"Hemingway.... That Shit!" Reconsidering The Sun Also Rises

06.23.2006 | John Bruce | Literature | 8 Comments

In his biography of John Steinbeck, Jackson Benson cites the reminiscence of a friend from the author’s early years:

[H]e would suddenly put down the bowl of onions he was peeling for the great chili he used to make. “Hemingway,” he’d sneer, as though somebody had mentioned Hemingway, and he would get up and go over and take The Sun Also Rises from a bookshelf. Then, sighing with satisfaction, he would read aloud, intoning the celebrated dialogue in a deliberately flat voice, without cadence, without caesura, and naturally it sounded awful. Then, pursing his lips and nodding, he would close the book and slap it against his knee. “God damn it. I don’t understand why people think Hemingway can write dialogue.”

Benson quotes another friend who “remembers being startled when out of a clear blue sky, like some rocket bursting out of the subconscious, Steinbeck suddenly exclaimed, ‘Hemingway … that shit!’”

As Steinbeck grew more successful, he observed a decorum in his comments about other authors, and we don’t have a more complete or considered view from Steinbeck of his fellow Nobelist. Even so, it’s worth giving some weight to these apparently unguarded views: if Steinbeck’s reputation was never as great as Hemingway’s at its peak, it hasn’t fallen to the extent Hemingway’s has, either. And The Sun Also Rises, with some of the short stories and A Farewell to Arms, is one of the works that keeps Hemingway’s reputation where it is.

I must have studied that novel in at least two classes as an undergraduate. In fact, looking at my beat-up copy from back then, I have a sinking feeling that I even had to teach it one year in freshman comp. That was when I had to go over it carefully enough to explain to students what was good about it, and I always had the nagging suspicion that whatever it was, I’d missed it. And from what I see on the web, for that matter, The Sun Also Rises is still a dependable old warhorse in English classes, so I imagine that generations of TAs have continued to face the problem of trying to figure out exactly what’s so great about The Sun Also Rises.

Here’s a passage that illustrates my problem. It’s at a cafe in Pamplona where the major characters get together, all bickering and putting in little digs at each other, which in fact is the main action of the book — start out in Paris, bicker; go to Pamplona, bicker. Brett Ashley prompts Mike Campbell to tell an apparently well-worn story about his war medals:

“I suppose I’ve the usual medals. But I never sent in for them. One time there was this wopping big dinner and the Prince of Wales was to be there, and the cards said medals will be worn. So naturally I had no medals, and I stopped at my tailor’s and he was impressed by the invitation, and I thought that’s a good piece of business, and I said to him: ‘You’ve got to fix me up with some medals.’ He said: ‘What medals, sir?’ And I said: ‘Oh, any medals, Just give me a few medals.’ So he said: ‘What medals have you, sir?’ And I said: ‘How should I know?’ Did he think I spent all my time reading the bloody gazette? ‘Just give me a good lot. Pick them out yourself.’ So he got me some medals, you know, miniature medals, and handed me the box, and I put it in my pocket and forgot it. Well, I went to the dinner, and it was the night they’d shot Henry Wilson, so the Prince didn’t come and the King didn’t come, and all these coves were busy taking off their medals, and I had mine in my pocket.”
He stopped for us to laugh.

“Is that all?”

“That’s all. Perhaps I didn’t tell it right.”

“You didn’t,” said Brett. “But no matter.”

We were all laughing.

“Ah, yes,” said Mike. “I know now. It was a damn dull dinner, and I couldn’t stick it, so I left. Later on in the evening I found the box in my pocket. What’s this? I said. Medals? Bloody military medals? So I cut them all off their backing — you know, they put them on a strip — and gave them all around. Gave one to each girl. Form of souvenir. They thought I was hell’s own shakes of a soldier. Gave away medals in a night club. Dashing fellow.”

“Tell the rest,” Brett said.

“Don’t you think that was funny? Mike asked. We were all laughing. “It was. I swear it was. Any rate, my tailor wrote me and wanted the medals back. Sent a man round. Kept on writing for months. Seems some chap had left them to be cleaned. Frightfully military cove. Set hell’s own store by them.” Mike paused. “Rotten luck for the tailor.”

