I rarely write straight literary criticism nowadays, so I jumped at the chance to get back in the game when National Review invited me to review two new biographies of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway:
The trouble with Hemingway, seen from the privileged vantage point of hindsight, is that he looks increasingly like a great influence but not a great author in his own right. No 20th-century writer would leave a deeper mark on his contemporaries, and as late as 1948, Evelyn Waugh, no respecter of reputations, unhesitatingly described him in print as “one of the most original and powerful of living writers.” Yet all but the very finest of his short stories now sound mannered and artificial, while the novels come off as little more than sustained exercises in mirror-gazing and pose-striking….
Fitzgerald, like so many moralists, knew that he was himself exemplary of the flaws of the culture whose frivolity he chronicled and indicted. This knowledge is the source of the gravity that heightens the force of his best work, whose lightness of touch cannot conceal its ultimate seriousness, a seriousness that makes the Hemingway of The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms look like a mere merchant of self-pity by comparison….
Read the whole thing here.