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New Edition, Old Problems: On Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises

By posted at 6:00 am on July 24, 2014 21

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Scribner’s has published an edition of The Sun Also Rises highlighted by a variant opening chapter-and-a-half, material that Hemingway eliminated from his final draft at the encouragement of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Readers are used to the 1926 novel starting off with a portrait of Robert Cohn; it turns out that, as many scholars have known, Hemingway planned to commence with the words “This is a novel about a lady,” and a snapshot of Lady Bret Ashley, only then to launch into his dissection of Cohn, in the middle of chapter two. This manuscript material is now available in “The Hemingway Library Edition,” volume, put out by Hemingway’s original publisher under the editorial aegis of Patrick Hemingway (his son) and Seán Hemingway (the grandson also rises). The release prompts us to consider how to receive this introduction and challenges us to wrap our heads around an alternate universe in which Fitzgerald’s advice goes unheeded. There will be skepticism about the endeavor; indeed, the previous “Hemingway Library Edition,” led to a bit of a takedown right here in The Millions.

The Sun Also Rises, its author’s first novel, crystallizes elements of the Hemingway canon: boozey expatriate Parisian lifestyle, delight in homosociality, bullfighting and bullrunning in Pamplona, how to fish correctly, how to write correctly, how to do anything correctly. I’ve included the book on countless course syllabi and read it almost as many times, and I still find it remarkable that this seminal work of Hemingway’s oeuvre, this text famous for defining the “lost generation,” starts out with a passage rich in thinly veiled anti-semitism. (The broken proboscis that Cohn suffers in a boxing match is said to “improve” his nose. We get it.) Therefore my first response to the new edition was to wonder whether it was an attempt to steer readers away from the unsavory aspects of the novel, a trigger warning-age sanding down of edges, meant to ease readers into the scornful Cohn section, rather than bludgeoning us with it at the start.

If so, I have some bad news, news that I will encapsulate in a word: Nordic. Or rather: non-nordic. The word “Nordic” does not appear at all in the standard The Sun Also Rises, but it arises in the new manuscript material, where the epithet “non-Nordic” is applied to Robert Cohn. This is 1920s terminology fraught with racializing overtones, and its presence here serves to highlight some of the nastiness in Hemingway’s book.

covercovercoverWhat to make of the fact that Fitzgerald had a hand in editing the term out? In The Great Gatsby, published a year before The Sun Also Rises, the villainous Tom Buchanan disquisitions about the “dominant race”: “We’re Nordics,” he says to his white, old-moneyed company, and it is their responsibility to defend civilization from them who are not. Buchanan is parroting ideas from Lothrop Stoddard’s The Rising Tide of Color, a book that will show up in Jay Gatsby’s personal library; Fitzgerald draws the rhetoric from a system of racial thinking popular in early 20th-century America, a jumble of white supremacism, eugenics, both imperialism and isolationism, and xenophobia. No less dangerous for being inconsistent and disunified, it was a powerful enough undercurrent to produce the restrictive 1924 Immigration Act. It is the relationship to this context that leads Walter Benn Michaels, in a controversial argument in his book Our America, to situate Gatsby and The Sun Also Rises within a subgenre of 1920s literature he calls “nativist modernism.”

The inclusion of the word “nordics” brings the new edition of The Sun Also Rises closer in line with this system of thought, highlighting how contempt for Cohn is never far removed from his supposedly inferior racial stock. Throughout the novel, this inferiority is often put as a matter of social behavior and aesthetic taste. Cohn is unglib, unstoic, uninebriated, and is a fan of W.H. Hudson, who generated the kind of prose that Hemingway steeled himself every day of his life not to write. Indeed, the introductory material clarifies some of the condescension; it offers a history of Lady Bret Ashley’s names that makes legible Cohn’s later gaffe as her addresses her as “Lady Bret” instead of the proper “Lady Ashley.” The newly published passages also establish language that will form the novel’s memes. Ashley’s fiancée is called “nice,” a code for social approval that Hemingway proceeds to use 967 times in the novel (may not be the exact number), and is also described as “one of us” — terms that are used to exclude Cohn.