The first thing that strikes me is Hemingway’s ear for a certain kind of English dialogue. The second thing that strikes me is the total confusion in this narrative if you try to parse it out. At first glance it seems straightforward, and it could be read as a simple continuation of Paul Fussell’s remarks in The Great War and Modern Memory on the fate of high diction after the First World War. Mike, with his drinking buddies in Pamplona, is a “Romantic” ex-soldier ruefully reconsidering the simplistic military values that led him and his friends into the war, in the end handing out his medals as souvenirs. And in fact, that would accompany a standard interpretation of The Sun Also Rises, a glimpse of a disillusioned generation.

But too many questions pop out from Mike’s version of events. Assuming Mike is disillusioned, why does he feel compelled to attend the dinner with the Prince of Wales in the first place? Wouldn’t Mike, if he were a “Romantic” Siegfried Sassoon-Robert Graves-Wilfred Owen type, simply flip the invitation into the trash and get on with his disillusionment? No — he’s got to go see his tailor and get a bunch of medals so he can attend the dinner. Beyond that, I would assume that his options would include not wearing medals. That would also be a “Romantic”, low-diction gesture, certainly better than pinning on just anything to fit in. And medals do require paperwork — if the paperwork had never been done, which is how we’ve got to interpret “sending in” for them — then he doesn’t have them. “Oh, I got a Victoria Cross, old man, but I never sent in for it.” Right.

But the Prince doesn’t show; the dinner is boring anyhow, so Mike heads off to a nightclub, and in the course of the evening distributes “his” medals to whatever girls are sitting at his table. This again doesn’t seem the act of a Siegfried Sassoon-Robert Graves-Wilfred Owen “Romantic”. It’s the act of a phony, a fraud. Without bothering to think of where the tailor might have gotten such medals, Mike gives them away, which proves a problem for the tailor (though when that man asks “What medals have you, sir?” I get the feeling he knows whom he’s dealing with).

What is Hemingway trying to do here? The story we read is vivid; Hemingway must have heard it and transferred it to his notebook while it was very fresh. What is its implication for the postwar “diction” in the novel? That’s a harder nut to try to crack. The medals aren’t the only problem with Mike’s story. It continues with Jake’s American friend Bill’s prompt for more details:

“You don’t mean it,” Bill said. “I should think it would have been grand for the tailor.” “Frightfully good tailor. Never believe it to see me now,” Mike said. “I used to pay him a hundred pounds a year just to keep him quiet. So he wouldn’t send me any bills. Frightful blow to him when I went backrupt. It was right after the medals. Gave his letters rather a bitter tone.”

“How did you go bankrupt?” Bill asked.

“Two ways,” Mike said. “Gradually and then suddenly.”

“What brought it on?”

“Friends,” said Mike. “I had a lot of friends. False friends. Then I had creditors, too. Probably had more creditors than anybody in England.”

“Tell them about in the court,” Brett said.

“I don’t remember,” Mike said. “I was just a little tight.”

“Tight!” Brett exclaimed. “You were blind!”

“Charm,” as one Evelyn Waugh character says to another, “is the great English blight.” It’s hard to avoid concluding from this scene that Mike is little more than a con artist with a good deal of fall-down drunk thrown in; likely he’s in France and Spain because he’s worn out his welcome back home. He’d be exactly the way he is, it seems to me, Great War or no, and we can never be quite sure what his role in it was in any case — maybe he was always too drunk to have his diction lowered.

Since The Sun Also Rises is a stalwart of freshman composition classes, it’s instructive to browse the Cliffs Notes style interpretations of the novel that can be found in profusion on the web. If nothing else, they’re a guide to the conventional wisdom: a student who skillfully paraphrases the opinions to be found there will likely get at least a solid B. So let’s look at one take on this passage from a study guide:

Mike tells a story about borrowing war medals from his tailor so he can impress the Prince of Wales at a shindig. When the Prince no-showed, Mike got drunk with friends and gave them medals. Later, his tailor wanted the medals back, to return to their owner who had “earned” them during the War. Bill, Jake, Brett and Mike all get a kick out of this. Why? Because no one “earns” medals. No one is a hero, no actions are heroic.

Whoever wrote this, of course, had only a nodding acquaintance with the text. Mike himself says nothing about wanting to impress the Prince of Wales; in fact, Mike’s reason for attending the dinner isn’t made clear, and it’s a problem with the passage as I see it. The exact terms under which Mike gets the medals from the tailor aren’t clear, either; nothing in Mike’s account says they’re specifically “borrowed”. The tailor, based on the first impression we get, could just as easily have had them lying around for years, and was simply giving them to a good customer. Here’s another take on the medals passage from another “study guide”:

At lunch Mike tells the others a story about how he rented some war medals from his tailor before a dinner with the Prince of Wales. The Prince didn’t show up, and Mike had no other need for the medals, so he gave them to friends. The tailor wanted them back because they belonged to other clients who had earned them and who valued them. None of the men at the table has any sympathy for those who lost the medals. They know too much of the horror of war to believe in honor or glory. In their eyes, World War I made heroes of no one.

