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Ernest Hemingway, latent feminist




Jim McGarrah


Delivered at Wilkes Honors College – Florida Atlantic University, 2007





            On October 29, 1966 in Washington, D.C. a group of post modern idealists formed a new organization called N.O.W. (National Organization for Women). According to their Statement of Purpose, they were to become the spearhead of a new movement toward the full equality of the sexes and instrumental in bringing feminism to the center spotlight in the worldwide war for human rights (Cunnea 1).

            Part of any intellectual revolution consists of instruction and part of it consists of destruction. In the document, the organization instructs women everywhere that a “silken curtain” of prejudice exists against them in every aspect of life in the United States, that the revolution of their gender is unfinished, and that the moral values concerning marriage, family, and traditional roles must be changed (Cunnea 4). These are noble sentiments and like many noble sentiments, they become absolute truths when enforced by less than brilliant revolutionary theorists. Thus the destruction, or deconstruction, begins, often without regard to consequence.

            What interests me particularly about this movement is a statement made mid-way through the rhetoric of their charter. It says:

In the interest of the human dignity of women, we will protest, and endeavor to change, the false image of women now prevalent in the mass media, in the texts, ceremonies, laws and practices of our major social institutions. Such images perpetuate contempt for women by society and by women themselves…and foster in women self-denigration, dependence, and evasion of responsibility…(Cunnea 5).                                                                            


As with many such statements, the abstract wording was never clarified. What became a “false image”, “dependence”, or the evasion of some nebulous “responsibility”, was left in the hands of fanatical soldiers in the woman’s revolutionary army and proved dangerously misleading in understanding and appreciating American literature written before the 1960’s as the next three decades wore on.

            One of the first casualties on the literary front of this war was the Nobel Prize winning author named Ernest Hemingway. A major complaint that developed in the academic and critical arenas regarding Hemingway revolved around the feminist viewpoint that he was misogynistic and had a very narrow concept of masculinity, therefore the stories he wrote depicted women as shallow and superficial characters. The female role in his books seemed relegated to antagonist at best and mere device at worst, a way to turn the male monologue into a dialogue. Female psychologists and behavioral experts saw his unrealistic women characters as pliant and submissive, creations of his erotic fantasies. Hemingway’s realistic women characters became destructive threats designed to distract the hero from his goal (Gladstein 50).

            Unfortunately, these depictions of the writer and his work created an inherent bias that has shrouded serious study. For the last three decades it has been somewhat politically incorrect and a mark of insensitivity to appreciate the contributions Hemingway made to American literature without denigrating him at the same time. Actually reading and enjoying his books has become tantamount to treason in the loyal feminist army.

            What if, over the last thirty odd years, our understanding of his female characters was based on personal political agenda, either masculine or feminine, without factoring in the historical context and realistic activity of those characters? I want to advance a theory that Hemingway did the best he could, given the times and the culture, to create realistic females in his writing that were equal in depth and as flawed as the males. This was not an attempt to disparage them, rather an attempt to accurately portray their role in a disillusioned and shallow society. For me to do this properly, I will have to examine briefly the writer’s early relationships with women and the history of the “Flapper” culture, or post WWI “jazz age”, the setting of some of Hemingway’s best writing. The bulk of this paper will consist of a close and objective look at one of the best-drawn female characters in his work, Lady Brett Ashley, femme fatale in The Sun Also Rises juxtaposed with the character of Catherine Barkley, the principal female character in his WWI novel, A Farewell to Arms.


The Early Mothers of the Young Man.


            The three women that most influenced Hemingway’s concept of women in general were the first three he had strong emotional ties to, his mother Grace, fiancé Agnes von Kurowsky, and first wife, Hadley Richardson. They were the archetypes, the patterns against which all other women would be measured during his career. Interestingly, these women proved themselves independent and intelligent, quite able to function without Hemingway’s masculine presence (Gladstein 53). He respected their abilities and self-sufficiency, regardless of the lack of self-confidence those qualities may have generated in him (Baker 81).

            In the case of Grace Hemingway, history shows her to have been a woman who strongly related to her own father, to have been talented and creative in the fine arts, and dominant in the family relationship. Strong evidence exists that she raised Ernest with love, but also androgynously. What doesn’t exist is proof that this was her attempt to sissify or feminize the boy, which in turn made him grow to adulthood hating women and fearing his latent feminine characteristics. Actually, her motive appears to have been quite the opposite (Silverstein 4). Whatever her reasoning, Grace Hemingway instilled in Ernest an understanding of both genders from an early age onward. He was aware of the roles men played and the roles women played in families and society, and that those roles could often be reversed without causing an end to life as we know it on the planet. He neither hated nor feared those roles. Since this is not a psychological study, I would suggest interested readers who wish to pursue this line of thought consult Mark Spilka’s book, Hemingway’s Quarrel with Androgyny.

