Across the Years and into a Documentary

Earlier this month, PBS broadcast a three-part Ken Burns documentary on the life and work of Ernest Hemingway. At a total of nearly 6 hours, this threatened to be a bit overextended and one feared another “Baseball”. But it started well and got better as Hemingway’s life and writing became more and more tortured. In the end, it was overall brilliant, in the same league with Nicholas Shakespeare’s 1980s “Waugh Trilogy” on the BBC and much of Burns’s earlier work.

The final episode was the best, in my opinion. This may be because it built on what preceded it, but one anticipated something unbearably bleak. It’s subtitle promised as much: “The Blank Page (1944-1961)”. In the middle of that episode (41:00), it took up the story of Hemingway’s attempt at a come-back novel after WWII. His previous novel For Whom the Bell Tolls, about the Spanish Civil War, was published in 1940. His new novel Across the River and into the Trees was much awaited and appeared in 1950. It was about a worn down veteran of WWII who has fetched up in Venice. The book let loose an avalanche of negativity from the critics. This was well illustrated in the Burns documentary with several well chosen quotations. For example, they read the following quote from the review by Maxwell Geismar in the Saturday Review of Literature while showing a clip of that review on the screen with its title “To Have and to Have and to Have”.  Geismar wrote that the book was “not only Hemingway’s worst novel; it is a synthesis of everything that is bad in his previous work and it throws a doubtful light on the future.” Others were quoted as dismissing it as “sentimental”, “embarrassing”, “pitiable”, “a disaster”.

The producers missed an opportunity to note that there were a few dissenting voices from other writers of some prominence. One of these was Evelyn Waugh who reviewed the book in The Tablet, 30 September 1950. Waugh notes the virtual tsunami of criticism that had washed over Hemingway’s book since its publication earlier in the year, but points out that the critics had missed a rather important point:

Mr Hemingway is one of the most original and powerful of living writers. Even if he had written a completely fatuous book, this is not the way to treat it.  What he, in fact, has done is to write a story entirely characteristic of himself, not his best book, perhaps his worst, but still something very much better than most of the work to which the same critics give their tepid applause….

Since Waugh’s review appeared in The Tablet, a British Roman Catholic cultural journal not widely known to the literary establishment in America, it might have passed unnoticed by them. But Time magazine noticed it and published an excerpt in its 30 October 1950 issue in a miscellany column entitled “The Strenuous Life”:

The critics were still wrangling at the top of their voices over Ernest Hemingway. His Across the River and into the Trees (deftly parodied by E. B. White in The New Yorker as Across the Street and into the Grill) had strong popular support; it stood firmly at the top of the bestseller list. There was also moral support from fellow Writer Evelyn Waugh. The critics, wrote Waugh in London’s Catholic weekly, the Tablet, “. . . have been smug, condescending, derisive, some with unconcealed glee, some with an affectation of pity; all are agreed that there is a great failure to celebrate … I believe the truth is that they have detected in him something they find quite unforgivable—Decent Feeling. Behind all the bluster and cursing and fisticuffs he has an elementary sense of chivalry—respect for women, pity for the weak, love of honor—which keeps breaking in. There is a form of high supercilious caddishness which is all the rage nowadays in literary circles. That is what the critics seek in vain in this book, and that is why their complaints are so loud and confident.”

The Time excerpt did indeed attract some attention to Waugh’s attack on the critics’ one-sided view.  Two weeks later, this appeared in Time’s “Letters to the Editor”:

Faulkner to Waugh to Hemingway

Sir: Re Waugh on Hemingway

Good for Mr. Waugh. I would like to have said this myself, not the Waugh of course but the equivalent Faulkner. One reason I did not is, the man who wrote some of the pieces in Men Without Women and The Sun Also Rises and some of the African stuff (and some—most—of all the rest of it too for that matter) does not need defending, because the ones who throw the spitballs didn’t write the pieces in Men Without Women and The Sun Also Rises and the African pieces and the rest of it, and the ones who didn’t write Men Without Women and The Sun Also Rises and the African pieces and the rest of it don’t have anything to stand on while they throw the spitballs.

Neither does Mr. Waugh need this from me. But I hope he will accept me on his side.

WILLIAM FAULKNER Oxford, Miss.

Waugh was actually present in New York during the last half of October 1950. This was in connection with the American publication of Helena. He and his wife were guests of Henry Luce (head of Time-Life) and his wife Claire during part of that visit and Waugh was negotiating on terms of the Life article that became “The Plight of the Holy Places” in the following year. It may well be that the topic of Hemingway’s book came up during his meetings with Time-Life executives and Waugh mentioned his Tablet review. Waugh’s review was later reprinted in several other journals and collections (including a German translation). It is included in EAR.

The documentary is posted on the PBS website and will be available to stream free of charge until 26 April.

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