Again, even in one of these “study guides”, nobody seems to be studying very hard. The scene is at a cafe in early evening, not lunch, and there’s no mention in the story of Mike’s “renting” the medals — we don’t know what the actual transaction was. Mike didn’t give the medals to friends, he passed them out to girls at a nightclub who were apparently strangers. The tailor wanted the medals back because they belonged to another client, not clients. The men at the table don’t all in fact “know too much of the horror of war to believe in honor or glory” — Jake is the only one of whom we have credible knowledge that he was any closer to the front than Piccadilly.

In other words, these interpretations of Mike’s story mostly impute what Paul Fussell and others might like us to believe about Hemingway as a postwar writer, but there’s little in the text to support those imputations, and a fair amount to dispute them. This is an error I think many readers make with the novel: they assume. It’s dangerous to assume!

We know from the Gertrude Stein epigraph that the novel is meant to be about a “lost generation”. But if you look closely at the text, if you expected to find a delineation of social or intellectual change leading to a “lost generation”, it’s not really there. By implication some earlier generations weren’t lost, so you’d expect a metaphorical structure, supported by narrative events and images, that would lead you with some consistency toward an artistic appreciation of such a change. Mike, a potentially disillusioned figure, has nothing to be disillusioned about. There are other literary figures – such as Robert Graves – who came out of the First World War disillusioned and “lost”, at least to certain public prewar values. Mike, it’s pretty clear, never had illusions to lose in this way. As a result, his character doesn’t fit the conventional view of The Sun Also Rises – and he’s a key character.

Then there’s the question of Mike, Brett, and money. The two of them make plans with Jake for the trip to Pamplona:

“… Look, Jake, we’ll come down the night of the 25th. Brett can’t get up in the morning.”
“Indeed not!”

“If our money comes and you’re sure you don’t mind.”

“It will come, all right. I’ll see to that.” [apparently Brett says this]

Jake doesn’t see Brett until the night before the trip, but money is still on her mind: “they expected their money the next day,” he says. The situation as described in the novel several times is that Mike and Brett are living a hand-to-mouth existence waiting for “their money”, which may come from alimony or allowance paid to Brett, or it may come from some type of loan to Mike based on an expected inheritance. However much it is, it’s likely not enough. Brett is divorcing her second husband and Mike is bankrupt.

What are we to make, then, of Brett’s excursions with Count Mippipopolous, or indeed with Cohn, and Mike’s remarkable tolerance for them? “Offered me ten thousand dollars to go to Biarritz with him,” Brett tells Jake of the Count. “… I told him I couldn’t do it.” One senses this isn’t the whole story, and more recent US writers like Jim Thompson or Charles Bukowski, who know life on the street, would simply conclude from this evidence that Lady Brett is a high-class hooker, and she turns tricks to make ends meet. Mike, in fact, could well be her pimp – if nothing else, he’s sharing in her income. It appears, among other things, that Cohn paid to bring both Mike and Brett to Pamplona, but just before that, Cohn and Brett made a side trip. It’s hard not to assume that, however the transaction may have been disguised to suit the self-respect of both parties, the trip wouldn’t have taken place if money hadn’t changed hands.

In fact, I begin to get a feeling that nobody but naive Americans has much trust or regard for either Mike or Brett. So just how naive is Jake? What kinds of clues do we get in the story about how seriously to take his viewpoints? The most complete analysis we get from Jake of his situation as it applies to Mike and Brett is in his drunken interior monologue the night in Pamplona after the unloading of the bulls:

I wished Mike would not behave so terribly to Cohn, though. Mike was a bad drunk. Brett was a good drunk. Cohn was never drunk. Mike was unpleasant after he passed a certain point. I liked to see him hurt Cohn. I wished he would not do it, though, because afterward it made me feel disgusted at myself. That was morality, things that made you disgusted afterward. No, that must be immorality. That was a large statement. What rot, I could hear Brett say it. What rot! When you were with English you got into the habit of using English expressions in your thinking. The English spoken language — the upper classes, anyway — must have fewer words than the Eskimo.

