From almost the beginning of his writing career, Hemingway’s distinctive style occasioned a great deal of comment and controversy. Basically, his style is simple, direct, and unadorned, probably as a result of his early newspaper training. He avoids the adjective whenever possible, but because he is a master at transmitting emotion without the flowery prose of his Victorian novelist predecessors, the effect is far more telling.
In Observations on the Style of Ernest Hemingway, from “Contexts of Criticism” by Harry Levin (Harvard University Press, 1957), the critic says: “Hemingway puts his emphasis on nouns because, among other parts of speech, they come closest to things. Stringing them along by means of conjunctions, he approximates the actual flow of experience. ” Hemingway has often been described as a master of dialog, and most readers agree, upon being first introduced to his writing, that “this is the way these characters would really talk.
” It is interesting to note, however, that Hemingway’s one attempt at playwriting was a failure. Actually, a close examination of his dialog will reveal that this is rarely the way people really speak. The effect is accomplished, rather, by the calculated emphasis and repetition which makes us remember what has been said. Since the critics cannot entirely agree on Hemingway’s style, perhaps the best way is to put it into the author’s own words.
Shortly before his tragic death, Hemingway gave to the Wisdom Foundation in California a collection of his observations on life and art, love and death. They were published in the January 1963, issue of Playboy magazine, and in them Hemingway said of his writing: I do most of my work in my head. I never begin to write until my ideas are in order. Frequently I recite passages of dialogue as it is being written; the ear is a good censor. I never set down a sentence on paper until I have it so expressed that it will be clear to anyone.
Yet, I sometimes think that my style is suggestive rather than direct. The reader must often use his imagination or lose the most subtle part of my thoughts. I take great pains with my work, pruning and revising with a tireless hand. I have the welfare of my creations very much at heart. I cut them with infinite care, and burnish them until they become brilliants. What many another writer would be content to leave in massive proportions, I polish into a tiny gem. Hemingway goes on at some length, but the essence of what he says may be in this paragraph:
A writer’s style should be direct and personal, his imagery rich and earthy, and his words simple and vigorous. The greatest writers have the gift of brilliant brevity, are hard workers, diligent scholars and competent stylists. To explain Hemingway’s style adequately in a few paragraphs is impossible. Scores of articles, and even some books, have been written on the subject, and it is to these that the serious student should go for additional, more detailed information.