There is no doubt that Ernest Hemingway made important strides in the literature community throughout his lifetime. With various literary awards under his belt and fifteen different works published under his name, he was revered worldwide even after his tragic death in 1961.
But what made Hemingway so successful? What was it about his writing that intrigued and captivated his readers so much? And how can we aim for writing that mimics the appeal of a classic Hemingway story?
One of the many reasons why Hemingway’s work sits on a literary throne is because of his unique approach to writing. Rather than imitating the long, detail-packed writing of authors such as Mark Twain, Hemingway decided to do the polar opposite.
Here is an excerpt from one of Mark Twain’s most popular works, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.
“Tom said to himself that it was not such a hollow world, after all. He had discovered a great law of human action, without knowing it — namely, that in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain. If he had been a great and wise philosopher, like the writer of this book, he would now have comprehended that Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do. And this would help him to understand why constructing artificial flowers or performing on a tread-mill is work, while rolling ten-pins or climbing Mont Blanc is only amusement.” (Twain 33).
Now, take a look at this snippet of Ernest Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephants, a short story published in his collection Men Without Women.
“ ‘And you think then we’ll be alright and be happy.’
‘I know we will. You don’t have to be afraid. I’ve known lots of people that have done it.’
‘So have I,’ said the girl. ‘And afterwards they were all so happy.’
‘Well,’ the man said, ‘if you don’t want to you don’t have to. I wouldn’t have you do it if you didn’t want to. But I know it’s perfectly simple.’
‘And you really want to?’
‘I think it’s the best thing to do. But I don’t want you to do it if you don’t really want to.’
‘And if I do it you’ll be happy and things will be like they were and you’ll love me?’
‘I love you now. You know I love you.’ ”
The difference between these two pieces is simple: Hemingway stories can be like a puzzle. He won’t reveal how the characters are feeling, because it is up to us to figure it out through the context clues sprinkled throughout the story. And in the end, the meaning behind Hills Like White Elephants still has readers and literary analyzers alike talking and debating about what the girl was troubled with and what the couple decided to do.
In the previous Mark Twain excerpt, however, we know exactly what the character Tom is feeling and thinking, and we get a beautiful description on how he views life, work, and play.
Hemingway doesn’t do this for most of the characters in his stories. Rather than giving the reader insight on character motivations and thoughts, he gives enticing descriptions of nature. For example, in the very beginning of Hills Like White Elephants, the work opens up with a stunning description of the hills.
“The hills across the valley of the Ebro were long and white. On this side there was no shade and no trees and the station was between two lines of rails in the sun. Close against the side of the station there was the warm shadow of the building and a curtain, made of strings of bamboo beads, hung across the open door into the bar, to keep out flies.” (Hemingway).
Furthermore, Hemingway sticks out because he challenges the boundaries of “traditional literary style.” According to an educational article written by Jan-Louis Nagel, she states, “During the first half of the 20th century literary style became even more diverse. Many writers now wanted to experiment with their art, and literature became complex and abstract.”
Nagel then gives two popular examples of James Joyce and Hemingway, stating:
“Another modernist writer who became famous for his minimalist style was Ernest Hemingway. His literary style was to economize information to the point that what is left unsaid is more important than what is said. A famous example is when Hemingway accepted the challenge of writing a novel in six words, and came up with: ‘For Sale. Baby Shoes. Never Worn.’”
When the unsaid becomes more important than the things that are being directly stated, it encourages the readers to dive deeper into the hidden meanings of each work; It hopes that they will discover what Hemingway is really trying to tell us.
One of the many important impacts that Hemingway has left the world with is the concept of “showing, not telling.” This idea was taught in many of my English and writing classes, and still sticks with me (and many others) to this day. The idea of “show, don’t tell” means that as an author, it is more appropriate to say:
“His hands fidgeted at his sides, and he shifted from foot to foot. His eyes were looking everywhere except the girl he was talking to.”
Instead than merely saying:
“He was really uncomfortable.”
Obviously, the first example sounds a lot better than the second. As I mentioned above, Hemingway constantly does this in his work by showing us character body language instead of outright telling us how they are feeling. He combines the concept of “show, don’t tell” with a minimalist style to create his own unique form of writing.
Hemingway left a legacy that challenges all writers to strive for success. One of his famous quotes, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at the typewriter and bleed” reflects this idea. He is boldly announcing to the world that anyone can be a writer, that anyone can follow after his literary throne, and most importantly that anyone can leave an impact on the writing world.
Word Count: 1031
Nagel, Jan-Louis. “Introduction to Literature.” Lumen, NDLA,
Hemingway, Ernest. Men Without Women: Stories. J. Cape, 1975.
Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Sterling Pub. Co., 2007.