            Hemingway would have to travel to Europe and flirt with death before meeting the first great romantic interest of his life. He was severely wounded during a firefight in Italy on July 17, 1918. Transported by ambulance and train to a Red Cross hospital in Milano, he met Agnes Hannah von Kurowsky, a nurse several years older than him. The day he arrived, Ernest was four days shy of his nineteenth birthday. The severity of the wounds and the possibility of infection, even amputation, kept him bed-ridden for several weeks. During that time, he fell madly in love with Agnes (Baker 69). The interesting point for me, putting aside the exotic arena of wartime Italy as a cathartic element, is the kind of women Agnes seems to have been. Other patients described her as quick, sympathetic, very intelligent, independent, courageous, full of humor and integrity (Baker 66). According to feminist ideology Agnes was a woman who should have terrified a chauvinist or misogynist, one who could meet a man on his own terms and hold her ground. Yet, Hemmingway ended up immortalizing her as the character Catherine Barkley in one of his most famous books, A Farewell to Arms. 

            There were many women that came in and out of Hemingway’s life. He appears to have been attractive to them and they to him, particularly in his early adulthood. The third one I want to consider in this section of the paper is Hadley Richardson because she, after Grace and Agnes, exerted the strongest and longest influence in the development of Hemingway’s perception of women, both in reality and literarily. Some of his best writing was done while he was married to Hadley and evidence indicates that Hemingway respected her opinions and advice years after their divorce (Gladstein 53).

            Hadley and Ernest met in 1920. He was twenty years old and she was twenty-eight. Another intelligent woman with the courage to confront Hemingway when he behaved badly, Hadley stayed with him for seven years. Their marriage produced his first son, and he dedicated perhaps his greatest literary achievement, The Sun Also Rises, to Hadley and John Hadley. Many of Hemingway’s expatriate years in Paris immediately following WWI were spent in Hadley’s company. The couple was entertained and instructed by Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein. Gerald and Sarah Murphy befriended them, as well as Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, among others. Hemingway scholar Carlos Baker indicates that Hadley interacted well with and added to this strange assortment of intellectuals and “jazz age” bohemians (Baker 105-240).

            Our point of focus in objectively understanding Hemingway’s portrayal of the female persona should be strongly influenced by our historical awareness of the place of these three real women in his life. His enduring female characters were created as projections of his responses to them during the years when his knowledge of the female sex was being formed (Gladstein 58). They were not people he dominated, rather people who responded to him on an equal and occasionally superior level. He respected their intelligence, reveled in their goodness and courage, and regarded their maternal instincts as a necessary part of his life. I found no accurate evidence available that indicated a hatred for or abusive attitude toward any of them. Why do we then often make the critical assumption that his women characters are superficial, shallow, less than the male heroic characters? Perhaps our judgment is clouded because we extract the writer and the characters from their environment and insert them into ours when we reason on their qualities. It may be necessary to also consider the prevalent environment when Hemingway was writing his best prose.


The soil that sprouts the seed.


“They’re all desperadoes, these kids, all of them with any life in their vein; the girls as well as the boys; maybe more than the boys.”  -- from “Flaming Youth,” by W. Fabian


            After WWI, American women were no longer stuck at home, trapped by tradition. The war itself had done much, through disillusionment, loss of innocence and economic role reversal, to change the way women viewed the world and were viewed by the world. Prohibition and the evolution of jazz music ushered in the “Roaring Twenties” and gave birth to the “flapper”, society’s vision of the new, improved, and modern woman. The typical flapper was young, behaved in a brazen and morally fast manner, and offended the older generation by defying acceptable standards of behavior. The flapper cut her hair short, publicly applied makeup, exposed copious amounts of flesh, and embodied a modern spirit for a new Jazz Age. To get a clear picture of this new woman, I’m going to include several direct quotes written by Bruce Bliven, a reporter for The New Republic. The article is entitled “Flapper Jane” and first appeared in the September 9, 1925 issue. Mr. Bliven writes:

Beauty is the fashion in 1925. She is frankly, heavily made up, not to imitate nature, but for an altogether artificial effect—pallor mortis, poisonously scarlet lips, richly ringed eyes—the latter looking not so much debauched (which is the intention) as diabetic. Her walk duplicates the swagger supposed by innocent America to go with the female half of a Paris Apache dance. And there are, finally, her clothes…

If you’d like to know exactly, it is: one dress, one step-in, two stockings, two shoes. A step in, if you are 99 and 44/100ths percent ignorant, is underwear—one piece, light, exceedingly brief but roomy. Her dress, as you can’t possibly help knowing if you have even one good eye, and get around at all outside the Old People’s Home, is also brief…Jane’s haircut is also abbreviated. She wears of course the very newest thing in bobs, even closer than last year’s shingle. It leaves her just about no hair at all in back, and 20 percent more than that in front—about as much as is being worn this season by a male cellist; less than a pianist; and much, much less than a violinist. Because of this new style, one can confirm a rumor heard last year: Jane has ears (Bliven 1-3)


Beyond his physical description of Flapper Jane, Bliven draws several conclusions about her personality that are relevant to this discussion. He sees his stereotypical woman as one who has come down off her pedestal, who is earning her own living, voting, and behaving independently. He also reasons that this is a woman that still wants to be loved, but on a “50-50 basis”, which would include being admired for the qualities she really possesses, rather than the ones tradition has taught her to possess. This is a single woman who believes she should be able to do everything a single man does, who is resolved to be treated the way men are treated (Bliven 4,5).

