Hemingway and Utility of Language

Up the road, in his shack, the old man was sleeping again. He was still sleeping on his face and the boy was sitting by him watching him. The old man was dreaming about the lions.

Ezra Pound and Ernest Hemingway were more alike than either would ever have cared to admit. Both used language with fascinating alacrity, both fled the ridiculousness of America for a Europe that never really satisfied them, and both were a little mad. Maybe more than a little mad. Most importantly, however, both were geniuses.

Hemingway suffers from the weight of history and his own childish and consuming issues with women and masculinity. Like Pound’s struggles with reconciling socio-economic distress and culture and his subsequent descent into an awful and racist Fascism, though, it shouldn’t invalidate the brilliance of the art. No one could deny that Hemingway was a flawed person. Given his family history of mental illness, that probably had an origin in serious neurological issues that the era was unaware existed. We’ll never know. But the fact remains that his work remains interesting and vital. The man had problems- the work has problems. But it’s interesting.

The secret to appreciating Hemingway’s prose is the easy, utilitarian way he uses language. There isn’t much extraneous verbiage in his work. What often gets ignored, however, is that there is a sentimentalism that runs through it. Despite his image as a manly man, a paragon of masculine virtue, Hemingway was all for flowery imagery- just not flowery language. And that’s a strength. He understood that the word ‘alone’ held much more power to suggest pain than a dozen pages of internal monologue about being alone. Just the word conjures the pain, the sentiment, the intensity of the experience for the reader. English is a very verbose language-  by some measures more verbose than most- but the real strength lies not in number of morphemes but in ability to reflect the world. Hemingway understood this, and used it well.

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