Woolf on Hemingway

Reading Woolf’s review of Hemingway made me laugh out loud. She found herself unable to turn down the £120 offered for four reviews for the New York Herald Tribune but bemoans the effort in a Sept 1927 letter to Vita, “Here I am bound hand and foot to write an article on the works of a man called Hemingway… write for the Americans again, write for money again, I will not.” (Spoiler alert: she will and does.)

According to Hemingway’s biographer, Michael Reynolds, he read the review in Sylvia Beach’s Parisian bookshop (Shakespeare & Co) and was so furious “that he punched a lamp and broke it. Sylvia billed him for the lamp.”

Woolf begins the review uncovering the nature of criticism, attempting to pull back the curtain and explain the inner workings of what goes on. First, what does the critic already know about the author. Vague rumors—Hemingway is an American living in France, “an ‘advanced’ writer, we suspect, connected with what is called a movement, thought which of the many we own that we do not know.”

Then we must read his earlier book, The Sun Also Rises, in order to evaluate the current book, Men Without Women. In looking at that book, Woolf determines that Hemingway’s writing occasionally gives us a real emotion, “[b]ut there is something faked, too, which turns bad and gives an unpleasant feeling…” She sums up what she knows so far: he is not an advanced writer, he seems to fake his characters (this is a particular passionate inquiry of Woolf’s, see Mr. Bennett & Mrs Brown/Character in Fiction).

With this in mind, what do we make of his current book? Woolf starts with the problematic title, Men Without Women. Once you gender a book, you’ve “brought into play sympathies and antipathies which have nothing to do with art. The greatest writers lay no stress upon sex one way or the other.”

Another thing critics do is compare against classics, so Woolf flashes these short stories against the masters, to Hemingway’s disadvantage. “If one had not summoned the ghosts of Tchekov, Mérimée, and Maupassant, no doubt one would be enthusiastic.” The short stories aren’t as deep as his novel, probably due to the “excessive use of dialogue… At last we are inclined to cry out with the little girl in ‘Hills Like White Elephants’: ‘Would you please please please please please please stop talking?'” (This is where I laughed.)

She examines his craft and finds it lacking. Things are out of proportion. His “tendency to flood the page with unnecessary dialogue” trips him up. A true writer gets much closer to the truth, life, reality, than Hemingway does. To sum up, “he has moments of bare and nervous beauty; he is modern in manner but not in vision; he is self-consciously virile; his talent has contracted rather than expanded; compared with his novel his stories are a little dry and sterile.”