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Hays: Ernest Hemingway back in fashion again

January 21, 2001
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@dcn.davis.ca.us

Over the past 35 years, Professor Peter Hays of UC Davis has seen one of his literary heroes, Ernest Hemingway, ride the changing tides of political correctness.

Fortunately, the feminists and short, simple sentence critics have relented, at least for now, and Hemingway is back in favor.

That's good news for Hays whose dissertation, "The Limping Hero: The Archetype of the Maimed Figure in Literature," has been republished by Scrivenery, a Houston firm that locates out-of-print academic books and republishes those it finds worthwhile.

Scrivenery also is publishing Hay's 1990 biography "Ernest Hemingway," which had only recently gone out of print. And the University of Idaho Press is publishing a collection of essays, with Hays as editor, on new ways to look at and teach "The Sun Also Rises" (1926), which was, he says, Hemingway's first and best novel.

"Every generation rediscovers Hemingway," said Hays.

In "The Sun Also Rises," the biography of the lost generation, characters Jake Barnes and Brett Ashley engage in a self-defeating search for fun prompted by the derangement and disillusionment of World War I. (One change Hays would make: He described Brett Ashley as a nymphomaniac in "The Limping Hero." He would not use that description of her today.)

In the last five years, Hays adds, a lot of notice has been paid to the fact many of Hemingway's stories take place outdoors, in nature, featuring activities like hunting and fishing. And attention also is being paid to the fact that he wrote about Native Americans and Africans.

He also wrote about homosexuality and definitely considered gender roles to be socially constructed. In "Garden of Eden" (1986), published after his death, he writes about a ménage a trois where gender roles are outright switched.

Hays says Hemingway himself was a limping hero, literally. He was wounded in WWI to the extent that he had 237 shell fragments and two machine gun bullets taken out of his right leg. Ten years after the war he was still wearing a brace, yet learned to ski and play tennis.

"When I encountered Hemingway in the 1950s he seemed like a perfect existential hero," said Hays. "He was responsible for the choices he made and was defined by his actions."

He was either very smart or very fortunate in at least one of the choices he made when he abandoned the complicated prose styles popular in the 19th century (think of Henry James and even Mark Twain) and adopted his famously simple prose style.

But Hemingway had trouble maintaining that simple spare writing.

"Hemingway suffered from depression," said Hays. "You see it throughout his whole family. He was probably bipolar and increasingly had difficulty editing his own work or even finishing anything."

"Garden of Eden" ran to 1,500 pages in manuscript. Yet when he was invited to contribute something to the John F. Kennedy inauguration, he couldn't string two sentences together.

"That spare Hemingway style came early in his career. He also did a lot of experimenting. In 'Green Hills of Africa' several sentences run one page or longer. And there are parts in 'For Whom the Bell Tolls' that badly need to be edited," said Hays.

"He was beat up by critics to such an extent that he returned to his early style in 'The Old Man and the Sea' and was then accused of being a pale imitation of himself. He couldn't win."

Hays said that Hemingway was diagnosed with depression in 1960 but he thinks that diagnosis could have been made 40 years earlier. "Had he not suffered from depression he may have lived a happier life but he might not have been a writer," said Hays.

"Out of that depression came a lot of good writing. He seemed to write in both manic and depressive states or stages."

Hays says that Hemingway has been a growth industry for scholars. If you just count the articles written on him annually, you'll see how his work is constantly being reinterpreted and re-evaluated.

"The Sun Also Rises" may be nearly 80 years old, but good literature creates a fascinating picture of life that each generation reinterprets. "And Hemingway was a good storyteller," said Hays.

"I delight in teaching large lecture classes where very frequently young women who have been told they shouldn't like Hemingway end up liking him, I hope for the right reasons. In 'Up in Michigan' or 'Hills like White Elephants' his sympathies are with the women."

Give Hemingway credit, says Hays.

"However much he was like his protagonists, he always portrayed their faults honestly."

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