Ernest Hemingway was totally immersed in this culture when he began serious work as a literary artist somewhere around 1925 in Paris. Many of the traits ascribed to the “flapper” were characteristics of the women he associated with on a daily basis. Much of the fashion sense of the Jazz Age originated in Paris and much of the philosophy behind the new “feminism” was generated by Hemingway’s contemporary expatriates in Paris cafes.

A young writer with a brilliant ability to accurately describe the world around him, who has had the opportunity of being raised emotionally by three exceptional women, suddenly finds himself in a culture of change, of disillusionment, of rebellion, and moral shallowness. Are we then to conclude that he misses everything he sees, forgets everything he has learned, and proceeds down the path of misogyny on his own personal quest to find the perfect male hero? Is it reasonable to assume that, with everything happening around him regarding the female gender, Hemingway ignores it all to take the position that female characters in fiction are nothing more than devices for men?                                                                


The Sun Also Rises on One True Sentence.


             By the time Hemingway began work on his first novel, The Sun Also Rises, he had already developed the philosophy of writing that elevated him above his peers. He said, “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know” (Baker 112). Proceeding with that thought in mind, he wrote each story in his career by building one true sentence on top of another. This is an important concept, especially in his early years, because it allows us to understand how zealously the writer attempted to develop accurate characters and a believable persona for those characters. When Brett Ashley is born in The Sun Also Rises , it is with the idea that she would be whole and true to the story like the male characters, not with the idea that she would be a device for Jake Barnes to deliver his angst ridden male monologues through.

            On the other hand, Hemingway was also a writer who wrote from personal experience. At the time he wrote this novel, his relationship with Hadley was deteriorating. He had developed an infatuation with Lady Duff Twysden, who bears a remarkable physical resemblance to the character of Lady Brett Ashley. She wore dark brown hair, closely cropped, and favored loosely cut men’s sweaters for fashion. She also had a group of homosexual men who followed her around as if they were temple prostitutes serving her, the high priestess of haut culture (Kent 157).

            I found no records that indicated Hemingway ever consummated his relationship with Lady Duff Twysden. However, he did spend a lot of time with her and a circle of friends that included her fiancé Pat Guthrie, Harold Loeb, and Bill Smith. In 1925, all of them went to Pamplona, Spain along with Ernest and Hadley to participate in the fiesta of San Fermin and the running of the bulls. The interaction between the group and the personalities that made up the group stimulated the genesis in Hemingway’s mind of The Sun Also Rises.  Some of the incidents in the book correlate exactly to occurrences during the real festival and the line between fact and fiction becomes very blurred. As a matter of fact, he started work on this novel less than two weeks after the festival ended and by the end of the fourth week, had 250 pages of notes and prose depicting various scenes from Pamplona (Baker 199).

            How is it possible to know Hemingway’s intentions toward and understanding of women when he developed the character of Brett in this famous story? The best way to draw conclusions in that regard may be to consider what his own notes specify in the early outline. His opening pages for the story stated that the project was going to be a novel about a lady. She would be living in Paris, traveling Europe, and searching for herself. The story would be both romantic and highly moral (Baker 198). Hemingway’s first major creative work was initially designed to have a female protagonist, fully developed emotionally and with high moral values. Most writers with a misogynistic or anti-feminist agenda aren’t known to start writing books that intend to elevate the female character to a central point in the story and make her morally more relevant than the male characters.

            It is factual that the finished product portrays Lady Brett as an alcoholic and androgynous near nymphomaniac who is self-indulgent and passionate about two things, sex and control. This would seem to be at considerable odds with the original premise, but isn’t really, if we look at the paradox that often arises in great literature. Artistic writing starts with an inspired seed and grows in a definite direction. Somewhere, in the growth process, the seed becomes its own entity and the writer discovers that the movement of it may be in a very different direction than originally considered. He begins to see the story in much the same way the first- time reader does, wondering what the characters may do next. In Hemingway’s case, this was an author who religiously strived to write “one true sentence” after another. As The Sun Also Rises progressed, the focus changed under its own impetus from the trials and tribulations of a lady heroine to an examination of what it took to be a man in post war society because Hemingway was trying to write the story true to his own artistic vision and voice.

