A great deal has been written about Hemingway’s distinctive style. In fact, the two great stylists of twentieth-century American literature are William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway, and the styles of the two writers are so vastly different that there can be no comparison. For example, their styles have become so famous and so individually unique that yearly contests award prizes to people who write the best parodies of their styles. The parodies of Hemingway’s writing style are perhaps the more fun to read because of Hemingway’s ultimate simplicity and because he so often used the same style and the same themes in much of his work.
From the beginning of his writing career in the 1920s, Hemingway’s writing style occasioned a great deal of comment and controversy. Basically, a typical Hemingway novel or short story is written in simple, direct, unadorned prose. Possibly, the style developed because of his early journalistic training. The reality, however, is this: Before Hemingway began publishing his short stories and sketches, American writers affected British mannerisms. Adjectives piled on top of one another; adverbs tripped over each other. Colons clogged the flow of even short paragraphs, and the plethora of semicolons often caused readers to throw up their hands in exasperation. And then came Hemingway.
An excellent example of Hemingway’s style is found in “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.” In this story, there is no maudlin sentimentality; the plot is simple, yet highly complex and difficult. Focusing on an old man and two waiters, Hemingway says as little as possible. He lets the characters speak, and, from them, we discover the inner loneliness of two of the men and the callous prejudices of the other. When Hemingway was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1954, his writing style was singled out as one of his foremost achievements. The committee recognized his “forceful and style-making mastery of the art of modern narration.”
Hemingway has often been described as a master of dialogue; in story after story, novel after novel, readers and critics have remarked, “This is the way that these characters would really talk.” Yet, a close examination of his dialogue reveals that this is rarely the way people really speak. The effect is accomplished, rather, by calculated emphasis and repetition that makes us remember what has been said.
Perhaps some of the best of Hemingway’s much-celebrated use of dialogue occurs in “Hills Like White Elephants.” When the story opens, two characters—a man and a woman—are sitting at a table. We finally learn that the girl’s nickname is “Jig.” Eventually we learn that they are in the cafe of a train station in Spain. But Hemingway tells us nothing about them—or about their past or about their future. There is no description of them. We don’t know their ages. We know virtually nothing about them. The only information that we have about them is what we learn from their dialogue; thus this story must be read very carefully.
This spare, carefully honed and polished writing style of Hemingway was by no means spontaneous. When he worked as a journalist, he learned to report facts crisply and succinctly. He was also an obsessive revisionist. It is reported that he wrote and rewrote all, or portions, of The Old Man and the Sea more than two hundred times before he was ready to release it for publication.
Hemingway took great pains with his work; he revised tirelessly. “A writer’s style,” he said, “should be direct and personal, his imagery rich and earthy, and his words simple and vigorous.” Hemingway more than fulfilled his own requirements for good writing. His words are simple and vigorous, burnished and uniquely brilliant.