Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Environmental Dimensions of Hemingway

In this post, I wish to discuss the environmental-theoretical significance of Ernest Hemingway (1899–1961). I am using this post as an occasion to redress some of the offhand associations that the name "Hemingway" evokes, and to expand appreciation for how Hemingway's writing might be contextualized in terms of environmental theory.

From his birthplace in Oak Park, Illinois, Ernest Hemingway went on to explore and write about environments all around the world. In 1918 Hemingway volunteered as an ambulance driver for the Red Cross; he was assigned to Italy, where he was wounded by a trench mortar near the front lines. Many of Hemingway’s early works reflect on the horrors of WWI, particularly as these experiences and memories get filtered through a return to familiar rural and domestic American settings. Hemingway’s prose is an icon of Modernism, bringing an acute sense of the art of language to bear on the overwhelming realities of the first half of the 20th-century.

Hemingway wrote about fiestas and guerrilla fighters in Spain (The Sun Also Rises and For Whom the Bell Tolls), Parisian café life (A Moveable Feast), and Caribbean culture in the Florida Keys and Cuba (To Have and Have Not and the posthumously published Islands in the Stream). The author pays close attention to environmental details, regularly lingering on animals, weather, food, and landforms as focal points for his stories. Hemingway spent portions of his childhood in Northern Michigan, and this ecosystem figures heavily in many of his works. For instance, in numerous short stories Hemingway casts his semiautobiographical character Nick Adams at different ages near the shorelines of Lake Michigan, where Nick experiences both epiphanies and existential dread in this glacially formed landscape. The literary scholar Thomas Strychacz has noted how Hemingway’s Northern Michigan scenes rely on concepts of nature inherited from Native Americans as well as from American Transcendentalism (82). Hemingway’s Northern woods serve as spiritual registers even when the characters themselves seem spiritually devoid.

However, beyond mere recapitulations of older traditions, a distinctly Modernist concept of the environment emerges from Hemingway’s oeuvre, as well. For instance, A Moveable Feast begins:
Then there was the bad weather. It would come in one day when the fall was over. We would have to shut the windows in the night against the rain and the cold wind would strip the leaves from the trees in the Place Contrescarpe. The leaves lay sodden in the rain and the wind drove the rain against the big green autobus at the terminal and the Café des Amateurs was crowded and the windows misted over from the heat and the smoke inside. (3)

This passage starts out with clear seasonal imagery involving rainstorms, temperature shifts, and plant life—and then ends in a gritty city with public transit and obscured visibility. In a characteristically Modernist fashion, Hemingway presents a nature that is fragmented and eludes objectification: the natural environment surrounds, flows through, and encompasses human culture, such as in this description of Paris.

Hemingway is often cited for his aura of outdoorsy masculinity, but it is key to understand that he was first and foremost a writer. Hemingway was just as taken (if not more so) with the wildness of words as he was with trout, tigers, and rugged terrain. The Hemingway scholar Peter Hays puts it succinctly as such: “his greatest accomplishment was with language” (137). Where one might assume, then, that the obvious scenes of hiking, fishing, boating, or hunting are what make Hemingway’s works environmentally significant, a subtle and pervasive wilderness also exists for Hemingway at the level of the writing. As the literary theorist Fredric Jameson has shown, the form of Hemingway’s writing complicates what can otherwise seem to be simplistic descriptions of the natural world (408–413). Indeed, Hemingway’s writing is almost always as interested in language itself as it is in whatever subject the writing appears to be about. It is useful therefore to think about Hemingway as a writer who encountered language itself environmentally.

Consider the first sentences of For Whom the Bell Tolls, a novel about the Spanish Civil War:
He lay flat on the brown, pine-needled floor of the forest, his chin on his folded arms, and high overhead the wind blew in the tops of the pine trees. The mountainside sloped gently where he lay; but below it was steep and he could see the dark of the oiled road winding through the pass. There was a stream and the falling water of the dam, white in the summer sunlight.

“Is that the mill?” he asked.

