Saturday, November 28, 2009

Vonnegut on Hemingway

I had been looking for this piece for ages, and I am delighted that I finally found it. From his nonfiction book "Fates Worse Than Death", the late Kurt Vonnegut, addressing Hemingway scholars:

" Let me hasten to say that no matter how much his choice of subject matter bothers me nowadays, I am always amazed and delighted by the power he discovered in the simplest language. A sample I chose at random from his short story 'Big Two Hearted River': 'Nick sat down against the charred stump and smoked a cigarette. His pack balanced on the top of the stump, harness holding ready, a hollow molded in it from his back. Nick sat smoking, looking out over the country. He did not need to get his map out. He knew where he was from the position of the river.

" 'As he smoked, his legs stretched out in front of him, he noticed a grasshopper walk along the ground and up onto his woolen sock. The grasshopper was black. As he had walked along the road, climbing, he had started many grasshoppers from the dust. They were all black.'

"(The grasshoppers were black, of course, because the area had been burned over recently, making black the ideal protective coloration.)

"No fear of repeating words there. How many of you had teachers who told you never to use the same word twice in a paragraph, or even in adjacent paragraphs? Clearly, that was poor advice. The biggest word in that passage, by the way, is 'grasshopper'. Big enough! The strongest word is 'black.' Strong enough!

"I myself, when I teach writing, say that people will not read a story in which nothing much happens. But nothing much happens in two of Hemingway's most thrilling stories, 'A Clean, Well-Lighted Place' and, again, 'Big Two-Hearted River.' How is this possible? It is the brushwork.  If Hemingway had been a painter, I would say of him that while I often don't like the subjects he celebrates, I sure as heck respect his brushwork."


  1. I remember "Davy" by Edgar Pangborn. A great book, but it really did not have a plot at all.

  2. Have you read Hemingway's Hills Like White Elephants? My favorite short story of all time.

  3. Positively. I'm just working on "The Complete Short Stories" again. That story says so much with so few words.

  4. I just loved this post. Thanks for sharing it, Michael.

    The biggest word in that passage, by the way, is 'grasshopper'. Big enough! The strongest word is 'black.' Strong enough!

    So Vonnegut! Love it.

  5. Very much Vonnegutian, isn't it. Very complex ideas with very very simple words.

  6. Thanks for this one... I'm keeping it. I have always thought that with Hemmingway that the devil is in the details. (Mitchner beats us to death with his details!) And that those details were given with total charm... and so are gladly accepted.

  7. Hemingway doesn't do any of the work for you, that's for sure. Like a poet, you have to read every word-because there are so few of them, each one is very important.


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