On Ernest Hemingway and the Craft of Writing

From a review in the Wall Street Journal by John J. Miller of the book by Mark Kurlansky titled “The Importance of Not Being Ernest: My Life With the Uninvited Hemingway”:

Ernest Hemingway once wrote that “all stories, if continued far enough, end in death.” Mark Kurlansky reveals the truth of this observation to comic effect. On a visit to the Hotel Ambos Mundos in Havana, he fell into the company of tourists from Italy. A guide showed them room 511, which Hemingway used in the 1930s and is today preserved as a miniature museum. “Where is he now?” asked one of the tourists. The guide informed them that he had died. “The Italians,” writes Mr. Kurlansky, “seemed genuinely upset to learn the news.”

Hemingway’s story ended with a suicide in 1961, though in another sense it never really finished: More copies of his books have sold since his death than during his life, when he was perhaps the most famous author in the world. Bookshelves sag beneath the weight of volumes devoted to everything from his stint as an 18-year-old ambulance driver in World War I to his last days in Ketchum, Idaho. Mr. Kurlansky has a word for the products of this fascination: “Hemingwayphilia.” He offers his own contribution to the genre with “The Importance of Not Being Ernest,” an entertaining and occasionally insightful book that never develops its title into a theme even though there are plenty of reasons for not wanting to live or die like Hemingway.

Mr. Kurlansky has made a name for himself by finding imaginative ways to tackle seemingly dull topics, in works such as “Cod,” “Salt” and “Paper.” The challenge of writing about Hemingway is different. It involves discovering something new to say about an interesting but overdone subject. Mr. Kurlansky recognizes the problem: “I learned that there was no aspect of Hemingway that someone wasn’t researching.”

His solution is to turn to the idiosyncrasies of memoir, mixing the story of his own career as a reporter and author into his portrait of a man whose work he has admired since childhood. Mr. Kurlansky wrote about Hemingway in last year’s “The Unreasonable Virtue of Fly Fishing,” but only in catch-and-release asides and digressions. He also discussed Hemingway for several pages in “Havana,” a 2017 travelogue from which he has recycled some of his best lines and anecdotes, including the bit about those clueless Italian tourists. Along the way, readers will learn why Mr. Kurlansky objected to the Vietnam War, what led him to write a well-received history of the Basques, and how constant travel ruined his first marriage. Meanwhile, assignments to Paris, Spain and the Caribbean put him in settings where Hemingway once lived and worked. Hemingway “kept showing up at places I chose to go.”

This makes for a selective account. Because Mr. Kurlansky hasn’t spent much time in Chicago or northern Michigan, he has little to say about Hemingway’s youth or how Hemingway came to love the outdoors. Instead, Mr. Kurlansky concentrates on a few locations that he knows well. His best chapter is about Cuba, where Hemingway lived for half of his adult life, mostly at a house known as the Finca Vigía. Mr. Kurlansky describes it amusingly as “a cross between a Spanish restaurant for tourists and the Idaho Fish and Game office in Boise.”

Hemingway moved there from Key West, Fla., in part because Cuba allowed better access to the Gulf Stream, which “operates like a river with a northern direction defined as downstream.” Its fishing waters became the dramatic setting for Hemingway’s last great work, “The Old Man and the Sea,” his only novel “that is not about romantic love.” It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1953, “even though the award said it was for a book reflecting on American life and there is no American in this book.”

Hemingway once challenged a reader to find a sentence from “The Old Man and the Sea” that could be rewritten in fewer words, thinking the task impossible. A conventional view holds that his commitment to concision emerged from his job as a reporter for the Kansas City Star and later as a European correspondent for a Toronto newspaper. Mr. Kurlansky isn’t so sure, claiming that much of Hemingway’s journalism involves “a literary voice” that is “fluffy by newspaper standards.” That may be true, but the few people who read Hemingway’s articles nowadays are looking for insights into his literature, where his spare prose became a hallmark. It’s easy to trace this back to the first commands of the style sheet of the Kansas City Star: “Use short sentences. Use short first paragraphs. Use vigorous English.”

As Mr. Kurlansky reflects on Hemingway and the craft of writing, he shares lessons from his own experience. Write in the morning rather than at night, he suggests. Don’t listen to music because it will upset the rhythm of your prose. And avoid booze. “You cannot drink and write,” he says. “If you drink you may feel very good about what you write, but the next day you will always be disappointed.” For the curse of writer’s block, he lets Hemingway propose a cure: “Get exercise and write whether it is possible or not.” Mr. Kurlansky also observes that although Hemingway possessed “an incredible memory,” he may have relied on it too much because he “rarely took notes.” The risks, “as any journalist with a good memory will tell you,” are the “slip-ups on details—the exact wording of a quotation for example.”

This may be the place to say that Mr. Kurlansky would have benefited from a better copy editor: “The Importance of Not Being Ernest” contains too many typos. They embody one of Hemingway’s warnings: “Writing is something that you can never do as well as it can be done.”

John J. Miller is director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College and the author of “Reading Around.”

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