Hemingway’s stories are poetry: that is my first and lasting impression of Ernest Hemingway’s short stories. In his short stories, Hemingway treats words as sparsely as do poets.
I don’t usually understand or enjoy poetry because it feels like so much must be inferred or interpreted. (After I finish reading the HTR&W short stories, I’m reading a number of poets for my HTR&W personal challenge. I’m a bit nervous.) While reading Ernest Hemingway’s stories, I likewise felt the need to infer and interpret beyond my comfort zone: I didn’t “get” them and I certainly didn’t enjoy reading the few stories I read. While I’ve only read a dozen of Ernest Hemingway’s short stories, I’m finished.
That, however, doesn’t mean you should avoid Hemingway’s stories: they may resonate with you, and you may love his writing style. He does a magnificent job of capturing a scene through dialog. Hemingway is worth reading.
Two Stories to Read
While I didn’t love any of the stories, there are two I would recommend others read. “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” follows an unsuccessful writer as he dies of gangrene in the middle of an African hunting camp, stranded after his vehicle broke down. It is a story with two aspects: one part follows the dialog he has with his wife, and one part follows what he is thinking and all the stories he wished he had written.
The second story I’d recommend is “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” which I’d read before and is probably the most well-known of his stories. In that story, a deaf, widowed old man who has recently attempted suicide sits and drinks late into the night in a café. One waiter essentially kicks out the old man because he wants to go home, while the other waiter contemplates how the café is a nice place to sit, and everyone needs a place.
I like the stories behind these, and I like the summary of them as I write them up now (although I know I did a poor job since there is lots of symbolism in them that I’ve missed). What I disliked about Hemingway’s stories was the writing style. The stories were dialog driven, and the parts that were not dialog (such as the writer’s thoughts in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro”), felt like run-on sentences (although all were grammatically correct). His stories also end abruptly, as did James Joyce’s stories that I read last week. Hemingway was not a bad writer; he is brilliant at controlling each tight scene. For me, however, the style was irritating: I’ve decided that Hemingway is just not for me.
When I picked up How to Read and Why to see what Harold Bloom had to say about Ernest Hemingway, I found that he began by discussing how Hemingway’s stories are poetry. At least I was “right” in noticing that aspect. Bloom points out all the symbolism in his favorite stories, a lot of which I missed, despite having read the stories a few times. As I mentioned, I did like “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” which he discussed. But I really disliked “Hills Like White Elephants.” The other two stories he recommends are “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen” and “A Sea Change,” which I similarly disliked, though not as much.
The Finest American Short Story Writer?
Apparently, Ernest Hemingway is the definitive American short story writer. I hope not; I really didn’t enjoy his stories. You might love them, though. Don’t take my word for it!
Have you read Hemingway’s short stories? Which was your favorite? My volume of The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway isn’t due at the library for a few weeks yet; tell me your favorites and I’ll give him another chance.
So have you read any of Hemingway’s novels? They are quite different from his short stories (as far as I can tell), though you might not like them either. I’ve only read a few of Hemingway’s short stories (they’re too miserable for me to read more than a couple at a time, but eventually I plan to make my way through the entire collection), but I haven’t as of yet liked them as much as I have his books. The Old Man and the Sea is one of the greatest books I’ve ever read. He does keep some of those same elements you talked about – sparse, dialogue-centered language, overlong sentences, etc. He also pulls in a trick that I have yet to see in his short stories (though it may be there in ones I haven’t gotten to yet), which is an intense repetition of phrasing. Particularly in conversation. People will repeat, and repeat, and repeat. To the point of absurdity. I actually really like the technique; I think Hemingway is sort of letting us see the world through a very fine filter, where the person is completely disconnected from the world around him/her. It’s interesting, it’s terrifying in some measure, and it’s fascinating.
I’ve found with people in the classic lit world that they tend to either love or hate Hemingway. There isn’t usually a medium.