Four flawed examples of manhood are studied, one in each male that has a relationship with Brett Ashley. Four flawed aspects of womanhood are not studied in relation to a single fully developed male character. Not only are the flaws of each male character examined, but the positive quality that draws Brett to each one is exposed as well, often through Brett’s own voice.  This indicates to me that Hemingway saw women as persons who could stimulate and help define what is important about being a man in a time when the illusions of manhood had been shattered by the events of the First World War. If he had no respect or concern for women, it is unreasonable to conclude that any would be given such a pivotal role in his artistic endeavors. The fact that Lady Brett comes off as less than a perfect romantic ideal of womanhood may simply be relegated to the author’s desire to make her real, to make her accurate, to make her true.

Consider Brett’s evolution, or dissolution depending on your viewpoint, through the perception of Jake Barnes, the narrator and impotent lover in The Sun Also Rises, and through Brett’s self-image as well. It is implied in the story that Jake fell in love with her some years earlier and has remained that way. However, Jake has been wounded in a freak accident during the war and completely emasculated. He has no desire or capability for sex, only an uncontrollable and irresolvable love.

Circumstance has forced them to create a new relationship. They are best friends, a situation over which both agonize as the story progresses because Brett is equally in love with Jake. The difference is in the level of self-awareness and honesty. The female character is conscious of an emotional state that will not allow her to live a sexless life and well controlled enough to keep that resolve no matter how much she wishes otherwise. The male character, Jake, continues to fight against the inevitable until the story concludes.

When we physically meet Brett the first time, it is through Jake’s eyes. He is an American expatriate living in Paris in the decade after WWI. On a warm spring night, Jake decides to hire a prostitute for company and go dancing at a bar where he finds some friends. During the course of the evening Brett arrives unexpectedly in the company of homosexual men. Jake narrates the scene:

Two taxis were coming down the street. They both stopped stopped in front of the Bal. A crowd of young men, some in jerseys and some in shirtsleeves, got out. I could see their hands and newly washed, wavy hair in the light from the door. The policeman standing by the door looked at me and smiled. They came in…With them was Brett. She looked very lovely and was very much with them (Hemingway 20).


             Again, during the same scene, Jake observes her effect on Robert Cohn, one of the other three men who have already or will fall in love with Brett, as Cohn sees her for the first time. Jake’s observation also reminds him of his own physical attraction to Brett.

She stood holding the glass and I saw Robert Cohn looking at her. He looked a great deal as his compatriot must have looked when he saw the promised land. Cohn, of course, was much younger. But he had that look of eager, deserving expectation. Brett was damn good-looking. She wore a slipover jersey sweater and a tweed skirt, and her hair was brushed back like a boy’s. She started all that (i.e. Hemingway’s reference to the androgynous flapper look). She was built with curves like the hull of a racing yacht, and you missed none of it with that wool jersey (Hemingway 22).


            It would be proper in today’s over-sensitive culture to extract this passage and make the statement that the author was demeaning this woman character and by extension all women, creating a sex object for the physical pleasure of men. It would be proper and accurate as long as it is taken out of context. Once we put the statement in context and understand through the course of the story that this physical beauty is but one of Brett’s positive qualities, then we understand that Hemingway was describing, not editorializing or politicizing, his character. Over the next roughly two hundred pages, we also learn that she was an efficient and compassionate nurse during the war, that she loves mothering people, and that she desires to maintain self-respect along with a values system. She is a heroine that has suffered much and endured much, a complex person (Gladstein 60). Not only does Brett develop as a three-dimensional character rather than a stereotype, she has an equally acute appreciation of physical beauty in men. Consider the first time she sees Pedro Romero, the nineteen-year-old bullfighter who will become her lover:

The bull-fight on the second day was much better than on the first. Brett sat between Mike and me at the barrera…Romaro was the whole show. I do not think Brett saw any other bull-fighter…She saw why she liked Romero’s cape-work and why she did not like the others…Brett saw something that was beautiful… “I’ve never seen him do an awkward thing,” Brett said… “and God, what looks.” (Hemingway 168)


            It might be reasonable here to say that Brett is, on occasion, willing to view men as sex objects. She is willing to reduce the male gender to their animal qualities of grace, courage, and athletic prowess because it is the way her persona has grown to react initially toward men through the course of the story. It is the personality of her character. Do passages like this indicate that the author has now become a man-hater since his female protagonist degrades and disrespects men, often judging them on their physical attributes? That seems to be quite a stretch in even the most fertile of imaginations.

            Hemingway wants Brett Ashley to have redeeming qualities. He needs her to be human and realistic and believable if the story is going to work at all. Not only does he have no inclination in 1925 how the feminist movement will progress in the latter half of the 20th century, but the idea that he should have is not even a relevant consideration to the story. He is creating specific people in specific circumstances within a limited frame of reference. The fact that Brett Ashley has compassion, among other positive attributes, indicates the author’s respect for her gender. There is a scene between Jake and Brett that gives us a glimpse into her soul:

Brett came in and sat in the bed. “Poor old darling.” She stroked my head. Then later: “Do you feel better darling? Is the head any better?”

