Vintage Pulp Mar 22 2022
HILLS AND VALLEYS
Hemingway scales the literary heights by plumbing human depths.


The great film director John Huston once made an interesting observation about Ernest Hemingway. He said Hemingway had fallen out of fashion because he wrote about courage. Huston didn't mean courage like Liam Neeson facing a pack of wolves or a terrorist. He meant the willingness to face temporality and mortality, and accept them for what they are. He meant the willingness to try to achieve things of great personal value while realizing none of them would last, and none of them truly mattered. The cultural trend has always been to tell people they're special and what they think and do matters and will last. But Hemingway considers that a conceit. 99.99999% of people are simply forgotten. The things they did are forgotten too.

This has happened to the most famous people of their eras. Name a U.S. governor who was in office during the Civil War. Name the wealthiest landowner of imperial Rome. They probably never imagined they'd be forgotten. Human temporality and mortality, set against the backdrop of nature or conflict, is Hemingway's thing. Nihilistic themes date from the earliest literature, but Hemingway, in projecting these ideas through a modern, almost pop culture lens, spoke for generations who had experienced two of the largest and deadliest wars in human history—we're talking well over 100 million dead. Hemingway was wounded in Italy in 1918. George Orwell was shot through the throat in Spain in 1937 during a precursor conflict to World War II. Erich Maria Remarque sustained multiple wounds in World War I. Imagine literature without them.

100 million war dead, among them writers who never wrote, painters who never painted, inventors who never invented. The world lost untold human capital, immeasurable progress. The literary public was ready for authors to tackle the senselessness of warfare. The between-wars period, encompassing a flu pandemic that killed 50 million, followed by the Great Depression, was likewise a wellspring of disillusionment. All these upheavals made clear that everything hangs by the barest thread. That level of suffering is unknown in the U.S. today, a country that has had its constant warfare sanitized for easy consumption, and that's really why Hemingway is out of favor—because his themes are almost alien to an American public that has forgotten what it means to suffer on a mass scale.

But while it's been fashionable for the last forty or so years to bash Hemingway, it's a self defeating exercise. We think what people usually mean to bash is his stature, or his out-of-date attitudes, which are understandable criticisms. However, to say he's a bad writer is to make oneself look ridiculous. We've said a few times before, and we'll say again here, that a good writer teaches you how to read their work. It's similar to the idea of willing suspension of disbelief in cinema. You accept the premise, or don't bother watching the film in the first place. It's okay to dislike a book as long as you try to read it on the terms the author asks. Otherwise, why bother in the first place? You read an adventure author on his or her terms, a mystery author on their terms, and a sleaze author on their terms. And certainly, you read a literary author on their terms.

None of this is to say Hemingway didn't have flaws, particularly when viewed trough a modern social lens. At Pulp, we tend to view writers as content producers first. For example, we pointed out recently that Camilo José Cela was a fascist. We personally are the opposite. But Cela still could write. Seeking enrichment only from ethically pure artists makes for a meager diet, and ethical purists should be forewarned—though modern judgments are necessary tools for measuring our progress, judgments come down the pike for everyone eventually. Legions of twenty-somethings who think they're pristine will one day be blamed for enabling slavery because they used smartphones dependent upon forced labor in African cobalt mines. Ethics evolve, and generational judgment comes for all.

Green Hills of Africa, originally published in 1935, with the Perma Books edition you see above coming in 1956 with Robert Schulz cover art, is autobiographical. A thirty-six year old Hemingway goes on safari mainly in Tanzania, and sets his personal goals against vast and indifferent wilds. By design nothing important seems to happen, but through his descriptive powers he brings Africa to the fore, and makes himself a bit player, just an ant on the endless landscape. The narrative could be shorter and more focused, but even as it rambles the same way Hemingway rambles across the dry plains, his wide ranging hunt for kudu, rhino, and lion assumes an almighty personal importance. His desire draws you in. His many small triumphs and failures become increasingly gripping, and sharpen the irony of his own impermanence and the impermanence of his acts.

But as we've mentioned before, Hemingway and his ilk operated under an earlier—and mistaken—ecological understanding. Our acts actually do matter, not because we're individually important, but in the accumulation of our billions of tiny effects. Hemingway assumed humans had no meaningful impact on nature. Now we know that's only half true—we're impossibly insignificant and incredibly impactful. We're tiny animalcules that have heedlessly wrecked a vast ecosystem. Green Hills of Africa is like a work of high fantasy, taking place in a reality that never truly existed. Despite its mistaken assumption, it does exactly what Hemingway wanted—says that nature is implacable, while human acts, achievements, and loves are comically impermanent. That was his message, a message people were ready to hear. That was Hemingway. 

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History Rewind
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
July 02
1937—Amelia Earhart Disappears
Amelia Earhart fails to arrive at Howland Island during her around the world flight, prompting a search for her and navigator Fred Noonan in the South Pacific Ocean. No wreckage and no bodies are ever found.
1964—Civil Rights Bill Becomes Law
U.S. President Lyndon Johnson signs the Civil Rights Bill into law, which makes the exclusion of African-Americans from elections, schools, unions, restaurants, hotels, bars, cinemas and other public institutions and facilities illegal. A side effect of the Bill is the immediate reversal of American political allegiance, as most southern voters abandon the Democratic Party for the Republican Party.
1997—Jimmy Stewart Dies
Beloved actor Jimmy Stewart, who starred in such films as Rear Window and Vertigo, dies at age eighty-nine at his home in Beverly Hills, California of a blood clot in his lung.
July 01
1941—NBC Airs First Official TV Commercial
NBC broadcasts the first TV commercial to be sanctioned by the Federal Communications Commission. The FCC began licensing commercial television stations in May 1941, granting the first license to NBC. During a Dodgers-Phillies game broadcast July 1, NBC ran its first commercial, from Bulova, who paid $9 to advertise its watches.
1963—Kim Philby Named as Spy
The British Government admits that former high-ranking intelligence diplomat Kim Philby had worked as a Soviet agent. Philby was a member of the spy ring now known as the Cambridge Five, along with Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt and John Cairncross. Of the five, Philby is believed to have been most successful in providing classified information to the Soviet Union. He defected to Russia, was feted as a hero and even given his commemorative stamp, before dying in 1988 at the age of seventy-six.
1997—Robert Mitchum Dies
American actor Robert Mitchum dies in his home in Santa Barbara, California. He had starred in films such as Out of the Past, Blood on the Moon, and Night of the Hunter, was called "the soul of film noir," and had a reputation for coolness that would go unmatched until Frank Sinatra arrived on the scene.
June 30
1908—Tunguska Explosion Occurs
Near the Podkamennaya Tunguska River in what is now Krasnoyarsk Krai in Russia, a large meteoroid or comet explodes at five to ten kilometers above the Earth's surface with a force of about twenty megatons of TNT. The explosion is a thousand times more powerful than the Hiroshima atomic blast, knocks over an estimated 80 million trees and generates a shock wave estimated to have been 5.0 on the Richter scale.
1971—Soviet Cosmonauts Perish
Soviet cosmonauts Vladislav Volkov, Georgi Dobrovolski and Viktor Patsayev, who served as the first crew of the world's first space station Salyut 1, die when their spacecraft Soyuz 11 depressurizes during preparations for re-entry. They are the only humans to die in space (as opposed to the upper atmosphere).
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