Not much insight here. Jake tiptoes up to a judgment on Mike — why indeed does Mike hate Cohn? Cohn has one important thing Mike doesn’t, which is money — of course Mike hates Cohn. But Jake backs off even that insight — Mike’s just a bad drunk. Worse, Jake trails off into word games, and then finally — dare we say it? — the colonial cringe! Hang around with upper class Brits (though this isn’t really what Mike and Brett are; they’re gussied-up Lumpenproletariat) and you start to think like them.

There’s actually only one reference in the novel that ties Mike to any actual war service. It’s Brett’s taunt that Mike should “tell them about the time your horse bolted down Piccadilly.” Mike, I suspect, was a soldier who was always more than half in the bag, and he likely developed that condition before the war in any case.

A horse bolting down Piccadilly is a comic episode, not the sort of thing that a reader could credibly accept as allowing Mike to renounce prewar ideals of heroism. In fact, it seems to me that in introducing this image, a horse bolting with a rider who’s likely as drunk as in every other scene where we see him, Hemingway would actually need to balance it with some other depiction of Mike following some sort of inner code, blind drunk or not, that excuses the Piccadilly scene or puts it in some other perspective. Or, short of that, we might expect some episode that would make clear a difference between Mike’s approach to life (an amiable inebriate, at least to those who have something he wants) with Jake’s. We get no such thing. Mike is a charming Brit who speaks well but is something of a rotter, especially when drunk (which is usually the case).

So let’s bring in a big gun, so to speak, and see if the heavy artillery can blow away our confusion: The Twenties by Frederick J. Hoffman. This is an encyclopedic and diligent work that gives a detailed picture of the US literary scene in that decade, pretty much cataloging, summarizing, and evaluating all the major and many minor figures of the period at the peak of their reputations. Here’s what the received wisdom has to say:

The Sun Also Rises offers a concentrated picture of the 1920s… . [It] is also a moral novel, accommodating itself to the need for moral improvisation with a remarkable sense of the correct and proper moral tone a novel written at this time (1926) about these people in these places must have.

Hoffman doesn’t mention the scene with Mike describing his bolting horse, the medals, and his bankruptcy. The most he implies of Mike is “[Jake’s] wound has made him impotent; impotence in its several forms is seen in the behavior of Jake’s friends… . [such as] Mike’s collapse into the vulgar and strident baiting of Robert Cohn, in general the absence or failure of normal relationships of any kind.”

Fair enough, though as a moral example, bad or good, Mike is pretty tepid. But let’s go on:

… Jake fashions for himself a pattern of discretion and restraint. In terms antithetically opposed to Cohn’s behavior (Cohn is both irritant and contrast in the design of the novel), Jake must practice a code, must suppress anger and fear, must accept his condition as though it were normal, certainly inevitable… . Nor is it easy for him to be “on demand” when Brett needs his help because of some scrape.

But Jake’s little engine isn’t strong enough to pull a whole train of moral improvisation. We have a “lost generation” to deal with here, after all. I like better Leslie Fiedler’s observation on Jake’s relationship with Brett:

In the end, not only are her physical lovers unmanned and degraded, but even Jake, who is her priest and is protected by his terrible wound, is humiliated. For her service is a betrayal not only of his Catholic faith but of his pure passion for bullfighting and trout-fishing; and the priest of the bitch-goddess is, on the purely human level, a pimp.

The only exception I would take is that a street-wise reader would more likely conclude that Mike is literally Brett’s pimp (Jake’s concierge, a presumably street-wise Parisian, seems to have concluded something similar, at least until Brett buys her off). And since Jake doesn’t share any earnings Brett may pick up from turning the odd trick, he can’t be her pimp, while Mike certainly could be. Jake is instead simply a useful idiot, a patsy, or in more modern jargon, an enabler. It isn’t moral simply to serve as an enabler.

The actual picture we get in the text of the novel is consistent and straightforward: Mike and Brett are exploiters; Jake chooses not to recognize this. Mike and Brett, though they have upper-class English charm, are broke, they’re con artists, and as far as we know, they’ve always been (Brett’s foundering second marriage, to Lord Ashley, would be a story in itself). Mike distracts Jake from this view by encouraging him to believe he’s superior to Cohn. However, Mike and Brett exploit both without prejudice, and the texture of this exploitation continues unchanged throughout the novel. We have no reason to conclude at the end that Jake will behave any differently in the future than he has in the past.

