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“The Lost Generation” v. “The Woke Generation”
"Ludicrous," says Ernest Hemingway's son of "trigger warnings" on his father's works
In 1920’s Paris, “Lost Generation” writers, charting new paths of literary artistry, freed from the seeming shackles of tradition, sought to “make it new,” as American poet Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway’s mentor, counseled.
“Good art cannot be immoral,” Pound wrote. “By good art, I mean the art that bears true witness. I mean the art that is most precise.”
Hemingway, new to the Paris literary scene, strove to meet Pound’s standard with great discipline, writing “one true sentence” after another about love and war and death and sport, most notably bullfighting, hunting and fishing. He would soon write his classic debut novel, The Sun Also Rises, considered one of the greats of the 20th century.
Now, some 100 years later, Penquin Random House is publishing his novels and short stories with a warning label, not unlike labels placed on a bottle of alcohol or cigarette package, that the “language” and “attitudes” in his works represent outdated “cultural representations.”
Robert Cohn, the roman à clef for Harold Loeb in The Sun Also Rises, when asked about the antisemitism of the era, reflected in the novel, told Hemingway friend A.E. Hotchner, that “that was part of the world.” So what! “They were all anti-Semites.” No snowflake he!
The publisher also added a special disclaimer for The Sun Also Rises, noting it had opted against censorship but that decision in no way represents an “endorsement” of Hemingway’s original text.
Please! It’s art and is all about artistic integrity and “bearing true witness” — not about how someone who fails to understand what art is, might take offense and throw a temper tantrum.
Of course, Hemingway is not the only target. Roald Dahl, author of many classic children books, and Ian Fleming, who wrote the James Bond series, to name just a few, have also been in the crosshairs of those who would put art in a straight-jacket.
Patrick Hemingway, son of Ernest Hemingway, told me it was “ludicrous” that The Old Man and the Sea now had a “trigger warning.” Furthermore, he said, “All this is caused by (Hemingway’s works) going into the public domain. But who cares?”
That’s right —“Who cares?”
The Old Man and the Sea and its story of a Cuban fisherman’s ferocious battle to harpoon the giant marlin, after his 84-day string of bad luck, was a metaphor for Hemingway’s desire to harpoon the critics, and, in the end, both the Old Man, i.e., Santiago, and Papa Hemingway essentially failed in their quest. In the case of Santiago, though he kills the marlin, scavenger sharks eat it up, leaving just the skeleton lashed to his skiff. And Hemingway would always have the critics to deal with, then as now.
So, that’s right. Who cares what the critics say? Good art will remain good regardless of their opinion. And, in the end, they will look appropriately small as the art gains in stature given the test of time as new generations savor its truth.
Yet, the irony is that shackling art is what fascism does, against which Hemingway fought so vociferously. A far cry from classical liberalism, the great cultural tradition that allowed art to flourish in 1920s Paris in the first place. The very tradition the “Lost Generation” sought liberation from to “make it new.”
Postscript: By sheer coincidence, my 97-1/2-year-old father was born on the day Hemingway set off to Schruns, Austria in December 1925 to finish writing The Sun Also Rises. Today, I read to my father from this, Hemingway’s first novel, as he recovers in the hospital. It was the moment they first watch the bulls goring the steers. Afterwards at the café the boyfriend of the love interest, Brett, verbally gores Cohn. “True witness” to what lurks in the human heart.
Mary Claire Kendall is author of Oasis: Conversion Stories of Hollywood Legends, published in Madrid under the title También Dios pasa por Hollywood. She has completed a biography about Betty Hutton, as well Oasis II, featuring six more legends of Hollywood, and is currently writing a book about the life of Ernest Hemingway viewed through the prism of faith due to be published in late 2024.