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Home | 2016 | January

Hemingway under the hood

Posted by Richard on UTC 2016-01-15 16:34.

Action man

Be honest – if you were asked to sum up the character and writings of Ernest Hemingway your first thought would be of Hemingway the macho action man: the boxer, the marlin fisherman, the participant observer in several armed conflicts, the depressive who blew his brains out. In that you would be right – as far as it goes.

We are told that James Joyce, the other writer with whom we tangled a short while ago, had a habit of turning up in bars with Hemingway in tow, where he would easily slip into the role of belligerent Irishman, a role he played masterfully, and work up a spirited argument with one or more of the patrons. At the point where things began to get rowdy Hemingway would always have to step in and take over the physical part of the combat for the diminutive, frail and half-blind Irishmen. However grateful to Joyce we may be for his masterpieces, we probably owe as much to the pugilist Hemingway for ensuring the survival of their author.

Simple action man

At a literary as opposed to a biographical level, one thing most of Hemingway's readers would associate with him is the concision and apparent simplicity of his writing style. Hemingway was in his time the great counterweight to the prolixity of English prose that had come from the writers of preceding eras. The label 'journalistic' comes to mind to sum up the spareness of his prose and the simplicity of his language. Unlike James Joyce, the man who got him into so many fights, he is an approachable author. His works can be read as they stand without much furrowing of the brow or grasping for reference works. They frequently find a place on school syllabuses and creative writing courses.

The apparently simple style became Hemingway's trademark. There is a famous quote of Hemingway's on this theme that he made in conversation with one of his biographers, A. E. Hotchner. Hotchner told Hemingway that the writer William Faulkner had stated that Hemingway 'never crawl[ed] out on a limb. Said you had no courage, never been known to use a word that might send the reader to the dictionary.' Hemingway responded: 'Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use. Did you read his last book? It’s all sauce-writing now...'. [1]

Here is an example of a Hemingway sentence, from the short story 'Cat in the Rain', with all its apparent simplicity – not a ten-dollar word in sight:

The sea broke in a long line in the rain and slipped back down the beach to come up and break again in a long line in the rain.

'Cat in the Rain', SS 167

Under the hood

But I wrote 'apparent simplicity' and meant it precisely. Unlike Faulkner and many others, perceptive readers of Hemingway always knew there was more skill in his works than was apparent to the superficial reader. Hemingway's seeming simplicity was hard work – really hard work. His readers' perception was justified when Hemingway's manuscripts became available. At that moment it became clear that Hemingway could no longer be thought of dismissively as just the macho journalist scribbling his books in between big game hunts. The manuscripts showed us an author who revised and polished obsessively: Hemingway's simple words were chosen and ordered and polished and reorded and finessed to a degree that was possibly beyond Joycean precision.

Critics spent several decades digesting this new Hemingway and realising what a travesty the initial macho warrior image of him had been. Then, in 1997, my late friend Professor emeritus Max Nänny of the English Seminar of the University of Zurich observed something quite astonishing in Hemingway's prose. I still find it an extraordinary feat in a world dominated by American scholarship for a non-native (though admittedly perfect) speaker of English actually to read Hemingway's texts minutely and look at them critically. It is ultimately from Max that this blog's oft repeated dictum stems: read the text that is in front of you and not what you think is there. Max's article was revolutionary and was a further confirmation for Hemingway studies of the obsessive care that Hemingway took writing his 'simple prose' and the effort he put into it.

The way of the cross

In brief, Max discovered that Hemingway used a technique called 'chiasmus' – forming words into one or more crosses on the page. The cross is not a visible cross, a graphic element – doing that would be impossible for printers faced with different type measures for proportionally spaced fonts and line lengths that vary from edition to edition.

Poets can do it because they have control over their line breaks. Writers of prose cannot build spatial crosses, they have to build lingustic and semantic crosses in their texts. We saw Joyce's creation of an eye-rollingly complex chiasmus in one page of Finnegans Wake. Hemingway's use of the technique was more restrained but was applied at many points in his works. It was applied widely to produce a number of effects. When we read our previous example of a Hemingway sentence with a chiasmic eye, we see that there is a chiasmus that mimics the back and forth motion of the surf along a beach.

The sea
broke in a long line in the rain
slipped back down the beach
to come up
break again in a long line in the rain.

Max published his findings in two papers. They are freely available here and here , also for download as a PDF. Our thanks are due to North Dakota Quarterly for making their articles freely accessible, such generosity being rare in academic publishing. Those professionally concerned with Hemingway should read both papers if they haven't already. The visualisations in this post of some of Hemingway's chiasmic structures are based on examples in the first paper. They may help occasional readers of Hemingway to appreciate the subtleties of his texts they have in their hands. [2]

Here we go. Colour highlighting is used to identify the elements of the chiasmus. The elements can be identical, in which case we speak of a 'lexical' chiasmus, or they can be related in meaning in various ways, such as synonyms or antonyms, in which case we talk of 'semantic' chiasmus. I haven't made any attempt to differentiate the two in this post because doing this would make the graphical view more difficult to grasp at a glance. If you need that you should read the papers. A pale grey cross marks the centre, the crux, of the chiasmus. It is usually easier to perceive the chiasmus if you work from the crux outwards, noting the symmetry of the elements. The source for the texts is 'SS', The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. 1938. New York: Scribner, 1966.

