Literary Blind Spots: Hemingway and Fitzgerald

sun also risesDespite being educated through university level in the United States, I’m better acquainted with British literature than American, in part due to my own predilections. Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald are two of the American authors I’ve most struggled with. For one thing, their novels’ titles are interchangeable, abstract quotations that I can never keep straight. Which is which? The Sun Also Rises is the bullfighting one, right? And is A Farewell to Arms the other one I’ve read? Fitzgerald is an even worse offender as titles go, with The Great Gatsby the only one that actually refers to its contents.

paris wifeFor the record, I recognize The Great Gatsby as a masterpiece, and I absolutely loved A Moveable Feast, Hemingway’s memoir of life in Paris. I also enjoy reading about the Hemingways (Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife and Naomi Wood’s Mrs. Hemingway) and the Fitzgeralds (Therese Anne Fowler’s Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald and R. Clifton Spargo’s Beautiful Fools). But when I’ve tried to go deeper into the authors’ work, it hasn’t been an unmitigated success. The above two Hemingway novels are just okay for me. The Sun Also Rises struck me as having a thin plot, two-dimensional characters and repetitious dialogue.

When I eagerly approached Tender Is the Night last year – having recently read a novel about the real-life couple who inspired Fitzgerald’s portrait of Dick and Nicole Diver, Gerald and Sara Murphy (Villa America by Liza Klaussmann) – I pulled out a lot of great individual lines but had trouble following the basic plot and only really enjoyed the early chapters of Book Two. Here are some of those pearls of prose:

The delight in Nicole’s face—to be a feather again instead of a plummet, to float and not to drag. She was a carnival to watch—at times primly coy, posing, grimacing and gesturing—sometimes the shadow fell and the dignity of old suffering flowed down into her finger tips.

somehow Dick and Nicole had become one and equal, not apposite and complementary; she was Dick too, the drought in the marrow of his bones. He could not watch her disintegrations without participating in them.

Well, you never knew exactly how much space you occupied in people’s lives.

women marry all their husbands’ talents and naturally, afterwards, are not so impressed with them as they may keep up the pretense of being.

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Imagine my surprise when I learned from a note at the end of my Penguin paperback that Fitzgerald made a major revision that rearranged the action into chronological order, thus opening with Book Two. That text, edited by Malcolm Cowley, appeared in 1951 and was printed by Penguin from 1955. However, the version I have – as reprinted from 1982 onwards – goes back to Fitzgerald’s first edition. Would I have had a more favorable reaction to the novel if I’d encountered it in its revised version? Somehow I think so.


Is there a Hemingway or Fitzgerald novel that will change my opinion about these literary lions? Share your favorites.

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19 thoughts on “Literary Blind Spots: Hemingway and Fitzgerald

  1. I don’t think so. Not from this direction anyway. Scott Fitzgerald is OK, but I’ve never got on with Hemingway. Or Conrad. Or (whisper quietly) Russian novelists generally, though that might be the fault of the translations I’ve been exposed to. Never mind. There are still millions and millions of books to read.

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  2. I read The Great Gatsby in school 45 years ago and was so unimpressed I’ve never read another Fitzgerald (unless you count a graphic version of Benjamin Button. As for Hemingway, I finally made my way through The Old Man and the Sea a couple of years ago.

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  3. I heard someone once say that Gatsby was a young man’s book and it shows, and I think I agree. It’s got that sense of someone who knows he can write beautiful sentences, but is SO damned pleased with himself for it that it kind of spoils everything else. Hemingway is a hard one for me too. The only part of The Sun Also Rises that I enjoyed was the bit where they drove up into the hills and fished and drank beer. It felt like almost a different book. The rest of it was highly-strung and irritating.

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  4. Yeah, count me another non-fan of the pair. However, I did teach Hemingway’s In Our Time (1925; short stories) for a couple semesters, and I recommend that over the novels (although like you, I quite enjoyed A Moveable Feast).

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  5. Hemmingway leaves me cold. I found the style of A Farewell to Arms lacking in emotion be aisle of the way he had stripped the text so bare. As for Fitzgerald, Great Gatsby is the only one I’ve read ? Can’t see what all the fuss is about.

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  6. This post made me giggle. For as a Brit, I have exactly the same relationship with many of our equivalents!

    I love Fitzgerald – have read all his novels at least once. Tender is the Night is my favourite doomed romance (I need to re-read it again – one of my desert island books).

    Hemingway I have less experience with, but I enjoyed The Sun Also Rises – feeling that the repetitious dialogue was the point to emphasise their dilatory existence. His writing style appeals to me.

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    1. Ah, you are the one true fan who has commented. I do think I will read the rest of Fitzgerald, despite my disappointment with Tender Is the Night. I have a two-in-one paperback of This Side of Paradise & The Beautiful and Damned on the shelf. Have you read Villa America yet? I remember it appearing on one of your TBR rainbow posts; I’d be interested to see how you feel it represents Fitzgerald and his circle.

      Who are some of the must-love British authors you struggle with?

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      1. Villa America is still on the pile by my bedside – loved her first novel though. I have Beautiful Fool and Z too somewhere! I struggle with A.S.Byatt (except Ragnarok), find Anita Brookner and Penelope Lively etc boring – and can’t bring myself to try George Eliot. It’s the domestic setting – needs a twist to get me interested!

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      2. Interesting! Whereas A.S. Byatt is one of my favourite authors of all time. I’ve never tried Brookner or Lively, though I think I have one of each in boxes in America (Hotel du Lac and Moon Tiger).

        Middlemarch was definitely a struggle, but Adam Bede is lovely and more like Hardy, if you enjoy him at all.

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  7. I haven’t read Fitzgerald since High School and honestly can’t remember it much, but I’ve read The Sun Also Rises and tried beginning A Farewell to Arms. Aside from Sun being pointless I felt the prose was boring, yet interspersed with moments of brilliance. That’s kept alive a small desire to continue reading Hemingway, the possibility that he gets better the more he wrote.

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  8. I’ve asked this question myself. As a result, I reread The Sun Also Rises (but I didn’t love it any more than I hadn’t loved it the first time) and bought a copy of Beautiful and the Damned (but haven’t gone there yet), which I was assured would suit me better than Gatsby (which I didn’t dislike, but didn’t love either). I think I understand the appeal for other readers, and there are qualities which I admire, but they just don’t touch my reader’s heart. Will be interested to hear if you try again!

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  9. I read both The Great Gatsby and The Old Man and the Sea in High School. I’ve been meaning to re-read The Old Man, because I remember really liking that one (but I like sea stories). Other than that, I don’t feel the urge to read any more of their books. The Old Man is a good one if you just want to try something quick!

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  10. I definitely think I prefer reading about Hemingway than his actual writing. The Sun Also Rises is very good, I enjoyed that. The Old Man and The Sea I hated, and A Moveable Feast was interesting. I’ve not got to his other novels, but I do want to try them. Outside The Great Gatsby I’ve never managed to read Fitzgerald.

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