“Yes.” (1)

While upon first glance this novel appears to begin with a relatively simple and elegant depiction of an alpine vista, the words are also extremely self-involved. These sentences pose implicit questions about the most basic qualities of sight, space, sound, and communication. The opening dialogue is somewhat redundant, since the first paragraph reports the mill, and then a nameless “he” rhetorically questions this report, only to be reassured “Yes”—it is really the mill. Language is working overtime to set the scene: the word “mill” points at the setting of the novel as well as at the very words used to tell the story. Such meditations on language and perception are a constant preoccupation in Hemingway’s works, and are often evinced through sheer repetition. When Hemingway repeats words or sentences, he is calling attention to the medium of language. This intense sense of one’s artistic material is not only indicative of high Modernist aesthetics (related to how cubists worked to foreground the two-dimensionality of paintings), but it also signals an awareness of how the environment and language are entangled. Actual pine needles have feeling against the skin similar to how the alliterative words ”summer sunlight” appear to the mind’s eye or sound to the ear. Hemingway’s writing fixates on irreducible thresholds between the external world and the human mind, and in this regard the works are key environmental literary texts.

Another compelling environmental aspect of Hemingway’s writings is how his style is often described through recourse to a natural metaphor: the “iceberg” theory. Hemingway considered that as only the ‘tip’ or 1/8 of an iceberg is exposed above the surface of water, likewise writing should not reveal everything, but should only express the bare-minimum of action, dialogue, and plot. Meanwhile, the remaining 7/8, the bulk of thought, feeling, and emotion remains hidden under the surface of the text (c.f. Death In the Afternoon, 192). This schema imagines language itself as a kind of environment: a cold, deep sea in which massive icebergs drift, poking out from the page but hiding a lot, too. Such a framework posits an extra layer of environmental imagery on top of the content of writing. According to the iceberg theory, acts of writing are reflections of an arctic phenomenon, no matter what a story is about.

For example, The Sun Also Rises catalogues a seemingly endless series of drunken parties and inane conversations among American expatriates in Europe. But this is merely the tip of the iceberg; an accumulation under the surface of the words is made up of the exorbitant violence of WWI, a sense of despair at the futility of so-called ‘progress’, and general cynicism concerning the viability of romantic love in the modern world. At one point in the novel, when the main character Jake and his friend Bill are headed on a fishing excursion in the hills near the Basque town of Burguete, Hemingway provides the following account of their walk, a strong example of classic environmental imagery:
It was a beech wood and the trees were very old. Their roots bulked above the ground and the branches were twisted. We walked on the road between the thick trunks of the old beeches and the sunlight came through the leaves in light patches on the grass. The trees were big, and the foliage was thick but it was not gloomy. There was no undergrowth, only the smooth grass, very green and fresh, and the big gray trees well spaced as though it were a park.

“This is country,” Bill said. (122)

Just before this passage the two had been bantering playfully—but when Bill mentioned Jake’s war wound, the conversation was shut down. The novel transitions into a picturesque landscape scene as a way to avoid Jake’s inner-subjective quagmires; this avoidance is reflected in Hemingway’s use of apophasis, or the rhetoical technique of mentioning of things claimed to be not present (no gloominess, no undergrowth), drawing the reader’s attention to these things while also claiming that they are absent. Bill’s understated pronouncement that what surrounds them “is country” marks the dialogic iceberg’s suggestive tip. There is a lot left unsaid: a critical mass concealed and congealed beneath a surface of words that deflects our attention to a spectacular (but incidental) forest. The iceberg theory reveals the operative environment to be not just in the greenery of this passage but also how it functions: the verdant description suggests a vast and looming world of things, only some of which can be glimpsed through words.

Hemingway’s works are highly sophisticated in terms of their environmental aesthetics. Hemingway was obviously enthralled by landscapes and animals, but it is essential to realize that language itself was just as captivating to the writer, and just as wild.


Hays, Peter. Ernest Hemingway. New York: Continuum, 1990.
Hemingway, Ernest. A Moveable Feast. New York: Scribner, 1964.
---------. Death In the Afternoon. New York: Scribner, 1932.
---------. For Whom the Bell Tolls. New York: Scribner, 1940.
---------. The Sun Also Rises. New York: Scribner, 1926.
Jameson, Fredric. Marxism and Form. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1971.
Strychacz, Thomas. “In Our Time, Out of Season.” The Cambridge Companion to Ernest Hemingway. Ed. Scott Donaldson. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996.