Hard, cold, and carved. The minimalist prose style made famous by Ernest Hemingway shook up avant-garde Paris in the 1920s. It went on to make him a best-selling and influential author. Within a few years any American tough guy pulp writer with a glass of bourbon beside his typewriter wanted to sound like Hemingway.
“They shot the six cabinet ministers at half-past six in the morning against the wall of the hospital. There were pools of water in the courtyard. There were wet dead leaves on the paving of the courtyard. It rained hard.” [in our time, Ernest Hemingway, 1924]
Expatriates in Paris
In the early 1920s Hemingway was a wannabe author with a busted knee picked up in the war from an Austrian trench mortar. He lived in France with his wife and worked as a foreign correspondent. Word count was king, especially when he had to telegraph his work to the office and each word cost money. Fellow American Ezra Pound showed him how to take that talent for boiling down a story and make it art.
Pound had made his name in London’s cutting edge artistic circles before the war. He was a frizzy-haired poet sage with views that leaned so far right they were practically horizontal. His poetry movement Imagism pushed punchy Haiku-like short poems packed with clear visual images.
“The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.” [In a Station of the Metro, Ezra Pound 1912]
On the Cutting Edge
Pound had moved on from Imagism by the time he met Hemingway but never abandoned its key concepts of compression and clarity. He taught them to the young journalist. Hemingway cut his prose to the bone and wrote about decadent American expatriates in Paris and the testing of courage in war and sport. He added lessons learned from Gertude Stein (repetition, repetition, repetition), Sherwood Anderson (small town frankness), and Ivan Turgenev (the meaningful in the unsaid).
It was a clean, carved prose style avant-garde enough to impress the expatriate artists in Paris but simple enough to hit big in mainstream America. If anything, it was easier to read than the purple prose of more conventional writers. Hemingway’s rocket-fuelled rise to best-selling author was helped by his stories often being oblique takes on standard genres: A Farewell to Arms is a weepy melodrama rewritten as literature; The Killers is his sideways version of a gangster tale.
By the 1930s every writer who fancied himself realistic or just tough-minded was imitating Hemingway’s minimalism.
The crowd who wrote for the pulp magazine industry were big fans. Pulp writer Theodore Roscoe managed to write an autobiographical sketch in a style even more clipped than Hemingway.
“Spent some time in Paris and Marseilles. Back to take a run into Canada. Saw something of Texas. Over to Madeira and the Canary islands. Traipsed across Spain a-ways, but didn’t see a bullfight. One day in Ireland. Down to Morocco.” [The Men Who Make the Argosy, Theodore Roscoe, 1930s]
Hemingway’s influence continued to grow even after his shotgun suicide in 1961. His style became the default prose for hard boiled crime fiction and anything involving big game hunting.
No-one made any formal advances until the 1970s when George V Higgins contrasted the descriptive minimalism with dialogue from Boston lowlifes as messy and incoherent as a real-world transcript. Then Raymond Carver and his editor cut the minimalism down even further into a skeletal vehicle for tales of the quiet desperation in everyday suburban lives. A thousand creative writing courses bloomed. Hemingway’s style had returned to the world of avant-garde literary fiction where it began.
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