Even the initial assertion that Ashley is the novel’s focus is undermined by the depiction that follows, which largely treats the same question driving the overall plot: which male will win the right to possess the female body in the end? (No, this is not a novel that would pass the Bechdel test.) Throughout The Sun Also Rises, that issue is made more urgent by the possibility that Cohn will succeed in the end, the anxiety that Nordic stock would become diminished.

Hemingway’s discarded opening section includes a passage in which his narrator Jake Barnes self-reflectively ruminates over his choice to use the “I” of the first-person voice. Not just fodder for narratology geeks, this moment can open the door to readings that will claim that the novel is portraying its derision based on class and ethnicity (and, at times, gender and sexual orientation) with self-awareness — that it’s all ironic! The text seems confused at times, sure, but the fact is that Cohn is never redeemed or relieved of his role as nemesis, and that the novel ends with Barnes rescuing Ashley from a disastrous affair with a Spanish bullfighter.

I’m less interested in how The Sun Also Rises dramatizes the racial anxieties of the 1920s than I am with our cultural memory of the book. We are made aware of the unhappy ethnic elements of Oliver Twist and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but the foundational 1920s U.S. novels get a pass, it seems to me. The Sun Also Rises is known as a novel of the lost generation, and Gatsby as one of the jazz age, while both are formed out of the dark stuff of our history. The new-old introduction of The Sun Also Rises can’t mitigate that; maybe it can help us reckon with it better.





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21 Responses to “New Edition, Old Problems: On Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises”

  1. John
    at 6:56 am on July 24, 2014

    Fitzgerald set Tom Buchanan on that diatribe to show the readers that he was a spoiled asshole. Daisy makes fun of him for it in that scene. It’s kind of the opposite of what Hemingway does with Jake.

  2. Germane Jackson
    at 10:05 am on July 24, 2014

    Yeah, I reread that paragraph twice, thinking the author had misquoted Michaels. It seems obvious that having Tom Buchanan endorse anything is a means of instantly discrediting that thing.

  3. Dunbar Humbly
    at 11:39 am on July 24, 2014

    This article seems bizarre to me, and maybe I need to reread The Sun Also Rises, but I don’t remember Cohn being a “nemesis” or the buffoon you kind of describe him here as. I remember him being kind of a chump, but so was Barnes, in his continued infatuation for Lady Bret Ashley. Also I don’t remember Barnes “rescuing” her at the end, I remember it being just a continuation of the same useless longing that came before.

  4. Germane Jackson
    at 12:18 pm on July 24, 2014

    I , too, have not read TSAR in quite some time, but like Dunbar, do not remember Cohn being anything close to a nemesis. My recollection is that the book’s narrative position re: Cohn is more complex than what’s being granted here. In many ways, he’s superior to the other characters–intelligent and Princeton educated, not a drunk, faithful to women, etc. Of course, in Hemingway’s universe, it’s debatable whether these are meant to be good qualities, and they certainly put him at odds with the rest of the gang, but still. His ostracization–“othering” in the modern parlance–is treated as I recall with some degree of narrative pathos. Yes, he is scorned and ridiculed, but part of what he’s ridiculed for is his outmoded sense of honor and chivalry, and this is used as a not-so-oblique commentary on the moral bankruptcy of this crowd.

    I wouldn’t deny that there’s a casual anti-semitism in TSAR, and I don’t think it’s all meant to be ironic, capital I, but Cohn’s depiction serves a greater and more admirable function in the novel than just disparaging Jews.

