Over 100 years since his birth and 50 years since he was the most visible writer in America, Ernest Hemingway remains a man of many masks. A larger than life figure, Papa (his nickname), meant many different things to different people. There's Albert Murray’s Hemingway - a high poet of the populace whose language “had a universal essence that was similar to blues and swing.” But then again, there’s Ralph Ellison’s Hemingway, a callow, racially insensitive nihilist “who’s marvelous technical virtuosity was won at the expense of a gross insensitivity to a fraternal values.” There’s Norman Mailer’s Hemingway, the patron saint of all things masculine and macho.
But if those characterizations seem off-base, there is Bellow, Malamud and Roth’s Hemingway, an effete and deluded cocksman whose country club vision of Jews was downright loony. Certainly there’s the Hemingway whose ironclad version of manhood haunted and angered feminist scholars for a half a century. But then what does one make of Joan Didion and Nadine Gordimer’s Hemingway - a flawed but an indispensable artist who admired a woman’s capacity for strength?
Who, out of those writers, is right? All of them are.
Hemingway is the ultimate 20th-century American artist/monster, one of the most schizophrenic of our literary masters. His biases shackle a great deal of his work to his time, but they are part of a total package intractable from the man himself. Every novel that he wrote had holes: A Farewell To Arms is brilliant but relies way too much on a surfeit of detail, To Have And Have Not is misogynistic, self-absorbed and too obsessed with celebrity, For Whom The Bell Tolls is way too long, and by the time he got to Across The River And Through The Trees, liquor and the job of living up to his own image had already took too deep a toll on his talent.
But the reason that Hemingway's works resonate with the reader is due to their collection of moments, breathtaking moments either in detail, dialogue, action or human empathy. In addition to the novels, this kind of evocation is also reflected in his métier - the short story, where, with his soaring use of plainspoken diction and speech, Hemingway, along with William Faulkner, would kick down the door that Mark Twain opened for the American demotic to come into our literature (although one has to say Faulkner did more of the kicking).
The Sun Also Rises has several of the same problems that plague his long fiction. The novel is a structurally flawed mess, a short novella stretched way beyond it’s elasticity, with a plot that goes nowhere and a tendency to fall back on dialogue and prejudices — some petty, some not so - when he runs out of ideas. But Sun has more brilliant moments in it than almost any random selection of a half a dozen mid-level 20th-century classics. I’m not saying that The Sun Also Rises is a classic, nor am I saying that it’s great or even very good. All that I am saying is that it’s a good novel that shouldn’t be totally thrown away.