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The English Major: The Importance of Reading Ernest

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Hemingway: Not to Be Lost In Our Time

When Ernest Hemingway wrote In Our Time, he declared in a letter that it “will be praised by highbrows and can be read by lowbrows.” The fact that it remains part of the English major canon, yet can easily be put away an hour before lecture proves that Hemingway knew what he was talking about.

The book contains many famous short stories that are often anthologized, including “The Battler,” “ Indian Camp,” and “Cat in the Rain.” However, the work is worth more than the sum of its parts. Blurring the usual genre boundaries, the stories are broken up with short italicized vignettes, unrelated in subject to the stories. Some of the stories have the same protagonist—Nick Adams—while others do not.

Yet Hemingway insisted that some thread of unity binds the work. One of the most satisfying parts of the book is pondering what that is. Reading it, I was forced to ask myself: is Hemingway’s time anything like ours, today? Is our world, too, one that cannot be evoked in a novel of chronological order and a neat plot?

Breaking out of the usual novel bubble, I’ve found as an English major, can yield satisfying results.

So why’d they give him a Pulitzer?

“I want to pull my hair back tight and smooth and make a big knot in the back that I can feel,” she said. “I want to have a kitty to sit on my lap and purr when I stroke her,” says “the American wife” to her husband in “A Cat in the Rain.”

In the story a young American couple lounges at an Italian hotel on a rainy day. The wife sees a cat crouching under a table at the café across the street. She decides she wants it, but goes out in the rain only to find that the cat is gone.

At the end, the maid brings the cat up to the room, telling the wife that the hotel padrone had asked her to.

And that’s it. Barely four pages of simple prose.

What, then, about Hemingway’s style makes him part of the syllabus?

The greatness of the story is that in telling so little, it reveals so much. We see that the anonymous American wife is in need of something that her husband is not giving her. We see two people pretending to be at home in a foreign land that is not just geographic.

The pull of the work is in all the things we don’t see. In all of the stories, Hemingway lays out the facts like a good journalist. Often they are violent. But he does not tell us how to feel.

In Chapter XIII, one of the italicized portions on bullfighting, the last lines are spoken by the famous bullfighter Maera: “Yes. We kill them. We kill them all right. Yes. Yes. Yes.

And that is what we are left with.

Like any great work of fiction, you can return to these stories again and again, but not because the paragraphs are heavy with symbolism or tied up in clauses. Hemingway also said that his stories were like icebergs—1/8th visible above water. Because he chooses that 1/8th so carefully, we must continually dive below to see the rest.

Hemingway the Macho Man

Hemingway often gets labeled as a misogynistic he-man. This isn’t a misrepresentation. Hemingway’s heroes are always men, always detached and unwilling to lay out their feelings. Hemingway knew war to be a defining experience for a writer, and was fascinated by the ritual brutality of bullfighting. Guts, gore, and death were subjects he embraced.

But that’s not to say that his work lacks emotional texture. While the violence in the stories of In Our Time does not always go down easily, there is a subtle psychology to the journalistic description that renders it even more emotionally powerful. The Nick Adams character that we follow throughout the book also leads us subtly to dark emotional terrain, particularly in the two-part ending story “Big Two-Hearted River.” Here is a man scarred by war, reluctant to confront his own mind, and verging between happiness and despair.

Though of course, from first read all he seems to be doing is fishing some trout.

It’s always a struggle to find time for pleasure reading, let alone a space big enough for so-called “literature.” But whether you’re a highbrow, a lowbrow, or somewhere in between, it’ll be worth your while to make time for In Our Time.

Allison Geller

Allison is an undergraduate English major at the University of Virginia, and a regular contributor to Uptown Literati. Her column, “The English Major,” appears every other Wednesday.


Written by whitney teal

September 30, 2009 at 6:11 am

Posted in The English Major

The English Major: Going Greek

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Going Greek–Without the Hazing

Of all genres of literature, the ancient Greek tragedy is no one’s first pick. We might be stirred to pick up the classics of Austen and Bronte, even the plays of Shakespeare, but we rarely get the hankering for a few lines of Euripedes. English major that I am, I feel it’s my duty to rush in the defense of these sadly neglected works. Not because the man in the ivory tower tells me so, but because they are great.

What’s more, these plays—of the three major tragedians Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides—can be read and enjoyed in an hour. Take that, Tolstoy.

You can expect, of course, mythological allusions aplenty. I say, don’t worry about the footnotes; they just take away from the pure enjoyment of reading. Go back and look at them at the end if you like, but while reading, don’t bother breaking the flow of the dialogue with pesty and largely unnecessary background notes.

You can also expect vengeance. Someone usually gets tricked into killing, eating, or killing and eating their own child. It happens.

But for work this ancient, the plays are surprisingly easy to get absorbed in. After all, they were meant for performance. It was assumed the audience knew the story, so drama and tension had to built in to keep them interested.

We Brake for Aeschylus

Start off with Aeschylus’s Agamemnon. It takes place with the end of the Trojan War, when Agamemnon arrives back home to Argos, a hero. His wife Clytemnestra awaits him. Of course, the play follows a long and bloody back-story: the family is typically and complicatedly cursed. Agamemnon’s father tricked his cousin Aegisthus’s father into killing and eating his sons (Aegisthus’s brothers), so he’s none too happy with Agamemnon. At the same time, Agamemnon scarified his and Clytemnestra’s daughter Iphigeneia in order to gain a favorable wind for his voyage to Troy. So despite her exaggerated claims of love and fidelity toward Agamemnon, Clytemnestra can’t be pleased either.

A great scene takes place that reveals the power play between prideful man and bitter wife. When Agamemnon gets home, he doesn’t even spare his wife a word, but gives a speech that is just short of “I’d like to thank the academy” about his war feats. The queen then induces him to walk on red cloth—a sign of dangerous hubris that would indicate Agamemnon thinks himself equal to the gods. At first he resists, but eventually gives in and walks the fateful red carpet. Clytemnestra has won.

It doesn’t bode well. At the same time, Aggy’s brought home a little something something- a prophet named Cassandra.

When he goes into the palace, the queen tries to get Cassandra out of the carriage, but she remains silent. Finally, though, she starts to sputter frantic and prophetical things (“of the grief, the grief of the city/ripped to oblivion”). Eventually, she proclaims “no more riddles” and gives it up: Agamemnon will die, and so will Clytemnestra; their son will then avenge his father’s death. I’ll save the climactic scene for you, but suffice to say it’s going down.

In my opinion, Clytemnestra makes the play, and makes it relevant to our time and place, when the we don’t take part in the revelry and theatre that was the context of this play (the festival of Dionysus, roughly 450 BCE). She is at first belittled (“rumours voiced by women come to nothing,” proclaims the chorus when Clytemnestra declares that Troy has been taken). She is treated with all brusqueness by her husband, ten years absent. She has also lost her daughter to a sacrifice at her husband’s hand. At the same time, there’s a lot not to pity: Clytemnestra has been shacking up with Aegisthus, and prepared to do what it takes to get rid of Agamemnon and take the throne. Aeschylus gives her a complexity and depth that he doesn’t quite spare Agamemnon, the title character. Along with the play’s ambivalence about war, the emotional territory of the play is far more sophisticated than its antiquity suggests.

In the end, the message is the same as all Greek tragedies, uttered by the Herald: “Who but a god can go through life unmarked?” Who, indeed.

–Allison Geller

Allison is an undergraduate at the University of Virginia, and a regular contributor to Uptown Literati. Her column, “The English Major,” will appear every other Wednesday.

Written by whitney teal

September 17, 2009 at 8:50 am

Posted in The English Major