Printer Friendly

Reading Hemingway: The Facts in the Fictions.

Some thirty or so years ago I recall wasting the better part of a day, chasing down the precise meaning of VAD. From the context, it was clear enough what kind of nursing group both Brett and Catherine Barkley had belonged to, but my concern to be accurate caused me considerable frustration before I was satisfied. I did not, at that time, realize that members of the Voluntary Aid Detachment in World War I were, in actuality, untrained volunteers, whereas Agnes Von Kurowsky was a graduate of the distinguished Bellevue Nurses Training School. I doubt that my reading of A Farewell to Arms would have been substantially altered had I possessed this information then. At the very least, however, Mandel's painstaking assemblage of the "facts" in Hemingway's nine novels would have saved me time and might have inadvertently spurred my interpretive efforts into other directions. Certainly, then, on the most basic level of referential use, this first volume in what is promised to be a two or three-volume series, (encompassing, I hope, Hemingway's short stories and non-fiction) will provide critics and scholars with the kind of quick and efficient guide that would surely have welcomed in the early 1960s.

But first, quoting or paraphrasing Prof. Mandel's own words, let me describe how this volume is organized and what it entails. The entries - alphabetized for each novel and collected together in a nicely comprehensive index at the end of the volume - fall into three categories: People/Characters, Animals, and Cultural Constructs. The first consists of "the real people and the fictional char- acters who appear or are mentioned" in each novel. "Cross-references enable the reader to access these figures through their nicknames, pen names, noms de guerre, and other pseudonyms. Places and objects which are named after people (the Hotel Cavour, the Pere Lachaise Cemetery, the Stokes mortar) are listed under their names." There are also "entries for generic nouns, as the population of each novel dictates. Nameless characters, identified only by their professions (waiters, porters, bartenders, etc.) are grouped under such headings." Entries are also given for "background characters" - crowds, customers, men and boys, women and girls. Animals, both fictional and historical, are listed only when they are mentioned by their own names, except in The Old Man and the Sea, where the unnamed animals which come to Santiago's attention are included. And, finally, specific cultural constructs, identified by name or nickname newspapers, book titles, organizations, etc.) are listed with full annotation.

Much more thorough than a conventional Dictionary of Characters in Hemingway's Novels, Mandel's work aims to supply the contemporary reader with information that may once have been, but no longer is in the domain of accessible gossip (who is Charles Brickley? Georgette Leblanc? Andre Marty?). In a time when we are especially alert to the salience and shiftiness of signifiers, Mandel's efforts to establish and document the provenance of Hemingway's references - even the most casual - are of obvious value. Accordingly, on the most utilitarian level, this compilation of the "facts" in Hemingway's novels satisfies a real need which can only become more chronic as his work and the historical occasions which engendered it recede in time.

But, of course, this volume, along with its promised successors, suggests a catalogue of information far more ambitious than a relatively simple vademecum for the Hemingway reader who is too lazy to look things up for himself. And it is this implied ambition which intrigues me and provokes some interesting speculation. "Life is our dictionary," wrote Emerson, exhorting the would-be artist to engage his creative energies as directly as possible in the dense text and texture of concrete, commonplace activities. Although Hemingway's activities were hardly commonplace, he seems to have acted instinctively on the Emersonian mandate, and it is possible to imagine ("It's pretty to think so.") that the full dictionary of Hemingway's work might, in some sense, stand as the objective correlative of his cerebral life. That is, a hypothetically complete annotation of the "facts" in his writing - and while one is fantasizing, why not include his letters as well? - would provide a sort of penumbra of his thoughts and his feelings, a kind of portable reservoir of the notions and associations into which he would dip to enflesh the narrative expression of his urgencies.

As it turned out, I approached Mandel's book in the worst possible way; in the zeal of my ignorance, I read it consecutively, entry by entry, interrupting the alphabetical flow only to consult the appropriate end-notes. When I was finished, more than a little dazed by this avalanche of discrete information and semi-stunned by a recognition of how much brute labor must have been required, I realized that I ought to have gone from the novels to the compilation, spot-checking randomly as a normal user would have done. The mistake was uncorrectable, but the consequence of the information-overload and my natural response of trying to sort out this abundance of disparate material led to some interesting conclusions. Foremost was my lack of surprise at either the wealth or the type of factual data which Mandel had gathered. That Hemingway was committed to finding the significant detail that would convey "the way it was"' and that he was obsessive in his appetite for information in the areas that mattered to him, we have known for a long time. Mandel's encyclopedic glossary clearly exhibits his almost-religious need to get his nomenclature accurate - to locate the hotels and bars and hospitals correctly, to use the right term for the fishing lure, the aircraft, the marine engine, to identify precisely the specific Saint, the boxer, the Civil War general, the type of medicine. Partly as a result of his journalistic training perhaps, but more likely as a matter of temperament - maybe even as a need for security - Hemingway's imagination required a grounding in concrete definable "things" - in named objects, places, people, and events.

