While Ernest Hemingway may no longer dominate the literary scene as he had by the middle of the 20th century, the mystique of his public and private lives resonates into the 21st.
If there’s anything upon which literary critics and general readers can agree when it comes to Hemingway, it is this: his use of language is what endures and influences more than any other attribute of his work. The Hemingway style — clipped, allusive, laconic and hard-boiled — helped give American writing its rhythm and tone as much as blues and jazz helped give American music its global identity. Hemingway’s style, in language and in life, reads like a metaphor for what it means to be an American, for better and for worse. Our inability to let him go speaks less to what we encounter on the page and more to what lurks behind it — about Hemingway, and about us — that we alternate between reveling in and wanting to unsee.
But that seems unlikely. Though a best-seller in its time, “For Whom the Bell Tolls” now comes across as overly melodramatic and, somewhat surprising for a Hemingway novel, tin-eared and anachronistic in its dialogue, leaning heavily on “thee” and “thine” in its exchanges.
There is also the matter of Hemingway’s personal life, which some believe was his most audacious and eternally absorbing creation: His full engagement with what his hero Theodore Roosevelt called “the strenuous life” of hunting, fishing and physical risk enhanced the fame he’d first achieved as a writer. His public and private peccadillos were as much fodder for tabloids as any movie star of the early-to-mid-20th century as was his mercurial temperament.
We’re now more certain than ever that Hemingway was a difficult man to like or even tolerate, though there were many who loved him during his lifetime and many who have found their calling through that cool, clear literary style. Both the man and the method will last. And the books? The books will fend for themselves, as books tend to do.