“It’s better.”

“Lie quiet. He’s gone to the other side of town.”

“Couldn’t we just live together, Brett? Couldn’t we just live together?”

“I don’t think so. I’d just tromper you with everybody. You couldn’t

stand it.”

“I stand it now.”

“That would be different. It’s my fault Jake. It’s the way I’m made.”

“Couldn’t we go off to the country for a while?”

“It wouldn’t do any good. I’ll go if you like. But I couldn’t live quietly in the country. Not with my own true love.”

“I know.”

“Isn’t it rotten. There’s no use my telling you I love you”(Hemingway 55).



            If the author had a conscious desire to forward an anti-feminine agenda, would he have included scenes that make the reader sympathetic toward his female character at all? If he had an unconscious hatred of women, or felt that women were less than human or inferior to males, would his masculine hero show the attitude that Jake Barnes displays toward Brett and women in general?

Women made such swell friends. Awfully swell. In the first place, you had to be in love with a woman to have a basis of friendship. I had been having Brett for a friend. I had not been thinking about her side of it. I had been getting something for nothing (italics mine). That only delayed the presentation of the bill. The bill always came…I had paid for everything. Not like the woman pays and pays and pays. No idea of retribution or punishment. Just exchange of values. You gave up something and got something else. Or you worked for something. You paid some way for everything that was good (Hemingway 148).


            It may be appropriate at this time to consider the major female character in another early Hemingway novel, A Farewell to Arms. Catherine Barkley is much more shallow than Brett Ashley. She is the emotionally underdeveloped, almost stereotypical image of the naïve female prior to and during WWI. Her child-like conversation with her lover indicates the reality of war crushing her entire value system, while she tries desperately to cling to the delusion of a pre-war innocence. At this point in the book, Catherine has already lost one fiancé who was killed in battle and is currently pregnant by the novel’s protagonist.

She saw herself in one of the mirrors and put her hands to her hair. I saw her in three other mirrors. She did not look happy. She let her cape fall on the bed.

            “What’s the matter darling?”

            “I never felt like a whore before,” she said. I went over to the window and pulled the curtain aside and looked out. I had not thought it would be like this.

            “You’re not a whore.”

            “I know it, darling. But it isn’t nice to feel like one.” Her voice was dry and flat.

            “This was the best hotel we could get in,” I said. I looked out the window. Across the square were the lights of the station. There were carriages going by on the street and I saw trees in the park. The lights from the hotel shone on the wet pavement. Oh, hell, I thought, do we have to argue now?

            “Come over here please,” Catherine said. The flatness was all gone out of her voice. “Come over, please. I’m a good girl again.” (italics mine) I looked over at the bed. She was smiling (Hemingway 152).


            There are two primary considerations here. First of all, Hemingway wrote this book after, not before, he wrote The Sun Also Rises. Therefore, his portrayal of Catherine Barkley was an intentional attempt to make a statement. This was the way women reacted to WWI. They often went from sheltered, isolated, and underdeveloped personalities to jaded and cynical creatures just like his male characters. Secondly, the fact that this story ends with the death of both Catherine Barkley and her child is a metaphorical indication that the author saw the end of a way of life and the end of innocence. Nothing indicates he was trying to make a statement that women were somehow inferior to men. Both genders had become the victims of a horrible tragedy beyond their control. The protagonist does not walk away from the hospital with any sense of relief that he is free from the responsibility of caring for a weak woman and a newborn child. Neither is there a sense of masculine fulfillment or joy. “I…shut the door and turned on the light and it wasn’t any good. It was like saying goodbye to a statue. After awhile I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain” (Hemingway 332).


What It All Means.


            The Bible holds the distinction of being a book with something in it for everybody. One of the reasons it holds that distinction rests on the issue of historical context. Anything and everything can be taken out of context during a given era to prove or disprove popular doctrine and theory. That has always been and will remain both the wonder and the curse of seeing the Bible with an absolute eye. Sight is focused on one objective while entire scenes rush past unheeded.

            No intelligent person would make the claim that 20th century American writers have created literature that rivals the Bible, but the written word does not necessarily have to be divinely inspired to leave itself open for misinterpretation. Unless our culture develops a tool that allows scholars and critics the opportunity to place themselves as neuro-transmitters inside the minds of dead authors, it seems unlikely that we will be able to go beyond relative and personal interpretations of the words they write. If that is to be the case, it remains a serious responsibility to cradle that relativity in the arms of objective study. Being objective means, in part, realizing that all issues have at least two sides, that historical context plays a major role in comprehending what has been written during the era, and that we always bring some personal bias to the discussion table.           

