alexandra alger


Thoughts on Hemingway

Generation gap? My daughter, Vanessa, is reading Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises and can’t stand it. In her view his characters do no more than meander through life, glass in hand. “All they do is drink,” she says disdainfully.

I, too, read Hemingway in high school (hasn’t everybody?). But I found all the drinking, amid the bull fighting of Pamplona, kind of glamorous. Drinking counts as doing something, doesn’t it? Then again, when I was my daughter’s age—18—I liked beer and wine and had already discovered that rum gave me a crushing hangover. Vanessa doesn’t like any kind of alcoholic beverage I can see it might be difficult to settle in with Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises if you aren’t wondering what a Jack Rose is—one of the drinks Jake orders—and half wishing you were in the Paris hotel bar with him. (Turns out a Jack Rose is composed of applejack, grenadine and lemon or lime juice. Hmm. Not sure what to make of it.)

The drinking scenes throughout Hemingway’s oeuvre are famous enough to have inspired Philip Greene’s Hemingway cocktail compendium, To Have and Have Another, a second edition of which came out last year.

Of course, the drinking is not the only reason Vanessa shuns Hemingway. She’s indifferent to the unvarnished style that made him famous. She finds it really boring. I’m fascinated by her confidence here. I don’t remember feeling as if I could not like Hemingway. We were expected to appreciate, if not revel in, the short declarative sentences, his insistence on cutting away everything but the essence, leaving the reader to interpret what is left unsaid. (That’s what I vaguely remember. If I’m misrepresenting Hem, let me know.)

Thinking about him now, I know I didn’t just like him because I was supposed to. That man could write. Okay, he was clearly a male chauvinist pig. But he could write. Here’s something he once said about the training of a would-be writer, in an interview with Paris Review editor George Plimpton, back in 1958 (as printed in Newsweek):

“Let’s say that he should go out and hang himself because he finds that writing well is impossibly difficult. Then he should be cut down without mercy and forced by his own self to write as well as he can for the rest of his life. At least he will have the story of the hanging to commence with.”

P.S. In my local Barnes & Noble, on the “Books Everyone Must Read” table, two Hemingway classics lie front and center:



I spotted For Whom the Bell Tolls on another side of the table, along with The Old Man and the Sea. He was the only author to have more than two books, and only two had more than one–Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Kurt Vonnegut. What does this mean? Is it a reflection of Hemingway’s stature in American literature? Are the B&N staff composed of big fans? The former seems more likely than the latter.


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