  5. Fearghus
    at 12:25 pm on July 24, 2014

    My recollection of TSAR is less than crystalline, but as has been mentioned above, I don’t think Cohn’s quite as simplistically shaded as all that; doesn’t he make a fool of Barnes mid-way through when they have a scrap? Remembering that scene I took it that we were supposed to see Barnes as a drunken eejit rather than any kind of exemplary figure, with Cohn as someone a little pompous but arguably more upright than the Hemingway avatar. Bit of self-loathing always fits with Hem.

  6. My god
    at 12:56 pm on July 24, 2014

    Alright. Normally stuff on The Millions is sane enough that I don’t feel the need to comment, and can just leisurely enjoy it all, but this is beyond the pale. Is this what passes for analytic or logical thinking in this person’s class? It’s totally incoherent, and assumptive to the point of parody.

    The argument that Hemingway is anti-semitic:
    ” this seminal work of Hemingway’s oeuvre, this text famous for defining the “lost generation,” starts out with a passage rich in thinly veiled anti-semitism. (The broken proboscis that Cohn suffers in a boxing match is said to “improve” his nose. We get it.)”
    …. No. Noses don’t just mean jews. Plenty of manly men, from Bruce Willis to Hemingway to frickin Gaston, think that broken noses, scars, and so on, are manly. And besides, it *doesn’t* even make sense. A broken nose, even if it was “jewish” wouldn’t look *less* jewish if it was broken! This is a willful misreading – I mean, it’s so far it’s essentially a parody of itself.

    Hemingway is a racist:
    “the word “Nordic” does not appear at all in the standard The Sun Also Rises, but it arises in the new manuscript material, where the epithet “non-Nordic” is applied to Robert Cohn. This is 1920s terminology fraught with racializing overtones, and its presence here serves to highlight some of the nastiness in Hemingway’s book.”
    So to the author of this piece, if Hemingway used the word “non-nordic” he couldn’t have meant just not tall and not blonde. You know, the definition of the word. The author’s logic is *literally* that:
    P1. Hemingway used the word “non-nordic” once to describe a character.
    P2. Hemingway’s book was edited by Fitzgerald.
    P3. Fitzgerald wrote a book in which he had a villainous character (Tom Buchanan) have on his bookshelf a racist book and describes his fellow party goers as “nordic.”
    Conclusion: Hemingway is a racist.

    The logic is undeniable!

    Further absurdities are present but at this point my analysis will be as long as the article (some law about how much work is needed to clean up BS). Hemingway may have been anti-semitic or racist. But this “article” does not offer any evidence for this!

  7. Rachel
    at 4:51 pm on July 24, 2014

    The author hasn’t called Heningway a racist. He’s pointing out racist undertones of the book’s language and narrative. Good article.

  8. Steven Frattali
    at 6:31 pm on July 24, 2014

    This review is a piece of junk.

  9. Rrrandy Wurst
    at 3:42 am on July 25, 2014

    You want to point out anti-semitism, check out Orwell (among others). Why should we demand socio/political/cultural/ehtical/etc. “perfection” in writers, especially when we are judging them out of temporal context? Great writers are great writers; they are not necessarily great human beings, certainly not perfect ones. In my opinión, Hemingway was due a lot more criticism in other areas of his life, while remaining great as a writer, particularly of his time. What is this need to scout our héroes?

  10. Michael H
    at 4:05 am on July 25, 2014

    Wow. I’m reading the comments, and learning that lot of Americans have a hard time accepting that their literary heroes were party to the problems of their time culture. Get over it, people! And kudos to the author for facing unpopular truths.

  11. Germane Jackson
    at 9:14 am on July 25, 2014

    I don’t think most people here have a “hard time accepting that their literary heroes were party to the problems of their time and culture.” I think most people in this comment section seem to feel that this review 1) engages in somewhat odious, nitpicky fault-finding, and 2) is over-simplistic with regard to its analysis of Cohn’s depiction.

