July 2003

Michael Schaub

hundred books

Ernest Hemingway - The Sun Also Rises

When I was in college, I had a discussion about Hemingway with a comely graduate student who I desperately wanted to know in a slightly more intimate sense. Now that I look back on it, I realize that I've never deliberately had a discussion about Hemingway with anyone who I didn't want to sleep with. This might seen shallow, and it is, but everything that could possibly be said about Papa has been said already, and if I can't use my sensitive insights about anti-Semitism in The Sun Also Rises to get some, what good is he?

But back to the grad student. We were talking about Hemingway, and she wrinkled her nose and said, "I can't stand Hemingway. He's just so...male. And white." (The grad student in question was white, too, but she listened to jazz, which I suppose gave her the right.) I considered retorting that I couldn't read Toni Morrison because she's just so...female. And black. But you can never be too careful about making ironic statements on a college campus. If any member of the PC brigade was within earshot, I would've been beaten severely and made to attend a "cultural sensitivity" seminar. So I just smiled and nodded. Later I found out the object of my affection was a lesbian. And so it goes.

I first read The Sun Also Rises in an American Literature survey course. My professor was a manic former journalist prone to expansive arm gestures and standing on furniture. What I remember most about the Hemingway discussion in his class was him screaming "I hate this book!" and throwing it across the room, where it sailed mere centimeters from my head, caromed off the wall, and landed, incredibly, in a wastebasket. His hatred had a lot to do with Hemingway's vaunted anti-Semitism, which is, I must say, pretty transparent. The character Robert Cohn seems to be a stand-in for all Jews, and he possesses pretty much every negative personality trait possible for one person to have. Hemingway's narrator, Jake Barnes, is no fan of the Jews, either -- on the first page, he notes that Cohn got his face flattened in a boxing match, which "certainly improved his nose." Get it? Call me politically correct if you must, but this kind of casual hatred makes the book a little difficult to read without, like my professor, throwing it angrily across the room. Particularly galling is the fact that the book's title comes from the Book of Ecclesiastes. What the hell, Ernest?

Certainly there's more to The Sun Also Rises than anti-Semitism and misogyny, the latter of which has been so well chronicled, I feel no need to go into it here. There's Hemingway's trademark masculinity, which seems...odd, let's say, 75 years later. The masculine characters in this book know a lot about expensive liquor and exotic travel locations, which doesn't exactly scream "Testosterone!" to 21st-century readers.

Look, in a lot of ways, it's a beautiful book, if you can get past the dicey sociology. I almost wish I'd paid more attention to it in college, or at least taken more extensive notes. I reproduce the notes I did take in their entirety:

-anomie -Kant: using people as means, not ends = unethical -Binary oppositions (Levi-Strauss): man = not woman, white = not black -Brett: masculine (masc. name, short hair) -Cohn: feminine (gender confusion reflects moral confusion)

You can see how none of that really helped when I reread this book. I can't say I didn't enjoy it, but I was markedly less blown away by it than when I was 19 and more gullible. Only now I can't sympathize at all with the bitter and emasculated Jake Barnes. I find myself identifying much more strongly with Robert Cohn. I guess part of this comes from my instinctual feeling that Cohn was never really given a fair shake in this book, even if he is just a fictional character. I think I might save the rest of Hemingway's canon for another decade or so. People like Jake Barnes never really grow up. The rest of us have no choice.