Literature, it appears, is here measured by a yard-stick. As soon as “The Sun Also Rises” came out, Ernest Hemingway was the white-haired boy. He was praised, adored, analyzed, best-sold, argued about, and banned in Boston; all the trimmings were accorded him. People got into feuds about whether or not his story was worth the telling. (You see this silver scar left by a bullet, right up here under my hair? I got that the night I said that any well-told story was worth the telling. An eighth of an inch nearer the temple, and I wouldn’t be sitting here doing this sort of tripe.) They affirmed, and passionately, that the dissolute expatriates in this novel of “a lost generation” were not worth bothering about; and then they devoted most of their time to discussing them. There was a time, and it went on for weeks, when you could go nowhere without hearing of “The Sun Also Rises.” Some thought it without excuse; and some, they of the cool, tall foreheads, called it the greatest American novel, tossing “Huckleberry Finn” and “The Scarlet Letter” lightly out the window. They hated it or they revered it. I may say, with due respect to Mr. Hemingway, that I was never so sick of a book in my life.
Now “The Sun Also Rises” was as “starkly” written as Mr. Hemingway’s short stories; it dealt with subjects as “unpleasant.” Why it should have been taken to the slightly damp bosom of the public while the (as it seems to me) superb “In Our Time” should have been disregarded will always be a puzzle to me. As I see it—I knew this conversation would get back to me sooner or later, preferably sooner—Mr. Hemingway’s style, this prose stripped to its firm young bones, is far more effective, far more moving, in the short story than in the novel. He is, to me, the greatest living writer of short stories; he is, also to me, not the greatest living novelist.
After all the high screaming about “The Sun Also Rises,” I feared for Mr. Hemingway’s next book. You know how it is—as soon as they all start acclaiming a writer, that writer is just about to slip downward. The littler critics circle like literary buzzards above only the sick lions.
So it is a warm gratification to find the new Hemingway book, “Men Without Women,” a truly magnificent work. It is composed of thirteen short stories, most of which have been published before. They are sad and terrible stories; the author’s enormous appetite for life seems to have been somehow appeased. You find here little of that peaceful ecstasy that marked the camping trip in “The Sun Also Rises” and the lone fisherman’s days in “Big Two-Hearted River,” in “In Our Time.” The stories include “The Killers,” which seems to me one of the four great American short stories. (All you have to do is drop the nearest hat, and I’ll tell you what I think the others are. They are Wilbur Daniel Steele’s “Blue Murder,” Sherwood Anderson’s “I’m a Fool,” and Ring Lardner’s “Some Like Them Cold,” that story which seems to me as shrewd a picture of every woman at some time as is Chekhov’s “The Darling.” Now what do you like best?) The book also includes “Fifty Grand,” “In Another Country,” and the delicate and tragic “Hills Like White Elephants.” I do not know where a greater collection of stories can be found.
Ford Madox Ford has said of this author, “Hemingway writes like an angel.” I take issue (there is nothing better for that morning headache than taking a little issue). Hemingway writes like a human being. I think it is impossible for him to write of any event at which he has not been present; his is, then, a reportorial talent, just as Sinclair Lewis’s is. But, or so I think, Lewis remains a reporter and Hemingway stands a genius because Hemingway has an unerring sense of selection. He discards details with a magnificent lavishness; he keeps his words to their short path. His is, as any reader knows, a dangerous influence. The simple thing he does looks so easy to do. But look at the boys who try to do it.