance, our homegrown concentration camp) symbols of the human situation everywhere.”

Far more prevalent, though, were overviews like that of critic Gene Baro in the New York Herald Tribune: “‘From Here to Eternity’ is in some ways a difficult book for it faces squarely the agonies of our time. It has a directness, a force, a vigor that cannot be described. Many will think it too brutal.  It has no more brutality than a daily newspaper. It is a work appropriate to our age, a novel in the tradition of free inquiry.”

The most vicious assessment of From Here to Eternity was not in the form of a book review. It came in the form of a letter that was eventually published in 1981, when Ernest Hemingway: Selected Letters~~1917-1961 was released.  That omnibus of Hemingway’s letters was edited and annotated by Carlos Baker, who was also Hemingway’s official biographer.

“About the James [Jones] book,” Hemingway declared to Charles Scribner III in a letter dated March 5, 1951: “It is not great no matter what they tell you. It has fine qualities and greater faults. It is much too long and much too bitching and his one fight, against the planes at Pearl Harbour [sic] day is almost musical comedy.”

Right off the bat it’s clear that Papa had an axe to grind. With good reason. Only six months earlier, in September 1950, Hemingway’s first new novel in ten years had finally appeared. Across the River and Into the Trees was inevitably a bestseller, due to the loyal readership Hemingway had cultivated for decades. But almost all critics (with a few notable exceptions) not only shrugged off the book, they mocked it. 

Across the River and Into the Trees, the harshest critics said, revealed a washed-up Hemingway whose once lean, spare prose had given way to discursive, self-absorbed, hopelessly contrived murk. The narrative started strong with a duck-hunting scene that reminded many reviewers of the power of Hemingway’s earlier work (especially his short stories; twenty years earlier, Chapter One of Across the River might have been published as a standalone story). But unlike 1940’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, which also found Hemingway manifesting a much more long-winded, big-breathed prose style (yet somehow retaining control of his material), the new novel was attacked by some as not really being a novel at all.  It fell to Carlos Baker in a scholarly article that appeared in 1952 to argue that Across the River was actually something akin to a book-length prose-poem. Nonetheless, the knives were out and Hemingway was dismembered by reviewers who considered his 1950 novel autobiographically transparent, semi-coherent, atrocious self-parody. 

Telling the story of a 50-year-old Army officer whose heart condition is so precarious that he expects to die within a day or so, Across the River and Into the Trees revolves around endless scenes of dialogue between the aging soldier and his 19-year-old lover in Venice, Italy. The narrative unfolds over a span of twenty-four hours and Hemingway did himself no favors by having his 50-year-old sage of a Colonel dispensing pearls of wisdom and subjective summaries of World War Two, while repeatedly referring to his 19-year-old lover as “Daughter.” Critics pounced.

Hefty sales did not serve as a balm to Hemingway. He expected big sales. But to be derided and written off as a has-been was unthinkable to him. Always perceiving the writing world as a sports arena where one and all were forever compared (in his letters, interviews and casual remarks) to famous boxers, bullfighters or baseball players, the glee with which some reviewers scorned his new novel was not just anathema to Hemingway, it was a license to kill. 

Because he had been Scribner’s top gun since 1926, all the attention being showered upon Scribner’s new star made Hemingway want to kill the very idea that From Here to Eternity had merit. So, after receiving a complimentary copy of Jones’s novel, which had been officially published on February 26, it took Papa all of one week to explode in his March 5th letter to Charles Scribner III.  He went ballistic.

“Probably I should re-read it again to give you a truer answer. But I do not have to eat an entire bowl of scabs to know they are scabs; nor suck a boil to know it is a boil; nor swim through a river of snot to know it is snot. I hope [Jones] kills himself as soon as it does not damage his or your sales.” That was one of the three eerie references to suicide that Hemingway made in this letter, written ten years prior to his own violent suicide in 1961. “Things will catch up with him and he will probably commit suicide,” Hemingway also ranted, adding also that “[Jones] has the psycho’s urge to kill himself and he will do it.”

Actually, Jones was fated to die of congestive heart failure (a disease inherited from his mother’s side of the family) at the age of 55 in 1977. Hemingway, in the manner of his own father and also Jones’s father, committed suicide by shooting himself.

The anger, belligerence, contempt and cynicism pouring out of Papa, as he wrote out his wrathful remarks to the distinguished publisher who now had a new superstar author representing the Second World War’s demographic, peaked with this tirade:

“If you give [Jones] a literary tea, you might ask him to drain a bucket of snot and then suck the puss [sic] out of a dead [man’s] ear . . . To me he is an enormously skillful fuck-up and his book will do great damage to our country . . . I am glad he makes you money and I would never laugh him off. I would just give him a bigger bucket on the snot detail.”

Charles Scribner III took issue with the “malice” he found in Hemingway’s diatribe, and yet arguing was futile. Like an exhausted heavyweight fighter on the ropes, it was clear that Hemingway felt vulnerable, threatened, weak and overwhelmed. His blustering rancor and the scope of his fury nakedly revealed his own inner demons.

Later in 1952, after wisely extracting a short novella-length piece of work from the bulk of a massively ambitious (and never published) postwar novel, Hemingway enjoyed a mythic renaissance with the success of The Old Man and the Sea. All the rotten verdicts heaped upon Across the River and Into the Trees were forgotten, and Papa’s comeback was topped off when he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1953 and was then awarded the Nobel Prize in 1954. Yet he never published another book while he was alive. Alcohol, depression, competitive mania and poor health did him in.

Contrarily, as the 1950s unfolded, Jones was never stronger or more radiant. The sales of From Here to Eternity were so robust that, shortly after its publication, orders were placed by Scribner’s to finance one reprint after another. And the occasional negative reviews were more than balanced out by the plethora of positive commentaries. This pattern continued throughout the decade. Later in the 1950s, when Harvey Swados began his nasty review of Jones’s second novel with a look back at From Here to Eternity, he summed it up as “sentimentally conceived and crudely written.” On the other hand, in a piece entitled “A Second Look at From Here to Eternity,” not only did critic Richard P. Adams call Jones “a major talent,” but he celebrated the author’s bedrock integrity: “[Jones] penetrates to the very center of the most important cultural, political, and philosophical questions of our day.”

(M. J. Moore is Honeysuckle Magazine’s RETRO columnist. His novel, For Paris ~ with Love & Squalor, was published in 2017. His new book Mario Puzo ~ An American Writer’s Quest, the first-ever biography of Mario Puzo, was published by Heliotrope Books on March 8, 2019 – the 50th anniversary of The Godfather.)

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