    As noted, the broken nose thing is a bit of a reach. And “Non-Nordic…” Idk, maybe Hemingway was trying to dog-whistle other “nativist modernists,” but it seems like a pretty thin gruel to me. Especially considering Hemingway axed the section it appears in, at the behest of a guy who used it ironically in his own book. Looking back through TSAR as a result of this essay (thanks, Jonathan Goldman!) I was reminded of some of the nastiness Cohn is subject to, and it does feel… pointed, somewhat unrelieved by a greater narrative perspective. At the same time, virtually everyone in the book comes out looking bad. It seems worth noting that Cohn is excluded for traits that we (or I) typically think of, if anything, as WASPy, not Jewish–e.g. hyperearnestness, lack of irony, humorlessness, bad taste in literature, etc.

    At any rate, a cursory reread supports my feeling that whatever racism may lurk in the pages of TSAR is of a much less systemic, much more fuddled and human variety, than this article allows.

  12. Robert
    at 3:32 pm on August 1, 2014

    It is remarkable, the extent to which novels of the 1920s on which the American canon is built incorporate language and parade viewpoints that are so retrograde, and that are built into the works’ narratives. Who “wins” in Gatsby? Tom Buchanan, the figure of satire, supposedly, is allowed to keep doing what he wants. Not saying that we shouldn’t read these books, just that we can learn the history of our culture through their very aesthetics.

  13. My god
    at 12:58 pm on August 4, 2014

    Robert – let me get this right. Your understanding of literature is that because Tom Buchanan “wins” in The Great Gatsby that Fitzgerald is endorsing him to keep doing what he wants … and that this is a reflection of the times, because Fitzgerald, to let Buchanan “win”, must share his values?!?!

    That’s not even a misunderstanding of literature, it’s like this PC warping of all stories ever told. And it appears increasingly common (see actual article itself).

  14. My god
    at 1:12 pm on August 4, 2014

    -Michael H

    No one is claiming that no authors weren’t party to the problems of their times. No human has ever believed that. I’m sure that in the 1600s people were like “well Augustine was party to the problems of his times…”

    The problem is that there is an obvious logical error being made in this article, other similar types of articles, and in the comments. The error goes thus: just because characters x, y, and z use language to exclude character a, does not mean that the author believes that exclusion is morally right. Fitzgerald’s characters talk about wealth and exclusion all the time, but it’s obvious and known that The Great Gatsby is a critique of old money America

    This distinction, between characters and authors, and even between narrators and authors, is so unbelievable simple to understand, and we all know it’s true, but when someone writes an article using this 5-years-old-no-theory-of-mind-yet logic, and it’s about how bad some old white dudes were, we let it slide.

  15. Robert
    at 4:19 pm on August 5, 2014

    Dear “My God”: (That was fun to write.) I don’t see anywhere in the article that accuses the authors of racism. I think the point is that the airing of such language is pernicious and should be part of the conversation about these works (not about the authors) rather than ignored.

    Also, your incivility is unbecoming, but I’m sure that’s simply a manifestation of your being able to write anonymously on line, and that in real life you approach such debates much differently.

  16. My god
    at 5:08 pm on August 5, 2014

    Robert – The Millions isn’t Jezebel or The National Review or Slate. If they publish an article with the kind of logic that is published in those places, everyone should expect the kind of comments those websites get. Angry ones.

    Also Robert, you said, “I don’t see anywhere in the article that accuses the authors of racism”

    What? The article is quite clear on the subject:

    “This is 1920s terminology fraught with racializing overtones, and its presence here serves to highlight some of the nastiness in Hemingway’s book.”

    “this seminal work of Hemingway’s oeuvre, this text famous for defining the ‘lost generation,’ starts out with a passage rich in thinly veiled anti-semitism”

    “Fitzgerald draws the rhetoric from a system of racial thinking popular in early 20th-century America, a jumble of white supremacism, eugenics, both imperialism and isolationism, and xenophobia”

    Such accusations are *not* based on some historical analysis of Fitzgerald’s or Hemingway’s lives, but rather entirely on three fictional events: that a character wished for a broken nose to look more manly, the word “non-nordic” was used to describe someone white with brown hair, and that a villainous character had a racist book on his bookshelf (a not in the book itself, but in another book written by the editor).

