Apparently prompted by yesterday’s potboiler item, a regular reader named Repulski sent a message that I’m guessing was intended as a rebuke for overusing, or not fully appreciating, the term revolutionary.
“As a man with a keen eye for prose style and history, not to mention other ineffable insights,” he writes, “see if, out of your huge imagining, you can identify the author of this”:
Now this may possibly be a good time to suggest that a small tax be levied on the use of the word revolution, the proceeds to be given to the defence of … any of your friends who are in jail, by all those who write the word and never have shot nor been shot at; who never have stored arms nor filled a bomb, nor have discovered arms nor had a bomb burst among them; who never have gone hungry in a general strike, nor have manned streetcars when the tracks are dynamited; who never have sought cover in a street trying to get their heads behind a gutter; who never have seen a woman shot in the head, in the breast or in the buttocks; who never have seen an old man with the top of his head off; who never have walked with their hands up; who never have shot a horse or seen hooves smash a head; who never have sat a horse and been shot at or stoned; who never have been cracked on the head with a club nor have thrown a brick; who never have seen a scab’s forearms broken with a crow-bar, or an agitator filled up with compressed air with an air hose; who, now it gets more serious — that is, the penalty is more severe — have never moved a load of arms at night in a big city; nor standing, seeing it moved, knowing what it was and afraid to denounce it because they did not want to die later; nor (let’s end it, it could go on too long) stood on a roof trying to urinate on their hands to wash off the black in the fork between finger and thumb from the back-spit of a Thompson gun, the gun thrown in a cistern and the troops coming up the stairs: the hands are what they judge you by — the hands are all the evidence they need …
Repulski’s message continues: “I, of course, know the answer to this riddle — to me it’s a no-brainer. It shouldn’t be to you. And your huge staff can’t Google this one. But it might be a pleasing problem for your readers. Naturally, I will send you the answer if I hear you smashing your shrunken brows in the agony of mindlessness.”
Dear Repulski — You are a man of strong intuition or ESP, maybe both, because I just re-read “Notes From a Sea Diary,” Nelson Algren’s riveting defense of Ernest Hemingway against critics like Leslie Fiedler, Norman Podhoretz, Leon Edel, and (especially) Dwight Macdonald, who accused Hemingway of being a puffed-up, bushy-bearded, celebrity-mongering phony who wrote (to cite Norman Mailer’s word for it) “babytalk.” Which leads me to believe it is Hemingway you are quoting. I’m not certain of this, but that’s my guess — not from the style so much as from the tone and content. And from Algren’s assessment of him:
Had Jeannie With the Light Brown Hair died the same day as Ernest Hemingway, it would have been difficult to distinguish her work from his by some of the summaries.
“Hemingway’s prose was as chaste as a mountain stream,” one Magoo claimed of a stream bearing mules with their forelegs broken, stiffs floating bottoms-up and the results of several abortions.
“He was dedicated to Truth and Beauty,” another mad groundskeeper claimed of a man who had always disposed of both abstractions in his “built-in shockproof shit-detector,” as he described it.
The overpraisers were judges as useless after his death as had been the begrudgers before. …
Ernest Hemingway’s need was not to write declarative sentences with a beautiful absence of subordinate clauses. It was not to meet celebrities: he was on speaking terms with Georges Clemenceau, Benito Mussolini and Mustapha Kemal before he had heard of Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein. He was one of the most highly paid correspondents in Europe.
Therefore the man had at his disposal a lifetime of meeting celebrities, while living comfortably with his wife and children in the capitals of the world; enjoying that degree of fame a foreign correspondent earns.
It was a lucky way of living — but he didn’t want it. He didn’t want it because, to him, it wasn’t living at all. To Dwight Macdonald it would have been living. To have a respectable name with the Establishment and be a dissenter too! What more could a man ask than to have it both ways?
