In His Time: The Modernist Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway is one of the crucial figures in 20th-century literature: controversial, epoch-making, often imitated, never equaled. His short stories defined the genre; the novels of his artistic maturity became part of the canon, won the Nobel Prize, and formed the basis of classic Hollywood films. But Hemingway, Amanda Vaill argues, did his purest and best work — the story collection In Our Time — during his youth in an interwar Paris seething with arch-modernist talent.

Ernest Hemingway and his wife Hadley, when they were "very young and very happy.”

John F. Kennedy Library. Ernest Hemingway and his wife Hadley, when they were “very young and very happy.”

In the autumn of 1922, Ernest Hemingway was the golden boy of expat Paris, “the kind of man” — said his wife Hadley — “to whom men, women, children, and dogs were attracted.” Tall, lean, matinee-idol handsome, with a shock of dark hair and a brilliant smile, he was just 22 years old, but already a wounded World War I veteran and newspaper beat reporter, when he and Hadley left America for Paris, the place where, Gertrude Stein famously said, “the 20th century was.” For almost a year they’d been living in a cheap Left Bank apartment, supported by Hadley’s little trust fund and his earnings from the Toronto Star and the International News Service, while he wrote poems and short stories that he hoped would make his name. And, won over by his charm and curiosity and eagerness to learn everything there was to learn about the craft of writing, everyone — from Stein and Sylvia Beach, the proprietress of the Shakespeare and Company bookstore, to Ezra Pound and Ford Madox Ford, editor of The Transatlantic Review — had been trying to help him get noticed, and published.

In November, Hemingway had gone to Lausanne to cover a peace conference, and had telegraphed Hadley to join him. Thinking he might want to show his recent work to the journalist Lincoln Steffens, also at the conference, she’d packed as many of her husband’s manuscripts as she could find into a small valise. To her horror and nearly unbearable distress, the valise was stolen in transit. When Hemingway told Ezra Pound of the loss, however, the poet told his young friend that he should look upon it as “an act of Gawd.”

Whether or not Hemingway shared Pound’s belief (his memoir A Moveable Feast paints a dramatic portrait of his reaction, somewhat belied by contemporary accounts and documents), the disappearance of whatever manuscripts were in that valise essentially wiped the slate clean for him. As a young man he’d admired the novels of George Meredith and G. K. Chesterton and Joseph Conrad, whose traditionalist work — whatever its considerable merits — seemed a world away from the experimental fiction being written, a few Paris streets distant from the Hemingways’ flat, by James Joyce or Gertrude Stein. Now, after the “act of Gawd,” Hemingway himself began to assemble the first iteration of a book that would announce to the world the arrival of a truly important new voice: a voice that would combine to stunning effect the fact-based journalese of his profession, the concentrated imagism of his mentor Pound, and a modernistic structure that would make him seem as new as, or newer than, any of the writers in Paris, including Stein.

“None of Hemingway's books has the pure, bright, modern edge of In Our Time.”

—Amanda Vaill

In the fall of 1923, the “Exiles” issue of the literary magazine The Little Review contained six short wartime vignettes, bound together by the title “In Our Time,” that Hemingway had composed under Pound’s watchful eye: each was only a few paragraphs long, and, like a snapshot, captured a moment with no context, no frame, no explanation, just the sense impressions made by the clean, sharp prose. A year later a small chapbook of such vignettes — 18 of them, some set on battlefields, some in bullrings, some on the mean streets of the United States — was brought out under the title in our time (the lowercase was the publisher’s idea) in a tiny edition of 300 copies with a cover that was a collage of newspaper clippings in four languages. And in the October issue of The Dial, one of the more important American literary monthlies, Edmund Wilson (already a significant critical voice) said that with these vignettes Hemingway had “almost invented a form of his own . . . [in our time] has more artistic dignity than any other that has been written by an American about the period of the war.”

In the meantime, Hemingway had continued to write longer, character-based (though still stripped-down) narratives, such as “My Old Man,” about the death of a racetrack fixer, “The Doctor and the Doctor’s Wife,” a bleak portrait of a marriage, and other stories, most notably a long description of a solo fishing trip undertaken by a protagonist something like himself named Nick Adams. And in the fall of 1924, hoping at last to have a book that a New York publisher would take on, Hemingway combined 14 of them with the vignettes from in our time, alternating narratives and vignettes in a structure that he compared to looking at a view with one’s naked eye and then with binoculars. In Our Time, he called it — with capitals. It was the boldest, most experimental, most determinedly modern work he had ever done, contrasting the violence of war and the bullring with the implicit violence of domestic life simply by placing a vignette featuring one next to a longer story about the other.

Originally he had wanted to end “Big Two-Hearted River,” the last narrative in the book, with his protagonist’s meditation on contemporary fiction: who was good, who wasn’t, and why. Perhaps it was his way of trying to place himself in the literary cosmos. He sent the manuscript to Gertrude Stein, the mother-goddess of modernism, who told him, witheringly, “remarks are not literature.” He cut the offending paragraphs, ending the story with “just the straight fishing.”

This version of the story was included in the manuscript published in 1925 by Boni and Liveright in New York, which launched Hemingway’s career in earnest. “Fibrous and athletic, colloquial and fresh, hard and clean,” gushed the New York Times, sounding almost like Hemingway himself; Time magazine put it more bluntly: “Make no mistake: Ernest Hemingway is somebody.” Hemingway was indeed somebody, and he knew it. He would go on to write many other books: novels and travel books and short story collections, books that were parodies of others’ works, books that seemed like parodies of his own, books that were bestsellers, or were made into Hollywood movies, or won him the Nobel Prize. But none of them has the pure, bright, modern edge of In Our Time, the book he wrote in Paris when (as he would describe it in A Moveable Feast) “we were very young and very happy.”