STILL RISING

ON THE DEATHLESS RELEVANCE OF ERNEST HEMINGWAY

by Tom Bissell

The possibility that becoming the most distinctive American prose writer of the twentieth century would have its considerable drawbacks probably did not occur to the twenty-seven-year-old author of The Sun Also Rises when it was published in 1926. Despite some powerful literary advocates, Hemingway’s first two books had flopped; copies were not even available in Hemingway’s hometown of Oak Park, Illinois. His third book—a cocky, strutting, elliptical novel about British and American expatriates behaving as badly as their times (and Hemingway’s censors) allowed them—changed all that. As Lionel Trilling wrote only thirteen years after Sun’s publication, Hemingway, “more than any writer of our time… has been under glass, watched, checked up on, predicted, suspected, warned.” The book’s much-heralded style, as liberating as a magic spell for its author, eventually became a kind of aesthetic stockade. By 1961 serial shock treatments at the Mayo Clinic had left the arch mage depressed, unable to write, needlessly lecturing his wife about her “expenses,” and convinced that the FBI was reading his mail and wiretapping his phone. Hemingway’s suicide of that year was not only an act of escape from the various furies, real and imagined, in steady pursuit of him; it was the explosive period to the only sentence he could bring himself to compose. For this reason any writer who has been compared to Hemingway feels a certain clammy shudder: as it turned out, not even Hemingway could survive the comparison.

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Tom Bissell has felt a certain clammy shudder. He is the author of Chasing the Sea; Speak, Commentary (with Jeff Alexander); and God Lives in St. Petersburg, which won the Rome Prize and was a finalist for the Believer Book Award. His new book, The Father of All Things, will be published in March 2007. He currently lives in Rome, Italy, where he is working on a travel book about the Twelve Apostles’ tombs and a novel about a pothead.

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