Hemingway's Photographic and Cinematic Style of Prose
November 5, 2007
ENGL 300 – Newcomb
Hemingway’s Photographic and Cinematic Style of Prose
Scholars of Ernest Hemingway’s written works often describe his distinct style of prose in similar ways. The copy on the back cover of Scribner’s 2003 edition of In Our Time calls Hemingway’s prose “simple and precise,” “lean, tough,” “short, declarative,” and “tough, terse.” Wikipedia authors write that “economy and understatement” characterize his works. These adjectives point assert that Hemingway uses few words to express complex ideas. Yet different critics interpret his use of his journalistic style in different ways. While some scholars, such as Kenneth G. Johnston, claim Hemingway’s brief descriptions show influence of post-impressionist paintings, others, like Ruben de Baerdemaeker, prefer to amplify his writing’s likeness to photographs. This essay adopts the latter stance, with the added provision of Zoe Trodd’s notion that Hemingway’s manner of description resembles not just photography, but also cinema. Thus, Hemingway’s writing exemplifies the tendency of Modernists to model their literary styles after machine-age inventions such as the motion picture.
Ruben de Baerdemaeker focuses his essay entitled “Performative Patterns in Hemingway’s ‘Soldier’s Home’” on the photographs mentioned at the story’s beginning:
There is a picture which shows him among his fraternity brothers, all of them wearing exactly the same height and style collar. . . There is a picture which shows him on the Rhine with two German girls and another corporal. Krebs and the corporal look too big for their uniforms. (Hemingway 69)
De Baerdemaeker’s essay illustrates the importance of these images, declaring that “These snapshots introduce the double backdrop against which Harold Krebs’s story will unfold, and they prefigure the antagonism that will direct its narrative” (56). His essay comments on the photos’ indication of male homosocial relations and how women fit into them (60), as well as the indications of sexual maturity implied in the phrase “too big for their uniforms” (64). The very fact of the photographs’ importance in the story spotlights Hemingway’s style because his prose describes the photographs in a photographic fashion. One looking at a picture can read into the captured image as much as he or she desires—which de Baerdemaeker does—but the fact of what is in picture remains. For example, one might interpret the boys’ identical collars as a symbol of oppressive conformity, or perhaps the collars could stand for male unity and comradery. Hemingway’s simple narration, however, refuses to interpret the identical collars in any manner, leaving readers the job of determining meaning from other contextual evidence. Likewise, photographs do not include written interpretations; they present viewers with an image and nothing more. By mentioning these two pictures, the text draws attention to his photographic narrative style and invites readers to compare other instances of In Our Time to photographic images.
Not all critics, however, view Hemingway’s writing as literary photography. Kenneth G. Johnston proposes that Hemingway’s best writing came after “he absorbed the lessons of [Paul] Cézanne and moved beyond . . . photographic realism” (37). He argues that comparing the description of Michigan in “Big Two-Hearted River” to photography simplifies Hemingway’s techniques because the writing resembles French post-impressionist paintings more than photographs. As evidence, Johnston points to a deleted section of the “Big Two-Hearted River,” where the protagonist “wanted to write like Cézanne painted. . . He, Nick, wanted to write about country so it would be like Cézanne had done it in painting” (31). At first, these references to Cézanne seem to prove Johnston’s point. Directly mentioning Cézanne seems to invite readers to compare Hemingway’s story to a painting. Yet a major hole fells Johnston’s logic: Hemingway discarded the section Johnston uses as proof. Whether intentional or unintentional, his authorial decision to retain the photographs in “Soldier’s Home” and to erase the allusions to Cézanne in “Big Two-Hearted River” enhances de Baerdemaeker’s argument at the expense of Johnston’s.
Critic Zoe Trodd picks up where de Baerdemaeker leaves off, agreeing that “across Hemingway’s work are the threads of. . . a one-shot photograph aesthetic,” but he also adds that Hemingway’s stories contain “a multi-shot film aesthetic” (13). To Trodd, Hemingway’s direct descriptions demonstrate the influence of more than just photography. Still photographs, in their motionlessness, fail to illustrate the dynamism in Hemingway’s prose. While a still captures an image of a single moment, cinema allows for movement. The description of protagonist Nick Adams’s physical characteristics and movements in the second paragraph of “The Battler” reveals the influence of both photography and cinematography:
He felt of his knee. The pants were torn and the skin was barked. His hands were scraped and there were sand and cinders driven up his nails. He went over to the edge of the track down the little slope to the water and washed his hands. He washed them carefully in the cold water, getting the dirt out from the nails. He squatted down and bathed his knee. (Hemingway 54)
The first sentence shows cinematic motion: Nick touches his hand to his knee. To use film studies lingo, one could interpret this sentence as a sort of “establishing shot” for the rest of the paragraph. It introduces us to the problem Nick will attempt to fix: his minor injury at the hands of a brakeman who threw him off a moving train. One can imagine a medium shot of an actor bending over and touching his scraped knee. The second sentence and third sentences draw readers away from the medium of cinema to that of photography because they offer images of Nick’s pants, knee, hands, and fingernails without showing movement. The fourth, fifth, and sixth sentences, however, resume the paragraph’s cinematic quality, each sentence signifying another shot.
Having established Nick’s appearance with simple photographic clarity, one can better imagine an actor’s gait as he walks to a water source, his hands in close-up as he washes them, and his knee filling the movie screen as he bathes it. Instead of bogging readers down with flowery adjectives, adverbs, and figures of speech, Hemingway provides just enough descriptive language for readers to create a mental picture of the situation. If he had written much more, he would have risked losing the simplicity of a moving image on a screen. Instead of imposing meaning, Hemingway allows for readers to form their own theories about Nick’s emotional state in the second paragraph of “The Battler.”
But what does In Our Time’s insistence on photographic and cinematic imagery really mean? Trodd believes Hemingway’s concise and imagistic writing addresses the loss of meaning in language caused by the anxiety that World War I left words meaningless. He quotes Henry James’s assertion that “The war has used up words; they have weakened. . . they have been more over-strained and knocked about and voided than in all the long ages before” (7). Hemingway must have found truth in this quote, because he left a copy of it in his manuscript for A Farewell to Arms. Thus, one can theorize that Hemingway’s prose embraces the new, modern inventions of photography and motion pictures because they represent the future instead of the past. If the actions of the past resulted in massive world conflict and loss of meaning in words, authors can logically desire to discard old literary practices borne of an era of destruction in favor of establishing techniques that create new, constructive meaning.
de Baerdemaeker, Ruben. "Performative Patterns in Hemingway’s ‘Soldier’s Home.’" Hemingway Review 27.1 (Fall 2007): 55-73. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. UIUC Library, Champaign, IL. 3 November 2007. <http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=27082239&site=ehost-live>.
“Ernest Hemingway.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 3 November 2007. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 3 November 2007. <http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Ernest_Hemingway&oldid=168883187>. Hemingway, Ernest. In Our Time. First Scribner trade paperback ed. New York: Scribner, 2003. Johnston, Kenneth G. "Hemingway and Cézanne: Doing the Country." American Literature 56.1 (Mar. 1984): 28. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. UIUC Library, Champaign, IL. 3 November 2007. <http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=10056195&site=ehost-live>.
Trodd, Zoe. "Hemingway’s Camera Eye: The Problem of Language and an Interwar Politics of Form." Hemingway Review 26.2 (Spring 2007): 7-21. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. UIUC Library, Champaign, IL. 3 November 2007. <http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=25060202&site=ehost-live>.