Dear Ernest Hemingway,
I really wish I could meet you. I’m fascinated by the fact that you wrote only 500 words per day. I say “only” 500, but in reality those were probably the most precise, carefully-chosen 500 words that any writer could put down on paper on any given day. You wrote 500 words per day, while Stephen King writes 10 pages per day, and it shows in your style.
I just finished To Have And Have Not, where your economy of style is very apparent. I thought it was interesting how you shifted perspectives, from a first-person narrator, to a third-person omniscient, to a third-person limited, and back again. I found myself confused sometimes because I didn’t understand the vernacular or the dialogue, and there wasn’t any help or interpretation from the narrator. I felt like I was being put in an outsider’s perspective, where I was left to figure out for myself what I could about these people and this culture.
Based on the title of the novel alone, I expected to come across more of a range of economic status in the characters. Most of the characters that fill the story are the Have Nots…there are the poor revolutionaries, the poor who are doing honest work, the poor who are doing whatever they can, legal or not, to pay the bills, and the poor who are drinking in bars. It seems like you are showing how the poor cannot be painted in large, monochromatic strokes. Each of the characters had a different motivation, different strategies, and different loves, although most of them ended up the same: dead.
The Haves were mostly relegated to short descriptions towards the end of the story, as they slept in oblivion in their yachts while the Have Nots mourned the deaths of their own. It was almost like you were reversing the space and time that is usually afforded to the poor and wealthy. The wealthy, who typically dominate the headlines and magazine covers and radio waves and pages, are shelved until twenty or so pages at the end. The poor, who are typically overlooked and stereotyped, are allowed to live fully dimensional lives in your story.
The best 382 words (yes, I counted them) are in the brilliant Chapter Nineteen. The entire theme of the novel lies in Chapter Nineteen in seed form. I know I don’t need to summarize it for you because you wrote it, but it really is amazing. The wealthy writer and tourist, Richard Gordon, sees a woman and instantly comes to all kinds of conclusions about her…she is unattractive, she has no sexual desire, her husband cheats on her because she has let herself go, she is unsupportive of her husband’s struggles. Gordon hurries home to include her in the novel he is writing about a poor man working in a textile factory. He thinks of what he wrote: “It was good. It was, it could be easily, terrific, and it was true. He had seen, in a flash of perception, the whole inner life of that type of woman.”
In reality, she is Marie Morgan, Harry’s wife…she is beautiful in Harry’s eyes, she has great sexual desire for him, he is faithful to her, he loves her bleached hair and strength in size, and she wants her husband alive more than she wants the income he can get from his risky jobs, despite their poverty. In reality, she is one half of a happy, vibrant, and loving marriage.
My first reaction to Chapter Nineteen is that Gordon is a pompous ass. He just flattened that woman and doesn’t even know her. He is judging her based on his upper-class, oversexualized, white sensibilities and tastes. He doesn’t know the first thing about appreciating a woman, so how would he know what kind of man would appreciate this particular woman? And yet he claims that his perspective is true.
I want to align myself with Marie, to feel fierce against those who misjudge and destroy. And then I remember how you, Mr. Hemingway, left me on the outside during much of this novel. I may understand some things about the poor, and you let me understand some things about the poor characters in your novel, but can I claim to truly understand the “whole inner life of that type of” person? Aren’t we all guilty of judging each other based on our own sensibilities and tastes, our inherited prejudices and beliefs that we may not even be aware of?
I was struck by how vulnerable writers are to this kind of (mis)judgment…we try to pay attention to detail, to understand how people’s minds work, to practice empathy, to bring insight or epiphany to our readers. But how often are our “flash[es] of perception” merely an outsider’s murky view? The writer’s pen has the power to both enlighten and slander. Although Gordon, I hope, is not a good example of a good writer. He vacations to Key West to view the natives from a comfortable distance, and doesn’t bother speaking to the woman he believes to understand completely. He writes about a class struggle that he doesn’t participate in. I guess the lesson to writers is to write what you know, and if you don’t know, then either experience it firsthand or talk to a bunch of people who have.
Thank you for giving this novel to the world, Mr. Hemingway. Thank you for the reminder to be a ruthless editor and to make each word count. And thank you for proving that just a few words each day can create something meaningful.