Hemingway didn’t care for it either way. He wasn’t an athletic young man from Oak Park. He was a soldier whose life had been broken in two. He didn’t come to The Moveable Feast as a picnic begun in Kansas City now being continued in the Bois de Boulogne. He had seen the faces of calm daylight looking ashen as faces in a bombardment. He had been the man who did not know where he went each night nor what was the peril there; nor why he should waken in a sweat more frightened than he’d been in the bombardment …
Hemingway had felt his life fluttered like a pocket-handkerchief by the wind of death. In the watches of the night he had heard retreat beaten. Out of dreams like Dostoevsky’s, endured in nights wherein he had lost his life yet had not died. Hemingway forged an ancestral wisdom in terms usable by modern man: that he who gains his life shall lose it and he who loses it shall save it; into a prose magically woven between sleep and waking.
Algren’s admiration for Hemingway was an artist’s belief. It was more thorough, more receptive, the product of a literary intellect more powerful than a mere scholar’s or critic’s. He writes:
It wasn’t his syntax, but the man inside the prose, that makes Macdonald struggle and fret to secure a hold on [Hemingway]. For, to one so devoid of inner sinew as Macdonald, literature is explainable only in terms of syntax. He must of necessity assume that Hemingway’s style was a matter of being an athletic youth sufficiently clever to pick up some tricks from Gertrude Stein to serve his ambition.
Hemingway’s emulators thought so too. For his art was so hidden it seemed easily imitated: one had only to talk tough and cut it short. Some imitated him boldly, some secretly, some mockingly and some slavishly. But what they wrote had no tension: his prose was invulnerable.
Though his prose was invulnerable, his life was not. He flaunted a personality as poetic as Byron’s and as challenging as Teddy Roosevelt’s; before timorous men whose lives were prosaic. It was necessary, no, absolutely essential to get his number.
“He thinks like a child,” someone remembered Goethe saying of Byron. So Norman Mailer said “Hemingway has never written anything that would disturb an eight-year-old.” So Professor Fiedler said it and Professor Podhoretz said it and Professor Edel said it and Professor Macdonald said it. First they said it one by one. Then, gathering courage, they all said it together in chorus. Now we have his number: Now we really have his number.
And of all our thinkers from Paul Goodman to Ronald Reagan, who has given us a passage so certain not to disturb an eight-year-old as this:
“If you serve time for society, democracy, and the other things quite young, and declining any further enlistment make yourself responsible only to yourself, you exchange the pleasant, comfortable stench of comrades for something you can never feel in any other way than by yourself. That something I cannot define completely but the feeling comes … when, on the sea, you are alone with it and know that this Gulf Stream you are living with, knowing, learning about, and loving, has moved, as it moves, since before man, and that it has gone by the shoreline of that long, beautiful, unhappy island since before Columbus sighted it and that the things you find out about it, and those that have always lived in it are permanent and of value because that stream will flow, as it had flowed, after the Indians, after the Spaniards, after the British, after the Americans and after all the Cubans and all the systems of government, the richness, the poverty, martyrdom, the sacrifice and the venality and the cruelty are all one as the high-piled scow of garbage, bright-colored, white-flecked, ill-smelling, now tilted on its side, spills off its load into the blue water, turning it a pale green to a depth of four or five fathoms as the load spreads across the surface, the sinkable part going down and the flotsam of palm-fronds, corks, bottles, and used electric light-globes, seasoned with an occasional condom or a deep floating corset, the torn leaves of a student’s exercise book, a well-inflated dog, the occasional rat, the no-long-distinguished cat; all this well shepherded by the boats of the garbage pickers who pluck their prizes with long poles, as interested, as intelligent, and as accurate as historians; they have the viewpoint; the stream with no visible flow, takes fives loads of this a day when things are going well in La Habana and in ten miles along the coast it is as clear and blue and unimpressed as it was ever before the tug hauled out the scow; and the palm-fronds of our victories, the worn light-bulbs of our discoveries and the empty condoms of our great loves float with no significance against the one single lasting thing — the stream.”
Call that babytalk.