Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Book Review

The Old Man and the Sea

by Ernest Hemingway

His best. Time may show it to be the best single piece of any of us, I mean his and my contemporaries. This time, he discovered God, a Creator. Until now, his men and women had made themselves, shaped themselves out of their own clay; their victories and defeats were at the hands of each other, just to prove to themselves or one another how tough they could be. But this time, he wrote about pity: about something somewhere that made them all: the old man who had to catch the fish and then lose it, the fish that had to be caught and then lost, the sharks which had to rob the old man of his fish; made them all and loved them all and pitied them all. It's all right. Praise God that whatever made and loves and pities Hemingway and me kept him from touching it any further.

- William Faulkner in Shenandoah, Autumn 1952.


Based on a couple on comments on this post and some discussion Steve and I had, I thought it might be a good idea to do this update.

I posted this originally because it seemed a heartfelt appreciation of a book he admired and because of its unique Faulknerian sentence structure. How about the two colons in the same sentence?

I recently looked in Blotner's biography of Faulkner to see if it had anything about this review or maybe what Faulkner was doing at the time. It turns out there was a considerable backstory to this review.

In June, 1952 one of the book reviewers at New York Times asked Faulkner to do a review of The Old Man and the Sea. Faulkner liked the book and wrote a three paragraph review that he meant to be flattering. It played off a statement that Hemingway had made years before, that "writers should stick together just as doctors and lawyers and wolves do." After citing this, apparently (Blotner doesn't show this review)  Faulkner had a sentence that said something to the effect that writers who banded together were wolves, but singly were only dogs. He then went on to say (or imply?) that Hemingway was such a powerful and talented writer that he was a wolf that needed no pack.

The Times didn't run the review, but the reviewer, Harvey Breit, sent a copy to Hemingway because he thought  Hemingway would like it. As was often his wont, Hemingway made the worst possible interpretation of the review, exploded and told Breit and anyone else who would listen that Faulkner was calling him just another old dog. Breit tried to explain that wasn't the intent at all, but Hemingway wouldn't be appeased. Apparently word got back to Faulkner about it.

Later that summer, the editor of Shenandoah, the journal of Washington and Lee University, also asked Faulkner if he would review the book for them. Faulkner apparently wrote this as a peace offering that couldn't be interpreted as anything but positive.


Anonymous said...

OMG, what politic crap.


Guy Boyd said...

"The Old Man" is one of my favorites and I think it stood apart from much of his other works, but Faulkner's review seems contrived, even confused.

Guy Boyd said...

Reid, what are your thoughts?

Guy Boyd said...

Reid, what are you thoughts?

Guy Boyd said...

Thanks for the interesting background. I agree the review is positive and Faulknerian.(I can imagine Hemingway thinking that anyone praising his work should do so in a more elegant literary style.)But Faulkner misssed the boat when he asserted that Hemingway "discovered God" and "wrote about pity". In this story man does not have dominion over the fishes of the sea. It's not God that sustains Santiago, its his inner strengh, a strengh found in nature. And man and nature are cut from the same cloth-- Santiago tells himself to suffer like a man or a fish.

There's no provision for pity in nature or in the Old Man's boat and he doesn't ask for it. He exercises self-control and summons his dignity, courage, and resourcefulness, and lives with the outcomes he creates.

Reid Farmer said...

I believe you are correct and that in the review Faulkner was projecting into TOMATS how he wanted Hemingway to write, not what Hemingway actually wrote or intended to write.

Thank you for pushing to look deeper into this whole thing. What I thought was a throw-away review obviously had so much more interesting stuff going on with it.