Tag Archives: New Criterion

Image-Making in Correspondence: Hemingway and Kerouac

19 Feb
HemingwayLetters
There’s something so intimate about reading other people’s letters. I remember in high school one of my friends found someone’s folded up note, and I read it over and over again because I was so fascinated by their voice and the bluntness of what they’d written.
The New Criterion has an interesting article up about The Letters of Ernest Hemingway 1926-1929, edited by Rena Sanderson, Sandra Spanier, and Robert W. Trogdon. In “The master off duty,”  Bruce Bawer writes:
One thing that needs to be said about these letters is that there’s a lot of conscious image-making going on in them. As one of his biographers, Jeffrey Meyers, has noted, Hemingway pursued a path of “scrupulous honesty in his fiction” but routinely felt compelled, in both his conversation and correspondence, “to distort and rewrite the story of his life.” Indeed, already in these documents dating to his late twenties, we find Hemingway recounting his experiences in a way calculated to make him come off as the same strong, stoic figure who, in succeeding decades, would take hold of imaginations around the world, thanks largely to splashy Life and Look photo spreads of the Nobel laureate on safari, at bullfights, and deep-sea fishing.
It reminded me a lot of Jack Kerouac, who both in his novels and his letters rewrote the story of his life. On message boards, people often ask what Kerouac biography they should read. It feels too presumptuous to recommend my own Kerouac biography, but I like to suggest people read Kerouac’s letters, edited by Ann Charters. Not only do they provide insight into his life, but they’re as engaging as his novels. Full of vigorous prose.
I’ve often wondered if writers correspond with the knowledge or hope that their letters might one day be collected and read by literary critics and obsessive fans and therefore take extra care in writing them? Or, was it that they were already writing to literary critics—their author friends, their agents, their publishers—and therefore trying to write in an entertaining, impressive style? Or perhaps, they are such great writers that even their letters come out with flair?
Bawer says:
Not Hemingway. He didn’t labor over these things—to put it mildly. When he wrote to his parents and editors, his main objective was to get certain personal or professional obligations out of the way; his letters to such eminences as T. S. Eliot and James Joyce, in which he faked at least a touch of humility and deference, were chiefly a means of networking. Even when he’s sending off dispatches to such authentic amis as Ezra Pound, Archibald MacLeish, and Gerald and Sara Murphy, with whom he’s truly eager to stay in touch and swap literary news and gossip, he’s not out to amuse or scintillate; on the contrary, you can feel him winding down after a day of “real” writing.
Perhaps there’s encouragement in that. One doesn’t just “sit down at a typewriter and bleed,” as Hemingway said. Nor did Kerouac simply write On the Road in three weeks after seven years on the road, as discussed in Burning Furiously Beautiful. Authors—even the very best ones—consider their audience, write, and rewrite.
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Writing Wednesday: Is Greatness Sabotaging Your Writing?

18 Dec
For better or worse, I don’t recognize a lot of critics’ names. David L. Ulin is an exception. Book critic for The Los Angeles Times, Ulin writes reviews that do so much more than summarize or sweep up a book in a blanket statement. His reviews critique on a higher intellectual plane.
Of course, it helped that he articulated so much of what I felt when I’d read Bruce Bawer’s attack in the New Criterion on Jack Kerouac being included in the Library of America. That’s not to say he unscrupulously defended Kerouac’s poetry—he admitted the Kerouac poem Bawer quoted is “negligible”—but he called Bawer out on spending more time focusing on the so-called Beat label and the people associated with it than on digging into Kerouac’s individual style and innovations.
But I digress.
Ulin has an essay entitled “My First Book(s)”  in the Paris Review Daily that first-time and struggling writers should read. With humorous (not silly—witty) self-deprecation, he writes about what provoked him to write (jealousy, opportunity) and how he got so bogged down in ideas that he incapacitated his body of work. Perhaps my favorite line from the essay:
I was twenty that summer, turning twenty-one in August, and I felt a growing pressure to be (how do I put this without reservation or irony?) great.
That parenthetical itself says so much about not only writing but the human condition. Guarding ourselves through cleverness we can become inauthentic. Sometimes the more we strive to be “great,” the more we lose our true vision and voice. We lose our stories. We lose ourselves.
He writes:
But here’s what is important: I sabotaged my own book. I did this in two ways, first by overthinking and then by overtalking, by telling everyone I knew everything about the work.
Replete with quotes from renowned authors, “My First Book(s)” explores the expectations an author puts of himself, some of which are naïve (“I had gathered so much material—so much unused material—that I’d had the fantasy the book would write itself…”) and some of which are nearly impossible to live up to (“I wanted to write not just a novel but a landmark novel…”).
Ulin’s essay is a refreshing read for all of us who get overwhelmed by our own “big” ideas. It’s also a gentle reminder that all writing—including our unpublished writing—is worthwhile because it teaches us about the process and improves our skills.
In the same link roundup in which they mentioned Ulin’s essay, Poets & Writers linked to a blog post by Percy Jackson author Rick Riordan that also spoke to the slippery idea of greatness:
One thing I’ve discovered. People who believe they are awesome and wonderful at their profession are often . . . not. People who have more self-doubt, who question themselves and are always examining what they did wrong and how they might do better – those folks are often better than they think they are, and they are much more likely to improve. It’s a difficult balance, between self-confidence and self-reflection. No wonder writers are a little barmy. But it is an important balance to strike.
Riordan continues:
Writing is hard. Not everyone can do it. It requires a combination of innate talent and lots and lots of practice and endurance. It also requires the right story, and publishing that story at the right time.
Though they have dissimilar writing styles, Riordan and Ulin both suggest that writing requires humility and stamina.

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Burning Furiously Beautiful: The True Story of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” is now available as an ebook and paperback!