Sunday

Inspiration vs Cold-Eyed Calculation: Hemingway Revisited

My post earlier this year on Hemingway’s descriptive writing has been subjected to a great many hits and retweets, but some readers have been skeptical about my point regarding the repetition of words. The effects of the repeated words may well be similar to those I identified, they argue, but there’s no way Hemingway could have written his limpid, stream-of-consciousness-echoing prose with such cold-eyed intentionality.

This brings up an interesting subject. To what degree is literature the result of an author’s rational intention: the analytical processes of composition and revision? Looked at from another angle, doesn’t literature spring from deep, semi-mystical wells of the collective unconscious, or even from divine inspiration?

There’s no pat answer to this conundrum (thank the gods), but I do have my opinions. Personally, I think most good writing does spring from mystical sources related to the collective unconscious. This is why it’s so important to banish one’s internal editor while producing first-draft material. 

But good writing is also, typically, the result of many hours of sustained, coldly calculating, and very unglamorous analytical work. This is why it’s often advisable to begin with an outline, and why exacting revision and rewriting take up the lion’s share of most writers’ time.

As a result of some research I’ve been doing to get ready for an upcoming writer’s program in Cuba (there may still be openings if you're interested), I recently re-read Hemingway’s short story “One Trip Across,” which I came across in my copy of The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway: The Finca Vigía Edition.  

“One Trip Across” is a great adventure tale, though modern readers will no doubt find its protagonist, Harry Morgan, quite controversial in terms of his racial attitudes and his dubious moral code. The story is set in the waters between Cuba and Key West, and it was the germ for Hemingway’s novel, To Have and Have Not, later made into a movie starring Humphrey Bogart.

The story provides what I believe is as close as we’ll ever get to conclusive evidence that Hemingway did view the use of repeating words with cold-eyed intentionality. [Warning: spoilers to come: you may want to spend a half hour or so reading the story before reading on.]

Hemingway begins by setting a desperate and tense tone with an episode of political violence in Havana. We learn about the increasingly desperate situation faced by Harry Morgan, a rough, working class Key West fishing guide finishing up a two week marlin-fishing trip to Cuba. Harry’s client stiffs him, leaving him penniless and stuck. A Chinese coyote approaches him, asking him to smuggle and ultimately kill a dozen Chinese refugees.

The huge sum of money offered by the Chinese coyote has the potential to solve all Harry’s problems. After a bit of agonizing, the fishing guide violates his own deeply-held principles and accepts. He ends up killing the coyote and saving the lives of the refugees, which is somewhat ennobling, but only partially redeems Harry in the reader’s eyes. Harry gets away with the money and his boat, and the story has a happy ending.

On the whole, "One Trip Across" is written in a noirish first-person voice that plays into the widespread perception of Hemingway’s prose as limited to clipped, hyper-macho diction. But consider the final paragraph of descriptive prose:

Then we came to the edge of the stream and the water quit being blue and was light and greenish and inside I could see the stakes on the Long Reef and on the Western Dry Rocks and the wireless masts at Key West and the La Concha hotel up high out of all the low houses and plenty smoke from out where they’re burning garbage. Sand Key light was plenty close now and you could see the boathouse and the little dock alongside the light and I knew we were only forty minutes away now and I felt good to be getting back and I had a good stake now for the summertime.

The first important point to make about this paragraph is that the diction is different from the rest of the story. The voice is no longer clipped and noirish; the sentences run on, similar to the "boiling over" paragraph style I pointed out in this Cormac McCarthy post.

The intentionality here is obvious: Harry Morgan has succeeded, the story is going to have a happy ending, and the diction must therefore capture Harry’s joyous emotions upon the realization of this fact. Straightforward enough, right? And in itself, this a great thing for a writer to notice. It’s a reminder to use your sentences to echo the emotion your protagonist is experiencing.

But it’s the repetition of the words “stakes,” “good,” and “plenty,” that struck me. Given what has happened in the story – Harry has plenty of money now; plenty to stake him through the summertime – do you have any doubt that Hemingway went about revising this paragraph with intentionality regarding repeating words?

I’d love to hear your thoughts if you have them.