Courage: "Grace under pressure." ...Ernest Hemingway.
Commentary of the Day - November 15, 2001: Teaching Hemingway's In Our Time in Our Time. Guest commentary by Sanford Pinsker:
(Ed. note: This essay by Professor Pinsker was submitted shortly after the events of September 11th. Although we were unable to publish it earlier, the IP thinks that it still resonates with the national mood.)
As it so happens I was scheduled to teach a grouping of Hemingway's short stories and vignettes on September 12th, the day after America watched in horror as the World Trade Center and a portion of the Pentagon were subjected to a terrorist attack. Published in l925, Hemingway gave his first collection the title, In Our Time, suggesting an ironic play on words lifted from the Book of Common Prayer: "Oh Lord, let there be peace in our time." One can find lots of dying matadors, wounded soldiers, punch-drunk boxers, or gangsters in Hemingway's early stories but precious little suggesting "peace," much less conventional prayers on its behalf. Moreover, he honed these grim tales to a minimalist perfection. If an earlier generation of writers was guilty of overwriting and overstatement, Hemingway meant to strip the sentence down to its bare essentials and to see the modern world as a place that demanded existential courage and unflinching honesty. When talking about these spare stories, students quickly learn to check easy platitudes at the door.
Many of the best moments in the collection focus on a character named Nick Adams as he moves from one psychologically bruising situation to another. In one instance, he watches an Indian father commit suicide during his wife's protracted labor; in another, he meets an ex-prizefighter driven nuts by widespread rumors of incest. Ultimately, Nick is wounded in World War I and later returns to America trying as best he can to shake off the shakes.
I have had the privilege of teaching Hemingway's stories for longer than I care to say, but it was not until the fateful afternoon of September 12th that I realized that the confusions his characters wrestle with--primarily, a sense that the old certainties no longer operate as they once did--has become, some seventy-five years later, very close to the world we reluctantly greeted on the morning of September 11th. Granted, there had been signs that terrorism could touch us, but not even the explosion in Oklahoma City managed to lodge itself deep into our collective consciousness. However, the footage, shown again and again, of a jumbo airplane slicing through the World Trade Center will be, I suspect, another matter. However slippery the word "postmodern" has been during the last decades, our sense of the world and ourselves changed dramatically when the World Trade Center crumbled--and for many it will be impossible to imagine American life with the same innocence they once did. This, I would argue, is as good a definition of postmodernism as any.
Suddenly, the class I taught the next day took on a new set of spooky resonances. Hemingway tried to dramatize the psychic dislocations of his new century by giving them a human face. That, after all, is what the best writers always do, and why their words last long after the babble of newscasters and pundits has been forgotten.
It is now a new century and, as I told my students, we will have to wait for writers who can find images appropriate for our new unsettling condition. Perhaps such a writer, or writers, is sitting in this very room. In the last days--and no doubt for weeks to come--our television screens have been filled with people who bring us the "news" but not necessarily a deeper understanding of what the news means. That's where writers like Hemingway proved to be of enduring importance. They will sort through the cultural wreckage long after tons of debris no longer fill the streets of lower Manhattan.
In previous classes, I spent my time trying to show students how the justly famous Hemingway "style" works. This time around I made it a point to emphasize how his pared down, tight-lipped paragraphs simultaneously reflected and utterly changed the post-World War I condition. But that job of work done, I also pushed them to think about what innocence and experience mean in our current situation, and what possibilities exist for exhibiting the "grace under pressure" that was Hemingway's most identifying trademark.
Truth to tell, I've been mulling these things over myself. I had no choice, and now my students--at least the ones who were really listening--have no choice either. A wise person once said that the test of a sound liberal education is that it makes you question your unquestioned beliefs, and in the process, gives you a lifelong headache. With Hemingway's help, that's what I tried to do on an afternoon that was as difficult for students as it was for their professor.
©2001 Sanford Pinsker
Sanford Pinsker is Shadek Professor of Humanities at Franklin & Marshall College.
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