Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Are criticisms of Hemingway unfair?

Panel discusses how author portrayed women in fiction

With Hemingway looking over them from the back wall, the panel discusses the authorís treatment of women in his fiction. Photo by Della Sentilles


For the Express

Did Nobel Prize-winning author Ernest Hemingway portray women in a narrow, male-chauvinistic manner? Was he a misogynist?

These were some of the questions posed Friday in a panel discussion among Hemingway scholars at the Community Library in Ketchum.

The discussion focused on Hemingway's fictional female characters more so than those in his four marriages, and a school of criticism since the 1950s that concluded those characters are flat, cardboard cutouts placed on the page only to serve his strong male protagonists. But, the panel members agreed, reading his fiction reveals a different story.

The talk was moderated by Clyde Moneyhun, director of the Writing Center at Boise State University, and panel participants were authors Brady Udall and Clay Morgan, BSU fiction professor and author Mitch Weiland, and Allie Baker, an independent scholar and blogger of the "Hemingway Project."

"A reevaluation of Hemingway is in order," Moneyhun said at the opening of the discussion.

"He's had more trouble with critics than with women," Morgan said. "His women characters are much stronger than the men in his stories. A revisiting of Hemingway is worthwhile."

"The males in his fiction are heavily damaged," Weiland said.

"Are the women as damaged as the men?" Moneyhun asked.

All good characters are damaged, all panelists agreed, and Hemingway's are no exception.

Moneyhun said it is unfair to place a postwar 1950s lens on novels written in the 1920s and '30s. Another aspect was that all of Hemingway's point-of-view characters were men, Weiland said, and so readers saw the women characters through a man's eyes. Moreover, Hemingway wrote using the "iceberg principle" in that much of the back-story of a character is left out of the story. That led to a false view that characters were not fully formed on the page, the panel agreed.

"What if Brett Ashley (the lead female character in the novel "The Sun Also Rises") was just a real tough cookie who won't take any crap?" Moneyhun asked. "What about the female in one of the Nick Adams stories, who when Nick asked during a picnic on a canoe trip what was the point to their dating and her response was, 'I'll take the canoe, you walk back.'"

Pilar, the lead female character in the novel "For Whom the Bell Tolls," takes over leadership of the band of rebels. These were not weak women, the panel concluded.

"The 'bitches' are a feminist aspect," said Udall, author of the widely acclaimed "The Lonely Polygamist." "His fiction really does stand up to critics."

Udall said he grew up in a very literate family that had Hemingway's books on the shelf along with other great writers, and he always thought, "Why would I want to read these?" Finally, at about age 15 he decided to read "A Farewell to Arms."

"I thought I was reading a romance novel," he said. "It was this nice sensitive thing. It really turned my head around on him."

Udall said 90 percent of writers don't write the opposite sex as well as their own.

"When a writer crosses the gender divide, people get suspicious," he said. "It's natural and makes sense to me. How can a man know what is in a woman's heart? If he's guilty of that, then aren't we all?"

Udall said he had a strong female protagonist in one of his stories who was a park ranger, and he had her cry a couple of times to soften the image.

"I'm embarrassed by that," he said.

"It's hard to write people different than you are," Moneyhun said.

"Gender issues are a minefield in fiction," Weiland said. "Fiction focuses on the commonality in humanity. What we all want. Human longing and desire."

Despite Hemingway's misogynist image, his wives were all devoted to him, with the exception of fellow journalist Martha Gellhorn, who was a prominent figure in her own right long before she married Hemingway.

"Hadley just pats him on the back, in "A Moveable Feast,'" said Baker, who actually interviewed Hadley Richardson, Hemingway's first wife. The book is a memoir of his Paris years written near the end of his life while Hemingway was living in Ketchum.

"Hemingway had a complicated personal life," Moneyhun said. "He wasn't very happy and quarreled with everyone. He portrayed truth any way he could in his fiction and didn't care. He had no sense of political correctness long before that notion existed."

"If you're a writer or an American, there is Hemingway," Udall said of Hemingway's literary legacy. "I just don't see that ever going away."

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