    It’s just not even coherent. It’s like the plot of Transformers, or Jurassic Park II: The Lost World. There’s lots of explosions of righteous PC anger but nothing actually follows, until you get to the conclusion that’s assumed in the beginning: people in the past were evil/racist/sexist, and that makes us feel pretty good as we sit in our child-made jeans and eat our slaughterhouse burgers.

  17. Michael H
    at 5:48 pm on August 5, 2014

    Those quotes you give mean something quite different than “Hemingway and Fitzgerald were racist”, but I guess one would have to be a good reader to understand that.

  18. Shelley
    at 1:33 pm on August 6, 2014

    Sigh. Reading the pre-(or sometimes post-) 60s respected writers, and seeing them occasionally say something really stupid about minorities or women, is like being at a beautiful formal dinner at which the host suddenly chokes and throws up all over the table.

  19. Germane Jackson
    at 1:46 pm on August 6, 2014

    “Those quotes you give mean something quite different than “Hemingway and Fitzgerald were racist”, but I guess one would have to be a good reader to understand that.”

    Yes, they’re a little closer to “Hemingway and Fitzgerald wrote racist books,” but this is a fatuous distinction, and more than a little mealy-mouthed. Goldman is asserting that an, at best, xenophobic nativism present in these books. The legitimacy of these critiques aside, let’s not pretend that this *isn’t* essentially the critique.

    “I think the point is that the airing of such language is pernicious and should be part of the conversation about these works (not about the authors) rather than ignored.”

    Such language is explicitly unpernicious when put in a logical, correct context. The TSAR stuff seems debatable, but Goldman’s critique of “Nordic” in Gatsby is, as My God correctly points out, confused and silly. Tom Buchanan’s use of “Nordic” can only be a critique of the use of “Nordic;” as Tom Buchanan’s triumph at the end can only be a critique of a system that allows assholes like him to triumph. Robert, I don’t mean to be uncivil, but if you’re missing this, you’re not reading the book properly.

  20. Michael H
    at 10:49 am on August 8, 2014

    It is not in the slightest a “fatuous distinction,” and saying so is disingenuous or perhaps simply idiotic. Many readers don’t give a fig whether Hemingway himself was a racist (really, why would anyone care?) but are deeply interested in the relationship between aesthetics and ideology, how literature incorporates and reconfigures material from its cultural moment–and distinguish the two views of artistic production quite easily.

    I am at this point quite convinced that the ongoing “defense” of Hemingway in this discussion (though the writer was quite clearly not being attacked), the accusations of “PC” blah blah (are we still in 1990?) are symptomatic of the very blindness described in the essay. In other words, it is clearer that theses points need to be made.

  21. Germane Jackson
    at 11:30 am on August 8, 2014

    Michael,

    Fair enough, I guess–I don’t actually care if Hemingway or Fitzgerald were racist, but the article is certainly lobbing an accusation of racism at their work, which is pretty close to the same thing. Your first paragraph posits that this essay is some sort of dry, academic discourse on historical aesthetics, which is clearly not the case–the author is making hay out of broken noses and the use of a word taken out of context, at least in Fitzgerald’s case (and in Hemingway’s case, the use of a word in a chapter he allowed to be edited out).

    So the issue people have taken with this critique is less some kneejerk defense of Papa, and that this critique is silly and illogical. If you look at my comments upthread, I think you’ll find I have no problem allowing for anti-semitism in TSAR, just not in the way Goldman suggests. Your characterization of anyone in this thread not getting in line behind this ill-conceived broadside as hero-worshipping trogs suffering from “blindness” is miserably typical of the current level/style of discourse on these topics.

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