            Regarding Ernest Miller Hemingway and whether or not he was a misogynistic writer of disillusioned, over-masculine, romantic fiction or a writer of great, enduring literature, one question haunts me. Is it possible for an author whose primary function is to tell stories artistically and write “one true sentence” after another to create the persona in those stories, not as they were at time of writing, but as our society would have them be sixty years in the future? The answer for Moses, Jeremiah, and Isaiah is maybe. The answer for Hemingway lies in Jake Barnes’ conclusion at the end of The Sun Also Rises,  “Isn’t it pretty to think so.”
















{C}1.      Baker, Carlos.  Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story.  Avon.  New York, NY.  1968

{C}2.      Bliven, Bruce.  “Flapper Jane.”  The New Republic  9 Sept. 1925 http://www.pandoras

{C}3.      Cunnea, Barabara.  N.O.W. Statement of Purpose.  Washington, D.C.  29 Oct. 1966.

{C}4.      Gladstein, Mimi.  The Indestructible Women in Faulkner, Hemingway, and Steinbeck.  UMI Research Press.  Ann Arbor, MI.  1986

{C}5.      Hemingway, Ernest.  A Farewell to Arms.  Scribner.  New York, NY.  1929

{C}6.      Hemingway, Ernest.  The Sun Also Rises.  Scribner.  New York, NY.  1926

{C}7.      Kent, Bernice.  The Hemingway Women.  Norton.  New York, NY.  1983

{C}8.      Silverstein, Joshua.  The Importance of Being Ernest: Hemingway’s Truth in Fiction and  His Fiction in Truth.  1998.






Never Such Innocence Again

(delivered at the Literature, Film, and War Conference, SUNY, Binghamton, 2006)





                        Those long uneven lines

                        Standing as patiently

                        As if they were stretched outside

                        The Oval or Villa Park,

                        The crowns of hats, the sun

                        On moustached archaic faces

                        Grinning as if it were all

                        An August Bank Holiday lark…


                                                       …the pubs

                        Wide open all day….


                        The differently-dressed servants

                        With tiny rooms in huge houses,

                        The dust behind limousines…


                        Never before or since,

                        As changed itself to past

                        Without a word—the men

                        Leaving the garden tidy,

                        The thousands of marriages

                        Lasting a little while longer:

                        Never such innocence again.


                                                   - Phillip Larkin


            This poem was written in the early 1960’s by Philip Larkin, a warning because the world once again seemed prepared to enter a catastrophic war by trotting out the worn rhetoric of World War I. The United States and the Soviet Union had recently brought the world to the edge of nuclear annihilation with the Cuban Missle Crisis. The British had almost started WWIII with the Suez Canal Crisis. The Arabs and Israelis were at war while the U.S. was preparing to escalate a war against a third world country that would result in 58,000 young Americans and millions of Vietnamese dead. Larkin begs us all not to be so naïve as to think war was somehow glorious, righteous, honorable, or even fun. He tells us don’t have the innocence again that once left eight million men dead on the battlefields of Europe during WWI.

The First World War began with a child-like innocence. Except for Hardy and a few others, much of the pre-war literature displayed remarkably light, almost celebratory, images of soldiers. Consider how Larkin mocks that language in his poem. “Grinning as if it were all / An August Bank Holiday  lark…”, of “…the pubs wide open all day…” , or “…thousands of marriages / Lasting a little while longer…”[i] as if war might in fact be a game played in some park before dinner each day.

            The language that fueled the slaughter was abstract, vague and untenable. Look at the second poem on your handout. It isn’t literature. Such rhetoric only appears today during patriotic celebrations to incite people to follow an often unjustifiable cause. As writers, our innocence has been eternally lost and poets, especially poets with combat experience, have a personal responsibility to avoid such language since we’ve become aware of its dangers. Now, this idea that poets became disillusioned after WW I, is certainly not a new one. Most of you are probably more familiar with some of the aesthetics behind this literary loss of innocence than I am. Philip Larkin was surely aware of the disenchantment with abstractions and romantic ideals in 1964. But, he sensed a need to remind us how we found ourselves in a position to be disillusioned, so we might not repeat the process and maybe it’s worthwhile to review it once again.

            Europe of the early 20th century was peopled by romantics. The history books and literature were filled with the deeds of knights-errant, the self-sacrifice of Christian warriors on a quest, and the chastity of beautiful woman waiting to be rescued from evil.[ii] According to historian Paul Fussell, military tradition and the ritual of righteous war permeated the very fabric of British, French, and German society, and extended to their families who had immigrated to America. No one who lived in 1914 had reason to believe words like shell shock, desertion, mutiny, and mass destruction would be common phrases by 1918.

For the poets of WWI, the illusion created by abstract language quickly became dis-illusion. When Robert Graves writes “Here by a snow bound river/ in scrapen holes we shiver”[iii] or poet David Jones writes “so soon the darking flood percolates and he dies in your arms”[iv] or poet Isaac Rosenberg writes “A man’s brains splattered/ on a stretcher bearer’s face”[v] then words like glory, honor, and courage gave way to despair on a terrible scale. Innocence died. Consider this longer excerpt from, Dulce Et Decorum Est, by Wilfred Owen as he reflects on the experience of watching a comrade die from an enemy gas attack:

                        If in some smothering dreams you too could pace

Behind the wagon that we flung him in,

And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,

His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gurgling from the froth-corrupted lungs,

Obscene as cancer, bitter at the cud

Of vile, in curable sores on innocent tongues, -

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old lie: Dulce et decorum est

Pro patria mori.[vi]


            The innocent ideal of dying coined by Horace and memorized by British schoolboys that it is somehow sweet and fitting to die for your country has become a lie. There is no glory when exhausted men crawl from filthy trenches to be slaughtered by machine gun fire. It takes no courage to lie in a wagon bed and choke on your own blood. Most importantly, there is no honor in furthering the illusion of righteous war once that illusion is shattered. It is a sentiment repeated by Ezra Pound in Homage to Hugh Selwyn Mauberly when Pound writes in the last stanza – There died a myriad/and of the best, among them,/for an old bitch gone in the teeth/for a botched civilization. Hemingway’s novel, A Farewell to Arms, turns on this point, and it is the same point Larkin makes forty years later when he says “never such innocence again.”

The few that lived through the carnage were never the same. They struggled with the knowledge that all they had been taught before the war was, false without any understanding of the human animal’s capacity for savagery. Later, on reflection, this situation seems even worse, as in Edmund Blunden’s poem, 1916 seen from 1921:

            Tired with dull grief, grown old before my day,

            I sit in solitude and only hear

            Long silent laughter, murmurings of dismay,

            The lost intensities of hopes and fear;

            In those old marshes yet the rifles lie,

            On the thin breastwork flutter the gray rags,

            The very books I read are there – and I

            Dead as the men I loved, wait while life drags

            Its wounded length from those sad streets of war

            Into green places here, that were my own;

            But now what once was mine is mine no more,

            I seek such neighbors here and I find none.

            With such string gentleness and tireless will,

            Those ruined houses seared themselves in me,

            Passionate I look for their dumb story still,

            And the charred stub out speaks the living tree.[vii]


A combat weary veteran, Blunden is isolated, hears only “dismay” and is “dead as the men” he loved. The intensity of hope and fear that young men often express lays on the “old marshes” with abandoned rifles and discarded books, books of romantic poems and stories that he and many other young men read in order to stave off the reality of trench warfare. Again, historian Paul Fussell makes the point in his seminal book The Great War and Modern Memory that young soldiers often carried books full of poems either in their knapsacks, or memorized in their heads. The rifles are the instruments that rendered the hope and glory of the books meaningless. Now, both images remain in Blunden’s consciousness, a reminder that “what once was mine is mine no more.”  

Similarly, when the peace and prosperity of the 1950’s lulled Americans into a false naiveté, causing a monumental memory lapse regarding the insanity of war, this country slipped into the fourteen-year quagmire of Vietnam. Initially, those of us raised on John Wayne movies and the exploits of Audie Murphy charged forward like Wilfred Owen and Edmund Blunden had done fifty years before. In our arrogance and delusions of a glorious war we were willing to sacrifice all for the idea that freedom is synonymous with Americanization. Infantrymen, who served with the U.S. Army in the late- 1960’s in Vietnam wrote the following two poems. The first is from Pulitzer Prize winner Yusef Komunyakaa:

                        “You and I Are Disappearing”

                                    The cry I bring down from the hills

                                    belongs to a girl still burning

                                    inside my head. At daybreak

                                             she burns like a piece of paper.

                                    She burns like foxfire

                                    in a thigh-shaped valley.

                                    A skirt of flames

                                    dances around her

                                    at dusk.

                                                 We stand with our hands

                                    hanging at our sides,

                                    while she burns

                                                 like a sack of dry ice.

                                    She burns like oil on water.

                                    She burns like a cattail torch

                                    dipped in gasoline.

                                    She glows like the fat tip

                                    of a banker’s cigar,

                                           silent as quicksilver.

                                    A tiger under a rainbow

                                       at nightfall.

                                    She burns like a shot glass of vodka.

                                    She burns like a field of poppies

                                    at the edge of a rainforest.

                                    She rises like dragonsmoke

                                         to my nostrils.

                                    She burns like a burning bush

                                    driven by a godawful wind.[viii]


            One of the main differences between this poem and Dulce Et Decorum Est lies in Komunyakaa’s lack of an emotional arc. Where Owens comes to the epiphany that the romantic ideas of war he’s been taught are a lie, Komunyakaa suffers from no such illusion. His poem is a straightforward description of a horrible event that ends with a cynical religious allusion, a burning bush “driven by a godawful wind.” It lacks the discovery that Owens’ poem makes and the reason is not because one poem is superior to the other. Owens seeks resolution, understanding, closure. Komunyakaa describes what is. He begins the poem by accepting man’s inhumanity to man and acknowledging that he must constantly carry the burden of that lack of innocence. “The cry I bring down from the hills/ belongs to a girl still burning/ inside my head. Had this statement appeared later in context, we might have been able to argue that the poet has his romantic illusions shattered as he discovers that war involves the indiscriminant slaughter of innocent people. However, Komunyakaa’s tone from this point forward in the poem is so matter-of-fact, as if he already expected what he saw.

            Five years after the fact, Blunden remained embittered in 1916 seen from 1921. Bruce Weigl, a Vietnam veteran had put twenty years between himself and his war when he wrote the title poem for his famous collection Song of Napalm. Does the old saying “time heals all wounds” apply to the wounding of innocence? Evidently not, if we can believe Weigl:

                                    After the storm, after the rain stopped pounding,

                                    we stood in the doorway watching horses

                                    walk off lazily across the pasture’s hill.

                                    We stared through the black screen,

                                    our vision altered by distance so I thought

                                    I saw a mist kicked up around their hooves

                                    when they faded like cut-out horses away from us.

The grass was never more blue in that light

more scarlet; beyond the pasture

trees scraped their voices into the wind,

branches crisscrossed the sky like barbed wire

but you said they were only branches.


Okay. The storm stopped pounding.

I am trying to say this straight: for once

I was sane enough to pause and breathe

outside my wild plans and after the hard rain

I turned my back on the old curses.

I believed they swung finally away from me…


But still the branches are wire

and thunder is the pounding mortar,

still I close my eyes and see the girl

running from her village, napalm

stuck to her dress like jelly, her hands

reaching for the no one

who waits in waves of heat before her.


So I can keep on living,

so I can stay here beside you, I try

to imagine she runs down the road

and wings beat inside her till she rises

above the stinking jungle and her pain

eases, and your pain, and mine.


But the lie swings back again.

The lie works only as long as it takes

to speak and the girl runs only as far

as the napalm allows until her burning tendons

and crackling muscles draw her up

into that final position burning bodies

so perfectly assume. Nothing

can change that, she is burned behind my eyes

and not your good love and not the rain-swept air

and not the jungle-green pasture

unfolding before us can deny it.[ix]


            In this poem, no matter how hard the poet tries to distort the image of the girl burning to death into a pleasant scene of horses and fields and trees so he can turn away from the old curses, “the lie swings back again” and the pastoral security is gone forever. Metaphorically that scene is innocence. Weigl tries his utmost to find it, but any attempt is merely self-deception. “The lie works only as long as it takes to speak…” It is not as if he wants to remain tortured by his memories, disillusioned and alienated from all he loves, but just as when Komunyakaa in the midst of a napalm attack comes down from his hill of innocence with the “girl still burning” inside his head, so Weigl must carry another dead girl who is burned behind his eyes forever.

            The overwhelming advances in killing technology, the stupidity of leadership, the de-sanctification of human life, the greed and arrogance, the dissipation of morality, the nationalistic fervor, and the language that poets and respected writers used to describe these things as justified before and during the early part of WWI, all played a role in destroying our cultural innocence. It remains dead today.

Here, Bullet

By Brian Turner, 3rd Stryker Combat Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division - Iraq

If a body is what you want
then here is bone and gristle and flesh.
Here is the clavicle-snapped wish,
the aorta's opened valves, the leap
thought makes at the synaptic gap.
Here is the adrenaline rush you crave,
that inexorable flight, that insane puncture
into heat and blood. And I dare you to finish
what you've started. Because here, Bullet,
here is where I complete the word you bring
hissing through the air, here is where I moan
the barrel's cold esophagus, triggering
my tongue's explosives for the rifling I have
inside of me, each twist of the round
spun deeper, because here, Bullet,
here is where the world ends, every time.


Art is the illusion of reality. The better the illusion, the better the art. It seems to me to be a recurring task of the poet to remind us all in the most accurate terms possible of the realities of war – the power of the individual and the responsibilities that entails –  even if no one listens.


[i] Larkin, “MCMXIV” in The Great War and Modern Memory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975), 19.

[ii] Fussell, The Great war and Modern Memory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975), 22.

[iii] Graves, “To Robert Nichols” in The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry (London: Penguin Group 1979), 121.

[iv] Jones, “In Parenthesis” ibid. 180.

[v] Rosenberg “Dead Man’s Dump” ibid. 222.

[vi] Owen, “Dulce Et Decorum Est”  ibid. 193.

[vii]  Blunden “1916 seen from 1921” ibid. 112.

[viii] Komunyakaa, “You and I Are Disappearing” in Contemporary American Poetry (Houghton Mifflin: Boston, 1996), 306.

[ix] Weigl, “Song of Napalm” in Song of Napalm (New York: Atlantic, 1988), 27.