Chiasmus representing movement back and forth.

This example also shows a chiasmus within a chiasmus: the surface of the water is reversed into the stream under the surface.

As the shadow of the kingfisher moved
up the stream,
a big trout
shot upstream in a long angle, only
his shadow marking the angle, then lost his shadow
as he came through
      the surface of the water,
caught the sun,
and then,
as he went back into
      the stream under the surface,
his shadow seemed to
float down the stream with the current, unresisting, to his post under the bridge where
he tightened facing
up into the current.

'Big Two-Hearted River', SS 210

Chiasmus of opposition, symmetry and balance

Here is an example of Hemingway forming the speech of a British Army officer (at a battle near Mons in Belgium in World War I) into a chiasmus. Nothing feels forced; the artistry behind the passage is unobtrusive.

It was a
frightfully hot day. We'd jammed
an absolutely perfect barricade across the bridge. It was simply priceless. A big old wrought-iron grating from the front of a house. Too heavy to lift and you could
shoot through it and
they would have to climb over it.
 ×  It was absolutely topping.
They tried to get over it, and we
potted them from forty yards. They rushed it, and officers came out alone and worked on it. It was
an absolutely perfect obstacle. Their officers were very fine. We were
frightfully put out when we heard the flank had gone, and we had to fall back.

'Chapter IV' from In Our Time, SS 113

Here is another chiasmus of opposition, which shows us an interaction between a man and a bull, taking us from the man's viewpoint to the bull's viewpoint.

walked toward
him with the muleta. He stopped and shook it.
The bull did not respond. He passed it
right before the bull's muzzle.
The bull's eyes watched it and turned with the swing, but he would not charge.
was waiting for

'The Undefeated', SS 262

Here is a 'chiasmus of balance' in an apparently simple, humorous but otherwise seemingly unremarkable sentence:

They had a sound basis of union.
was too beautiful for
Macomber to divorce her
 ×  and
Macomber had
too much money for
Margot ever to leave him.

'The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber', SS 22

Chiasmus wrapping an entire story

Hemingway wrapped his story 'Indian Camp', which itself contains many examples of chiasmus, in opening and closing 'chiastic brackets':

At the lake shore there was another rowboat drawn up. The two Indians stood waiting.

Nick and
his father got
in the stern of the boat and the Indians shoved it off and one of them got in to row.

 × [four page story]

In the early morning on the lake sitting
in the stern of the boat with
his father rowing,
he felt quite sure that he would never die.

'Indian Camp', SS 91f.

And this means?

Our conclusion is similar to the conclusion we reached when we looked at Joyce's deep structures in the St. Kevin episode of Finnegans Wake. Hemingway did not hide his chiasmic structures, they are in plain view. The are not perceived by casual readers, nor were they perceived by professional critics until 1997, when Max noticed them. They do however, have a strong effect on the communication of the text, they reach beyond the linguistics and the semantics of the written word to work on the reader's consciousness in a completely different way. If you think about these examples you will appreciate for yourself the functionality of the chiasmus in them.

There is therefore a connecting line to be drawn between Joyce's oral masterpiece, Finnegans Wake, which transcends the surface of written language, and Hemingway's use of chiasma, which effectively does the same. Hemingway's writing operates on the subconscious just as much as Joyce's does. Who would have thought that we could write that of Hemingway, the soldier, the boxer, the hunter, the game fisherman... the genius?


  1. ^ A. E. Hotchner, Papa Hemingway: A Personal Memoir, Da Capo Press, 2009, Chapter Four, 'Havana 1951-53', p70f.
  2. ^ Readers can imagine the problems that translators have in rendering Hemingway's chiastic structures into a foreign language. Without having done a survey on the subject, I suspect that few translators know of Hemingway's use of chiasmus and of those who do, few make the attempt, the word-order problems in a foreign language being a challenge. Gabriel Rodríguez Pazos describes the difficulty of translating Hemingway's chiastic patterns into Spanish in: The complexity of translating Hemingway’s simplicity: chiastic patterns in 'The Sun Also Rises' , Hikma 10 (2011), Article 6, 123-138, (PDF).
    It would appear, therefore, that any reader reading Hemingway in a foreign language is missing much of the author's subtlety. Who would have thought that Hemingway, the writer of 'simple' English without 'ten-dollar words', would be so difficult to translate?