Reading Hemingway also reminds us of how concentrated these areas of interest were. A wide variety of sports - boxing, baseball, bullfighting, hunting, fishing, horse-racing, etc. - a more than amateur devotion to certain kinds of history (military history, particularly), an avid absorption in the arts (especially painting), a naturalist's attention to weather, landscape, the indigenous flora and fauna of a locale, and a constant focus on process - how things are done - are faithfully reflected in the pattern of entries, varying, of course, according to the fictional needs of each novel. Thus, one is not unusually surprised by the extraordinary abundance or the kinds of data which Hemingway knew or crammed up on in the fashioning of his novels.

Consequently, I found myself asking different questions as I re-riffled the pages of this book. Yes, this is the Hemingway world. I recognize it. But what does it omit? What is not there? Allowing for the fact that we lack comparable compilations for the short stories and the non-fiction (the composition of which chronologically overlaps the writing of the novels), I looked in a desultory way at two areas of Hemingway's interest: politics and sports. There were no entries for Presidents Harding or Hoover, no reference to the Teapot Dome Scandal, to Sacco and Vanzetti, only the most indirect allusion to the Scopes Trial, no direct reference to the Wall Street Crash. And although Hemingway's outraged sympathy for the Key West CCC workers who suffered the devastating hurricane Of 1935 is well-known, there is no mention of the NRA, the WPA, TVA, or other New Deal alphabetical reforms. In sports there is no reference to the legendary thoroughbred, Man o'War, no mention of Illinois"'Red" Grange or Joe Louis, and nothing about the New York Yankees who dominated baseball, appearing in twelve World Series between 1921-1941.

It is not that Hemingway was unaware of these events and figures. (He refers in a letter to the Hoover-Roosevelt campaign as a contest between the "Syphilitic Baby" and the "Paralytic Demagogue," and he wrote accounts of both the 1935 Louis-Baer fight and the 1938 Louis-Schmeling fight for Esquire.) But these omissions within his areas of interest suggest that he employed factual material in two different ways: either to provide realistic detail for the locale of the novel-in-progress (Cuban politics in To Have and Have Not), or as allusive references which would properly characterize the thought processes of his fictional people. In the second use - at least, in sports - Hemingway's characters tend to talk about the sports figures of their youth (just as Hemingway did), rather than those figures current with the times of the novelistic actions. (The use of Joe DiMaggio in The Old Man and the Sea is an obvious and easily understandable exception.) Thus, it strikes me that one of the values of Mandel's work might be that of enabling one to investigate methodically the kinds of factual detail which Hemingway knew but did not invoke in his work - especially the fictional creations - in order to appreciate better the functions of the details which he did use.

My second thought is more fanciful and grandiose. In a perfect bibliographical world, we might possess not only the full three-volume "Facts" in Hemingway's fiction and non-fiction, but comparable assemblages for, say, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, O'Neill, and T.S. Eliot. With the exponential increase in the rapidity and comprehensiveness of information retrieval systems, comparative analyses between and among roughly contemporaneous writers might be able to isolate in a fruitful way what these major writers knew, what they did not know, and what they used of what they knew. We would probably discover that the word-and-association hoards of their childhoods and youthful maturity hold a richness and durability that remains deep and constantly recyclable over the passing years. We would also expect to find a reasonable correlation between the life that is lived (where? and doing what?) and the concrete references that surface in the creative work. (But what of Wallace Stevens?) But beyond these apparently obvious conclusions might be, I believe, a terra incognita literally unimaginable and potentially, wildly provocative for critics, biographers, and literary historians. Precise areas of interest could be defined for each writer. Coincident concerns and differing attitudes to the same objects of interest would undoubtedly emerge. These sterile encyclopedic entries could provide a harvest of insight into the creative processes of the specific writers and an objective procedure for observing how the teeming temper of history is distilled into the narrative tones and tropes of our most significant writers.

Mandel's work seems to me exemplary. In its measured patience and indefatigable willingness to describe and document the factual details in Hemingway's novels, it is an important scholarly resource. I cannot think of any higher praise for its achievement than to suggest that this is exactly the work to which the late Jim Hinkle would have given his most unreserved and enthusiastic approval.
COPYRIGHT 1995 Ernest Hemingway Foundation
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1995 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Rovit, Earl
Publication:The Hemingway Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1995
Words:1801
Previous Article:A reader's guide to Pilar's bullfighters: untold histories in 'For Whom the Bell Tolls.'
Next Article:Hemingway: The Toronto Years.
Topics:


Related Articles
Papa's Suitcase.
Hemingway's Chair.
Hemingway: The Postwar Years and the Posthumous Novels.
Hemingway: Up in Michigan Perspectives.
Hemingway: Seven Decades of Criticism.
Ernest Hemingway A to Z: The Essential Reference to the Life and Work.
Remembering Ernest Hemingway.
A Historical Guide to Ernest Hemingway.
Hemingway's Fetishism: Psychoanalysis and the Mirror of Manhood.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2020 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters