Greatness comes in often curious packages. The greatness I have in mind, as I sit here in my apartment in State College, is Ernest Hemingway, a genius whose link to this area – through a combination of circumstances – is strong.
“Hemingway made a difference,” wrote the late Philip Young, of Penn State’s English department. “There are people who do not admire his work, but even these are perfectly ready to admit – if only that they may deplore the fact – that he is ‘important.’ It is hard to think of a contemporary American who had more influence on modern writing, or on whom both general readers and literary critics are more likely to agree that the experience of his fiction is worth having.”
The clock on a Spanish television website is counting down 22 hours, 32 minutes, and 52 seconds. “Not long to go” the clock explains after I push the “English” button to understand. At the end of the countdown, the bulls around Pamplona, Spain, beginning every morning at 8 a.m. from July 7-14, run through the streets to the bullring. In the evening, the best of the bulls are chosen and slaughtered in a bullfight Hemingway described in loving detail in two of his best books, “The Sun Also Rises” and “Death in the Afternoon.”
There is a bust of Hemingway in downtown Pamplona where he is a national hero. State College should have a bust of Hemingway in front of the municipal building.
Certainly, it is a shame that Hemingway’s conception of manhood is linked to his glorification of brutal yet stylized death.
“Romero’s bull-fighting gave real emotion, because he kept the absolute purity of line in his movements and always quietly and calmly let the horns pass him close each time,” Hemingway wrote in “The Sun Also Rises.” “He did not have to emphasize their closeness. Brett saw how something that was beautiful done close to the bull was ridiculous if it were done a little way off. I told her how since the death of Joselito all the bull-fighters had been developing a technique that simulated this appearance of danger in order to give a fake emotional feeling, while the bull-fighter was really safe. Romero had the old thing, the holding of his purity of line through the maximum of exposure, while he dominated the bull by making him realize he was unattainable, while he prepared him for the killing.”
The language is so clear. Before Hemingway, good style included ornamentation – long words, long sentences, long paragraphs, and lots of adjectives. After Hemingway, the nature of American writing changed. Certainly, there is a place for the elegance of F. Scott Fitzgerald and the beautiful intricacies of William Faulkner. However, what Hemingway gave all of us was the example of what good writing can be.
In a world where the written word still dominates communication, Hemingway showed that the best writing says what you want to say, simply, clearly, and without fuss. Anyone who teaches good writing teaches Hemingway. Hemingway’s manual on bullfighting “Death in the Afternoon” is the best model technical writers can use to describe software. Does it matter that Hemingway’s character flaws were numerous and his affectations were questionable?
For some people, greatness has no rules and the celebration of that greatness requires our admiration.
Here in State College, we live in the center where one of America’s greatest writers is studied and appreciated. Penn State’s associate professor of English Sandra Spanier, following in the scholarly tradition of Phil Young, is in the process of editing the complete letters of Ernest Hemingway.
Penn State does not need to think of itself as a party school any longer. Forget football and beer bongs. Read “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” and “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” and read them to your children as I have read them to mine.
The Book of John asserts, “In the beginning was the Word … ” In our midst Ernest Hemingway, warts and all, receives the appreciation he deserves for keeping the spirit of the word alive.