Somehow, now, biography seems irrelevant. So does criticism. He left us just three great novels--one a very great novel--the Forty-Nine Stories, and a single masterpiece, "The Old Man and the Sea." No one will ever have to be told how to read Hemingway; he saw to that. Most of what we have been told, in fact, in the last three weeks and the last thirty-five years, has nothing to do with the novels and the stories that count. The Gableish-looking hero who collected wives and bruises and buffalo horns, the bewhiskered old Aficionado may have been the same man who wrote The Sun Also Rises and For Whom the Bell Tolls and "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber"--but it doesn't seem to matter.
The man Hemingway, the man of newsreels and interviews, never existed in his novels and stories, in the best of them. When he was there--in Death in the Afternoon, The Green Hills of Africa, that thing in Life last year--than the fine detachment of his art was not. We can sympathize with the pains that his art required, the monumental, self-imposed rigor of a spare and honest new way of seeing. But we can also be disappointed when he himself forgot it.
So the man does not matter. Does the "new way of seeing"? For our generation, twice-removed from the Lost, one of Hemingway's misfortunes was to have been our grandfather. He reshaped, single-handedly, the way a century thought: he left, if anything, too strong a mark. It is hard, now, to imagine a good short story in other than the "Hemingway-an" style. His safaris and bullfights have become the in-group frauds and fads of the Ruarks and Barnaby Conrads; the Spanish Civil War is now as over-romanticized as our own. But Hemingway found them first; and by rendering such images with the tactile reality of a consummate art, he fixed them as lasting points of focus for an age's emotions. But the images, like the style, have been with us now since before we were born. Perhaps this is why the eulogistic memoirs of his contemporaries don't get to us. They were there; we weren't.
What then is left? The same three novels, the forty-nine stories, "The Old Man and the Sea." If it is no longer a "new" way of seeing, or even the most profound, it is still relevant and affecting. Never was style so involved with, so much one and the same thing as the matter and meaning of a novelist's work. The unmodified, unmodulated phrases are essential to the dry, tight pleasures and pains of Hemingway's world; nothing else could convey with such on-going, irresistible immediacy the pure analyzed sense of "what is." Only thus could we ever have experienced the bus ride to Burguete and the fishing in The Sun Also Rises, the mud-epic retreat in A Farewell to Arms, Pilar's tale of "the day it began" in the finest of his full-length novels, For Whom the Bell Tolls.
No, nothing in Hemingway is real, or better, "realistic," neither landscape nor language nor the vision that lies beneath. But, in the best work, it is "true," true in the sense that it coheres in a vivid, living life of its own within the book, and true in serving as an affecting illusion of the way we wish things were. We all wish, decadents that we are, that we could imitate the languid laconic cynicism of Brett and Jake and Bill Gorton; we all wish, stout hearts that we think we are, that we could argue as honestly with ourselves as Robert Jordan or the Old Man of the Sea. Heming-way's answers may be shallow and short-sighted, blindly idealist; his is not the horrifying total vision of Dostoevsky or Faulkner. But perhaps there is still a place for idealistic heroics, for the hard-fighting, well-dying fictions of a Hemingway. The answers aren't all that simple: but it helps to think so.
In Hemingway's greatest work, "The Old Man and the Sea," the wish-fulfilling ideal becomes something more. It becomes convincingly real: "He took all his pain and what was left of his strength and his long gone pride and he put it against the fish's agony and the fish came over onto his side and swam gently on his side, his bill almost touching the planking of the skiff, and started to pass the boat, long, deep, wide, silver and barred with purple and interminable in the water.... Then the fish came alive, with all his death in him, and rose high out of the water showing all his great length and width and all his power and his beauty....'I am a tired old man. But I have killed this fish.'"
I don't know. Maybe it doesn't work, alone like that: maybe you have to read it through. If you haven't, you must. It will be hard to forget