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Essays and posts exploring the state of journalism, teaching and nonfiction storytelling.

  • Writer's pictureTracy Dahlby

A Message From Hemingway for Our Nuance-Challenged Times

What happens when we lose our grip on our literary infrastructure?

Hemingway during the Spanish Civil War. Photo by Cassowary Colorizations via Creative Commons.

This essay originally appeared in The Dallas Morning News.

In July of 1961, when a self-inflicted shotgun blast killed Ernest Hemingway in Ketchum, Idaho, the news hit in a way that’s impossible to imagine today.

Two years earlier, George Reeves, Superman in the popular 1950s TV show, had also died of a gunshot wound and left us kids on the block to ponder the irony of how the Man of Steel could be felled not by kryptonite but a mere bullet.

But young as we were, we knew the difference between a TV actor and a great writer, and back then it seemed to matter: Hemingway was bigger than Superman.

Today, no worker in words rates that kind of status in America. Our quicksilver, digital lives don’t easily tolerate the nuance that well-turned short stories, novels, plays and poetry bring to an understanding of our country and ourselves.

So, what happens when we lose our grip on our literary infrastructure? I wonder. Is it possible we display more anger, less empathy as a result?

Those questions bubbled up thanks to a second-watching of “Hemingway,” the six-hour documentary series by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick that dropped on PBS in April. It’s a richly nuanced film, gutsy in giving a controversial figure his due in a time of snap judgments and self-righteous certainty.

In updating the story, the largeness of Hemingway’s talent, the messiness of his life and the wages of his macho image, it also explores his fascination with gender fluidity, “the blurred lines between male and female,” that likely contributed to his genius.

The filmmakers also show what a grade-A jerk this multipart man (“wounded veteran and battlefield correspondent, big game hunter and deep-sea fisherman… brawler and lover and man about town”) could be. He was married four times, unheroically pursuing the next wife before leaving the last one. As influential critic Edmund Wilson once observed, Hemingway “had a high sense of honor, which he was always violating; and this evidently gave him a permanent bad conscience.”

But Hemingway also shows the author could muster the courage of his contradictions, writing from a place that tapped fundamental truths. “[W]ith all of his flaws, with all the difficulties, his personal life, whatever,” writer Michael Katakis says, “he seemed to understand human beings,” and their infinite complications.

Too bad today’s hair-trigger society elbows that kind of nuance toward the door.

In his last regular column for The New York Times, “Ted Cruz, I’m Sorry,” Frank Bruni lamented the media’s role in making an angry society angrier. Nuance, he said, “has been incinerated by today’s hot takes. There aren’t as many clicks in cooling tempers and complicating people’s understanding of situations as there are in stoking their rage.”

Bruni went on: “Much of what I read is absolutist: Agonized laments about cancel culture are a cynically overblown right-wing diversion from grave injustice. Or woke zealots are conducting a quasi-religious purge.”

The pull of anger and conspiracy isn’t new. Two years after Hemingway’s death it contributed to the killing of a president. The struggle for civil rights faced a dangerous, uphill road in a society at best ambivalent about apartheid. Yet today, with the pursuit of peak stimulation driving our politics and personal lives, we’re left without the circuit-breakers literature can provide.

In Hemingway’s time, relatively few people graduated from college, but society took the written word seriously in part because it was a main diversion in a less-diverted time, but also because great and even medium writers helped make sense of the disruptions churned up by the Great Depression, World War II, and fast-paced changes in postwar life.

Yes, TV was gnawing away at print as undisputed media champ. And yet, unlike today, the new medium routinely tipped its hat to higher culture. Literary luminaries (James Baldwin, Truman Capote, Lillian Hellman, Jack Kerouac, Norman Mailer, Mary McCarthy, William Saroyan, Gore Vidal, among others) were fixtures on TV talk shows whose audiences still liked to chase the ridiculous with the sublime.

Today, our digital lives leave us less time to hang with our best writers. Americans invest a modest 16 minutes a day, on average, in reading for personal interest, according to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. And often what we do read, as comedian Bill Maher quipped, “is to literature what candy corn is to vegetables.”

At what cost? As social psychologist Sherry Turkle presciently pointed out in a 2009 interview: “Much of literature and poetry and film and theater, the ability to trace complicated themes through a literary work … will be lost to us, because these pleasures become pleasures through acquired skills.

Learning “to listen to a poem, read a … Jane Austen novel,” as Turkle said, can, I like to think, short-circuit animus and add ballast to our democracy.

Contrast our typical self-referential intake from social media with what Hemingway, in the Burns-Novick film, says he was up to:

“You see, I’m trying in all my stories to get the feeling of the actual life across. Not to just depict life or criticize it, but to actually make it alive. So that when you’ve read something by me you actually experience the thing.”


“You can’t do this without putting in the bad and the ugly as well as what is beautiful. Because if it is all beautiful, you can’t believe it. Things aren’t that way. It is only by showing both sides, three dimensions and, if possible four, that you can write the way I want to.”

Like many folks, I wish I had more time to read great writing for the dividends it can pay: that feeling of relief when an author pierces our phobias; the way we learn about the pitfalls of human behavior without having to take all the risks ourselves; how it reminds us there is, in fact, something beyond the self.

Sometimes, if we’re lucky, we just stumble over something we’ve missed.

Until I watched Hemingway a second time, for example, I didn’t fully realize what almost every Hemingway reader seems to know: that “Big Two-Hearted River,” a two-parted story I’ve read a dozen times, is, as the film echoes the author, “about the war, but there was no mention of the war in it.”

In the story, Nick Adams, scarred by World War I, seeks solace in the Michigan woods of his youth, when he comes upon a once-bustling town that’s been destroyed by fire:

“ There was no town, nothing but the rails and the burned-over country. The thirteen saloons that had lined the one street of Seney had not left a trace. … Even the surface had been burned off the ground.”

But the roadside is literally hopping with signs of renewal:

“Now, as he watched the black hopper that was nibbling at the wool of his sock with its fourway lip, he realized that they had all turned black from living in the burned-over land… He wondered how long they would stay that way.”

The teenager in me still insists the story is really all about adventure, striking out on your own without filters or adult supervision, the freedom to join in the big story of the world, what Joseph Campbell called the hero’s journey.

The truth is, it’s both and more.

Watching Hemingway, it struck me that, while we’re trying to address the nation’s crumbling roads and bridges, the Biden White House and Congress might “build back better” by funding a renewal of our literary infrastructure.

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