Another look at Hemingway

I went back to “The Sun Also Rises” and wondered how I missed all the anti-Semitism when I read the book in my youth.

Jack Engelhard

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A reader of my books and columns, and knowing my soft spot for Hemingway, asked, slyly, if I’d re-read his “The Sun Also Rises” recently.

No, I had not, so on this fan’s urging, I went ahead, re-read the novel from start to finish, and this time around, found in it nothing but flaws…flaws I had missed or skipped over when I was young and every writer in training was told that this was how it was done, so read it and learn, so I read it, again and again, over the years, never really enjoying it, but respecting it because if your betters tell you something is good, it must be good.  

There were times when I agreed that this book is something special and original…not the sparseness. For that there’s the Hebrew Scriptures, from which all Literature begins. Hemingway himself credited the Bible for his style. No, it’s the monotone that makes the Hemingway voice so unique.

Yes, I learned from him as we learn something from everyone; from Hemingway, to be fearless about keeping it simple. Small words can carry big thoughts.

He knew the power of understatement for the most harrowing narrative situations, a lesson he may have learned from Torah’s The Binding of Isaac, an event all the more powerful and true for the restraint in which it is being told. For the perfect sentence, which he always pursued, and sometimes found, there were others who did it just as well…Kafka, Isaac Babel, Salinger, James M. Cain, Elmore Leonard, Bukowski…

For brevity by way of commentary…who but Rashi?

So was this really the novel that changed everything In American Literature, and is it really a novel?

At this reading, I found it to be a short story. For all the talk about Hemingway’s gift for brevity, I found myself groaning past pages of Fill. When can we please get to the story? Delete the scenery, the “weather,” and a 251-page book becomes a 150-page short story or novella. When you are biding your time to figure out where your story is going, you describe the mountains.

There is not a single tree in James M. Cain’s “The Postman Always Rings Twice” – a novel I go back to quite often to appreciate the value of simplicity.

Instead, as summoned, I went back to “The Sun Also Rises” and wondered how I missed all the anti-Semitism when I read the book in my youth. Did I not notice? What was I thinking? Because this time, the book reads as nothing but a slur against Robert Cohn, Hemingway’s take on the real Harold Loeb.

I was prepared for a sneer now and then, as I remembered it…yes, I knew it was there, and understood it, and likely forgave it, as perhaps Hemingway’s emphasis on telling it “truly”…the way people were, and the way people talked, and how a writer, especially a novelist, owes it to himself, and to his readers, to give it straight.

But so much? So much that I began to see Hemingway as simply rubbing it in…Robert Cohn serving as his foil for Hemingway’s own, personal, anti-Semitism. There is simply too much, over and over again, about Robert Cohn’s “Jewish superiority.” Which I found odd. Cohn comes across as meek. Hemingway has him as groveling and pathetic.

Whatever superiority exists, it exists from Jake Barnes and the crowd around him. They feel nothing but superior to the only Jewish member of their group. They take turns isolating him. What did he do that makes him so undesirable? Nothing. Hemingway never explains. Robert Cohn is Jewish and that’s enough.

Hemingway wrote some wonderful world-class short stories and even in those novels of his that don’t always succeed, there are stretches of great writing.

I will concede that Hemingway was an American original…some of it due to his writing and some of it the result of his larger-than-life personality.

That title he borrowed from “Ecclesiastes” is meant to convey King Solomon’s observation that there is nothing new under the sun, apt for a Lost Generation, which thinks it’s so special, but is only part of a cycle. It’s to Hemingway’s credit, I suppose, as a writer of superior skills, that he managed to idealize and romanticize a group of nasty drunks.  

Among the subtexts to “Ecclesiastes” is the notion that too much wisdom brings much sorrow…as does too much trust in a hero you so admired.  

But to dismiss a writer of such importance…if only as a stylist…would be a mistake. He made a big indelible difference upon our Literature.

Read his short stories to appreciate a writer at his best, and also “The Old Man and the Sea,” and try to forgive. I do. I do keep trying.

New York-based bestselling American novelist Jack Engelhard writes regularly for Arutz Sheva.

He is the author of the international book-to-movie bestseller “Indecent Proposal.” His latest is the newsroom drama “News Anchor Sweetheart.”  His Inside Journalism thriller, “The Bathsheba Deadline,” is being prepared for the movies. Contemporaries have hailed him “The last Hemingway, a writer without peer, and the conscience of us all.” Website: