May 21, 2013 at 3:54 pm

Holcomb Uncovers Links Between Ernest Hemingway and American Black Writers

Nov. 8, 2011—He was the larger-than-life literary icon who, in the 1930s and 1940s, was considered to be the greatest living writer of prose fiction. He was a risk-taker with an unslakable thirst for adventure. He drove an ambulance in the Great War and was seriously wounded. He loved boxing and bullfighting and being where the action was. And after his reputation was established with the publication of The Sun Also Rises, in 1926, Ernest Hemingway became the spokesperson for the post–World War I generation of writers.

In his studies of the Harlem Renaissance, a cultural movement that spanned the 1920s and 1930s, Ohio University’s Dr. Gary Holcomb, Professor of African American Literature in African American Studies, became interested in Hemingway’s influence on several of its writers, especially the Jamaican-American writer Claude McKay. This work led him to ask two broader questions: Exactly what was Hemingway’s influence on black writers of this time and in the decades that followed the Harlem Renaissance? And how, conversely, did these black writers influence Hemingway?

What specifically interested Holcomb, an associate professor of African American literature in the Americas, is what he calls the “conversation,” or “inter-textuality,” that occurs between black writers and Hemingway in their fiction.

“Five years ago, I noticed that the Hemingway Society was looking for someone to do a panel at the next Modern Language Association conference, something on new directions in Hemingway studies. So I organized a section on Hemingway and black writers,” says Holcomb, who has published a book on Claude McKay’s work, as well as a dozen journal articles and book chapters on African-American writing.

The panel attracted a wide range of literary scholars, several of whom encouraged Holcomb to publish an anthology on the subject. The highly respected black literary scholar Charles Scruggs, an English professor at the University of Arizona, was particularly excited about this project, so Holcomb asked him to be co-editor.

What resulted is Hemingway and the Black Renaissance, which includes 10 essays on literary connections between Hemingway and McKay, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison (one of Hemingway’s more vocal critics), and others. The book will be published in March 2012 by Ohio State University Press.

Holcomb’s contribution to the collection covers McKay, the first black writer to publish a novel, Home to Harlem, that made the best-seller lists in the United States. “He wrote the first book of poetry identified with the Harlem Renaissance, a book that expressed the righteous anger of blacks living in New York,” Holcomb says. “He was the first poet acclaimed for his writing in Jamaican dialect and the first black writer to receive the Medal of the Jamaica Institute of Arts and Sciences.”

Holcomb gives a brief plot synopsis of Home to Harlem: “Jake, a young black man, joins the army in World War I, with the desire to go to Europe to fight for democracy. But he’s not permitted to fight; instead, he’s relegated to the servant class in the military and becomes so angry about this that he deserts. He travels first to Havre and then to London for a couple of years before he gets homesick and returns to Harlem.”

The first time he read McKay’s book, Holcomb was struck by various echoes from The Sun Also Rises, published two years before Home to Harlem.

“The protagonist of The Sun Also Rises, also named Jake, was, like McKay’s central character, an expatriate American in Europe. Both joined to fight in the Great War, underscoring their roles as men of action and consequence. Hemingway’s character suffers a war wound that causes him to be impotent, and so is emasculated by the war, as is McKay’s Jake, though not in a physical way.”

It’s clear that McKay admired Hemingway’s novel. In McKay’s memoir, A Long Way From Home, published in 1937, he wrote, “When Hemingway wrote The Sun Also Rises, he shot a fist in the face of the false romantic realists and said: ‘You can’t fake about life like that.’ He has most excellently quickened and enlarged my experience of social life.”

Holcomb picks up his copy of this memoir and reads from another section. “Ernest Hemingway was the most talked-about of young American writers when I arrived in Paris… and I must confess to a vast admiration for Ernest Hemingway.” McKay and other black writers of the time responded to Hemingway, Holcomb says, because he wrote with clarity, honesty, and courage that led to important insights into the American scene.

McKay and Hemingway met only once, Holcomb adds, introduced through a mutual friend, but no record exists of their conversation.

Holcomb stresses that the interchange between Hemingway’s writing and works by black authors is not unilateral—that Hemingway also was influenced by the work of Harlem Renaissance writers.

“Hemingway clearly had shared concerns and shared aesthetic approaches with many of the black writers he read,” says Holcomb. “As he was writing his first book, In Our Time, there is evidence that he was familiar with the most famous black novel of the time, Jean Toomer’s Cane, which was published in 1923 and, like Hemingway’s book, challenges the convention of the short story form.”

Later, in the 1930s and 1940s, Hemingway’s influence would be “unavoidable” for emerging black writers such as Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Ralph Ellison, Scruggs notes in his contribution to Hemingway and the Black Renaissance.

Wright is perhaps best-known for his novel Native Son (1940) and his semi-autobiographical Black Boy (1945). Baldwin’s first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, was published in 1953 and was soon followed by a collection of essays, Notes of a Native Son. Published in 1952, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man explores the theme of man’s search for his identity and place in society, as seen from the perspective of an unnamed black man in the New York City of the 1930s. This novel won the National Book Award in 1953.

“Although Wright, Baldwin, and Ellison would respond to (Hemingway’s) fiction in terms of their various thematic concerns, they all appropriated his existential theme of ‘a man alone,’ which Hemingway established in his novel To Have and Have Not,” Scruggs says.

In an interview, Wright, who had numerous Hemingway texts on his bookshelves, had high praise for his contemporary: “I like the work of Hemingway, of course. Who does not?”

“What he liked about Hemingway was his focus on the theme of loneliness,” Scruggs says. “The critic Jerry Bryant has noted that loneliness is a Wright trait, but it’s also clearly a Hemingway trait.”

Wright’s best-known novel, Native Son, also explores recurrent Hemingway themes.

“Native Son echoes Hemingway’s themes of violence, isolation, and dread,” Scruggs points out. “The Native American husband who slits his throat in Hemingway’s story ‘Indian Camp’ would influence Wright’s description of Bigger severing Mary’s head to fit her into the furnace. Similar grim imagery exists in Hemingway’s story ‘Alpine Idyll’ in which the Alpine woodsman living alone puts his dead wife in a shed and uses the face of her frozen carcass to hang his lantern.”

Less than six months after Hemingway committed suicide on July 2, 1961, James Baldwin wrote an article for the New York Times that assessed his indebtedness to four writers of the previous generation: Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Dos Passos, and Hemingway. He admitted his obligation to them, but believed that as their “descendants,” the ‘younger writers’ had to “go further than their elders went. It is the only way to keep faith with them.”

One way Baldwin kept the faith was by adopting and adapting a recurrent theme of Hemingway’s—the longing for refuge, especially a refuge for lovers.

In the vignette in In Our Time, Hemingway describes a house in which a wall is blown away by a bomb and “an iron bedstead hung twisted toward the street.” “This domestic detail is perhaps Hemingway’s most devastating comment on the war,” Scruggs says. “For what is destroyed is the very heart of the house itself. The war has murdered sleep, sex, and intimacy, themes that Hemingway returns to in A Farewell to Arms. In Baldwin’s fiction, Scruggs says, the theme of a longing for refuge appears in the story “The Outing,” Go Tell It on the Mountain, Giovanni’s Room, If Beale Street Could Talk, and Another Country.

But Baldwin was also critical of Hemingway. In his later fiction, seen especially in For Whom the Bells Tolls, Hemingway abdicated “the effort to understand the many-sided evil that is in the world,” Baldwin stated in an essay. He ended the piece by speaking directly to Hemingway’s pastoral theme, his idealization of rural life and nature. It is “time,” Baldwin said “to turn our backs forever on the big two-hearted river,” referring to Hemingway’s short story published in his first collection of stories, In Our Time. Baldwin felt that by the time of World War II had ended, with six million Jews slaughtered in Europe, Hemingway’s pastoral vision was no longer relevant, if it ever was, Scruggs notes.

In his contribution to the forthcoming collection, Joseph Fruscione of Georgetown University and George Washington University highlights the similarly complex relationship Ralph Ellison had with Hemingway’s work.

“On the one hand, Hemingway was one of Ellison’s most important literary ‘ancestors’—Ellison’s term,” Fruscione says. “Ellison embraced Hemingway’s influence, eagerly read his work, collected over a hundred media articles about Hemingway, taught his work as a visiting professor, and often praised him as a literary example.”

On the other hand, Fruscione points out, Ellison took issue with the problematic, limited portrayals of black characters in Hemingway’s work, as well as with what Ellison saw as Hemingway’s assessment of Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Ellison wrote that Hemingway was blind to the moral values of the book, dismissing the last section of Twain’s novel when Huck and Tom “steal” Jim out of slavery, calling that part “cheating.”

“In terms of artistry, Hemingway was a key exemplar for Ellison; in terms of racial portraiture and social awareness, Hemingway was an anti-exemplar for Ellison,” Fruscione says.

Ellison mentions Hemingway in several other essays, such as “Society, Morality, and the Novel,” “The World and the Jug,” “Twentieth-Century Fiction and the Black Mask of Humanity,” Fruscione adds.

Another indication that Ellison admired his literary ancestor is the fact that he retyped parts of some Hemingway texts, including “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” A Farewell to Arms, and For Whom the Bell Tolls. “Ellison did this to better learn Hemingway’s style,” Fruscione says. “And there are some annotations in the margins of a Hemingway retyping that show Ellison was studying the structure.”

A young Ellison saw a mature Hemingway speak in New York in 1937, but there is no evidence that the two ever met. There’s also no evidence, Fruscione says, that Hemingway read Ellison’s work. “Ellison’s rise after Invisible Man in 1952 coincided with Hemingway’s personal and professional decline,” he says.

In addition to Fruscione, Holcomb and Scruggs invited several other literary scholars to contribute essays to the forthcoming collection, including pieces that discuss the writers Langston Hughes and Toni Morrison. Not all essays in the book may agree on the connections between Hemingway and the black writers, Holcomb says, but he and Scruggs are eager to start a dialogue on the topic.

The collection diverges from conventional analysis of black literature, Holcomb notes, which has focused more on the influences and conversations that occurred only within the black writing community. The project is representative of a much larger trend in literary and African-American studies, he says, in which scholars are taking a new look at the influence of race, politics, and sexual orientation on the work of authors. Holcomb, for example, is developing a project that will expand the focus of his 2007 book Claude McKay, Code Name Sasha: Queer Black Marxism and the Harlem Renaissance, which will explore the issues of homosexuality and communism in the black literary community.

As for the Hemingway collection, Holcomb thinks that the time is right to give a wider audience to a subject that, until recently, was buried in the scholarly archives.

“Hemingway’s public persona overshadows his literary art,” he notes. “But if you go back in the archive and look at what these writers had to say, they weren’t concerned with his persona—they were interested in his text.”

Though Hemingway certainly wasn’t the only white influence upon black writers such as Wright, Baldwin, and Ellison, Scruggs adds, “Hemingway’s fiction, especially his writing about war as a metaphor for modern life, gave them a perspective and a method from which to launch their own equally brilliant fiction about America as ‘another country’ and their place within it.”

By Jeff Worley

This article appears in the Autumn/Winter 2011 issue of Perspectives magazine, which covers the research, scholarship, and creative activity of Ohio University faculty, staff, and students.

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