Amanda, I read a novel while in college but I don’t remember a thing about it. I’m going to have to read Old Man and the Sea!
I think I just found his stories depressing and it was hard to keep reading them. I keep picking it up the collection, saying “I should read a few more” but I just really don’t like them. I suspect I’m in the “hate Hemingway” category.
They ARE quite depressing. Earlier this year I decided to pick up my copy of his short stories and read from beginning to end. I made it through two before i stopped. I like Hemingway in small doses. I like the novels better because while they are still miserable, it’s not so COMPACT and miserable, and there more redeeming value in them. The Old Man and the Sea I actually thought was inspiring, though sad, at the end.
I haven’t read anything by Hemingway since high school and I hated it. I keep meaning to read something as a adult and see if I appreciate it more! I think I need to peek closer to recognize the genius, but I remember thinking I could have written what he wrote. I’m sure I missed a lot of meaning. I’ve just now finally recalled which book it was that I read–A Farewell to Arms.
I love Hemingway SO much and was shocked when my American Lit students mostly hated him. We read only one story, which I wasn’t really familiar with, because most of his stories have too much language and sex. This one was totally clean. “A Clean, Well Lighted Place” is one of my favorites. My friends and I used to fantasize that we’d open a cafe some day and call it that. 😉
I do love his novels more than his stories. I prefer Fitzgerald and Salinger for short stories. Also, I love listening to Hemingway’s novels on audiotape.
Chain Reader, I don’t think I could have written what he wrote! I think it’s hard to keep things so concise. But I may have thought that when I was in high school.
SmallWorld Reads, I’ll have to try Fitzgerald and Salinger’s stories. I’m on a short story kick right now, so thanks for the recommendation!
I have just recently started reading Hemingway at all. I read Hills Like White Elephants in a class and I loved it for the pure fact that almost no one in the class understood it but when the teacher disected its deeper meaning to us everyone got it and many appreciated it. As a poet, what I’ve read of Hemingway, I think is spectacular. I am trying to find my own literary voice and think his minimalist style is something to aspire to, or at least incorporate into my righting. I’ve read The Killers which I recommend to any of you who liked A Clean Well-Lighted Place, I also read The Light of the World which I thought was spectacular. I get the love-or-hate thing with Hemingway. I just think he plays with the reality of our world very well.
I am also considering reading The Old Man and the Sea. If someone has a better suggestion for a novel to start with, please let me know.
…and please don’t harass me for calling Old Man a novel. I know it’s a novella.
Brice, The Old Man and the Sea is a great place to start. (And I call it a novel, too). 😉
Brice, I think it’s the poet in you that likes Hemingway! I read all the stories you mention–and I would have to agree, he does play with reality very well. I just found them a bit depressing and not quite my style.
Definitely not too much optimism in Hemingway. But thanks, Amanda and Rebecca for your feedback. Have you read William Faulkner at all? I’ve heard people call his style completely opposite of Hemingway’s so maybe look into that. I read some of As I Lay Dying and didn’t enjoy it, personally. But it’s told from multiple perspectives in first person about the death of a mother in a family, and is a dark comedy in many aspects, so it’s definitely worth looking into.
Brice, I have read Faulkner and I recall enjoying As I Lay Dying although it was weird. But it’s been years and it was before I was thinking about what I was reading, so I don’t really recall. I now I am going to revisit Faulkner at some point in the next year.
I just love Hemingway – it sounded like torture for you! I can recommend A Moveable Feast, which I have read twice, 15 yrs apart and appreciated it even more the second time round. The book is autobiographical, set in Paris in the glorious era of the 1920’s – an era I like, when Paris was full of great writers like Scott Fitzgerald. A Moveable Feast it is – don’t force yourself though. What about E.M.Forster?
Juliette, I think that’s what I’m going to do – I never got around to reading any Hemingway novels! But I’m really glad you posted a comment, because you reminded me about that AND about Rebecca Reads, which I lost the address for.