As far as I can see, The Sun Also Rises promises something it doesn’t deliver. The epigraph from Gertrude Stein, followed by a Biblical passage, suggests the novel is going to tell us great things about the lost generation. It never quite gets there — in some part because it’s hard to perceive any growth in Jake. Beyond that, it’s hard to see how the war has affected Mike and Brett at all. They’re so self-absorbed that it’s hard to imagine anything getting through to them.

There’s a potentially very good book inside The Sun Also Rises — it’s puzzling that there’s so much in it that points to Mike and Brett as phonies and exploiters, but so little is made of it. The novel as it exists, in fact, might be the first third of a much better one, that might have features, say, from Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, which deals with an American gradually realizing that what he or she thinks is the good life in Europe is an illusion. What a writer who focused seriously on that material might accomplish, with the wartime and postwar metaphorical environment to apply to it, and with Hemingway’s innovative style, can only be imagined.

Partly I think Hemingway didn’t have full control of his material. Why this happened, and what happened to Hemingway, is of course impossibly to tell for sure. “[T]hroughout his life,” says Paul Johnson in Intellectuals, “Hemingway was a mixture of superficial sophistication concealing an abyss of credulity on almost any subject.” It’s possible that Hemingway was fascinated by the real-life equivalents of Mike and Brett, eagerly sketching them in his notebooks, but believed every word they told him, naively passing their stories and conversation into the novel without recognizing what they actually implied. Jake in the novel is also something like “Papa” Hemingway later in life, surrounded by a clique of alcoholic hangers-on. Hemingway may simply have had insufficient perspective on his own situation. Johnson points out that Hemingway’s out-of-control alcoholism may have started as early as his hospital stay in Italy, well before his writing career took off.

The effect, though, is that it’s not possible to find a consistent moral center in the novel’s text, improvised or otherwise. The Sun Also Rises may affect a certain morality, but it’s not really there. I think, in fact, that The Sun Also Rises has more in common with one of Hemingway’s worst books, To Have and Have Not, than many recognize: the woman character, Marie, is a former prostitute, while Brett’s connection with that profession is strongly suggested. Harry Morgan, missing an arm, is wounded and incomplete, like Jake. The Sun Also Rises is better at projecting atmosphere, which, however, doesn’t survive textual scrutiny. Both books, in fact, try to hang characterization on this atmosphere; neither, in the end, succeeds.

Just stumbled across this. I think Hemingway's main fault here is that he didn't plant a nice big series of moral signposts for people whose definition of a good book requires them. Hemingway's genius was his refusal to do this. Steinbeck's was his ability to do it on a huge, societal scale, without cant, a feat you are a long way from matching. Which, i presume, is why you teach.
10.6.2007 | Boopboopbedoop
I just had to cover this novel as a first year teacher, and I enjoyed reading your comments and reflections here. From a personal perspective, a more grandly developed novel would have been counter productive to the reasons why I am a fan of this work, though perhaps a less ambiguous narrative, which doesn't leave the reader wondering just how much of an iceberg really exists below the surface, might inspire more appreciation from students. I've always thought that in The Sun Also Rises, glib hollow drunks and their aficionado friends have got just the novel they deserve.
12.18.2008 | Mick
Ambiguity at the core is one of the things that makes the Sun Also Rises a masterpiece of modern fiction. The comparison to To Have and To Have Not, however, is a worthwhile contribution of this essay.
06.10.2009 | rjoff
Mr. Bruce, you will never "get" Hemingway.
08.27.2009 | papadaddio

It's amazing the writer of this note could write so much on SAR and know so little about the novel. The Lost Generation remark in novel's preface cancelled out the the biblical citation. There is nothing in the novel to suggest that Mike was a war hero or romantic about his medals, etc. So why does writer bring up it up to refute it?

04.6.2010 | Wm Adair

In deleted-at-the-last-minute opening pages we hear that Brett ran away to get married for the first time "with no intention of staying married." And Jake had run off from home, trying to "get away" from himself - as he tells Cohn. They were confused characters before the war came along.

04.6.2010 | Wm Adair

Hemingway, a great writer of the modern pros. His novels and poetry are really famous. And its true that nobody can write like him.
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10.16.2010 | David

The Lost Generation remark in novel's preface cancelled out the the biblical citation.

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10.21.2010 | mickmbs

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