The Writer Who Said What Hemingway Couldn’t


John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway did not know each other personally, although they had a number of friends, such as the photographer Robert Capa, in common. Both writers were nearly silent about each other’s work in public; however, as one might expect from their personalities, Steinbeck spoke very well in private of Hemingway’s work, referring to him several times in letters as “in many ways . . . the finest writer of our time,” whereas all of Hemingway’s references in his letters are disparaging of Steinbeck as a popular and prolific writer. Perhaps this reaction came in response to the precipitous rise in Steinbeck’s stock during the period from the publication of “In Dubious Battle” in 1936 to that of “The Grapes of Wrath” in 1939, at a time when Hemingway was writing little and was accused by many critics of not being sufficiently concerned with serious social issues. Until the late ‘40s, when Faulkner’s reputation began its climb, there is no doubt that Hemingway considered Steinbeck his main rival for what he called the “championship.”

The only correspondence between them was one letter from Steinbeck, who in 1939 wrote of his admiration for Hemingway’s technique in the story “The Butterfly and the Tank.” This expression of admiration appears to have led indirectly to the famous meeting in 1944 between the two at Tim Costello’s restaurant in New York, arranged by mutual friends at Hemingway’s request. Considering the younger writer’s shyness, it is not surprising that only a few words were exchanged--Hemingway took center stage, and Steinbeck hung back as one of several observers.

Included in the party was John O'Hara, who had with him an antique walking stick that Steinbeck had given to him. As they were standing at the bar, Hemingway contended scornfully that O'Hara’s stick was not really a blackthorn. When O'Hara protested that it was, the other novelist bet him $50 he could break it and proceeded to pull it down over the top of his head, splitting it in two. O'Hara was mortified, and Steinbeck, standing in the background, thought the whole incident stupid. For several years thereafer, Steinbeck held very ambivalent feelings about an author whose work he admired but whose behavior he detested. Later, when the rivalry between Hemingway and Faulkner became intense, the Californian commented in disgust that the two seemed to be “fighting over billing on a tombstone.”


For his part, Hemingway continued to be unimpressed by the work of the younger novelist. The only recorded comment of a specific nature came to John in 1948, when his editor, Pascal Covici, passed on a remark heard by a third person: “Hemingway said he could not read Steinbeck anymore after the last scene in ‘Grapes of Wrath’ wherein the starving man seeks food at the breasts of the dying woman. Hemingway said that ‘aside from anything else, that’s hardly the solution to our economic problem.’ ” Steinbeck wrote back to Covici, “Mr. Hemingway’s analysis is not quite valid, but very funny.” The older writer may have been exercising his wit, but he also seems to have missed the point, since in his biological metaphor Steinbeck had presented what he thought was the solution to an economic system based on selfish possessiveness.

Again, as one might expect, Steinbeck had a somewhat better understanding of what Hemingway was saying in his fiction than the other way around, although his admiration was not uncritical. Hemingway’s witticism at the expense of “The Grapes of Wrath” seems not to have embittered its author when, three years later, he wrote in the manuscript of “East of Eden”:

“In my time, Ernest Hemingway wrote a certain kind of story better and more effectively than it had ever been done before. He was properly accepted and acclaimed. He was imitated almost slavishly by every young writer, including me, not only in America but in the world. He wrote a special kind of story out of a special kind of mind and about special moods and situations. When his method was accepted, no other method was admired. The method or style not only conditioned the stories but the thinking of his generation. Superb as his method is, there are many things which cannot be said using it. The result of his acceptance was that writers did not write about those things which could not be said in the Hemingway manner, and gradually they did not think them either.”

This passage is part of a long digression (excised before the manuscript was published) which is an apologia for writing a novel that may not fit its readers’ expectations. He was writing “East of Eden” in a manner more like that of Fielding than modern taste, conditioned by the tough, elliptical style of Hemingway, might allow. In his anticipation of criticism that his book was too slow, digressive, and talkative, Steinbeck was right. Whether or not the criticism was prompted by Hemingway’s conditioning is a moot question, but certainly Steinbeck felt that it was, and he shared with a number of other novelists a resentment of the narrowing of taste caused, in their view, by Hemingway’s influence.

Steinbeck was trying to protect himself from being considered a disciple of Hemingway, just as Hemingway much earlier had hotly denied the palpable influence of Sherwood Anderson (an influence that he never could bring himself to acknowledge). But Hemingway’s personality was so dominating and his style so commanding that they pulled Steinbeck into his orbit regardless of Steinbeck’s conscious resistance. Despite his dislike of the Hemingway public persona, he found himself drawn to identify with it to some extent, just as so many others at the time found themselves entranced, whether they wanted to be or not.

When Hemingway was mistakenly reported killed in January, 1954, in a small plane crash in Uganda, the news came to John and his wife while they were vacationing in the Caribbean. Deeply moved, John went out to walk by himself along the beach for several hours, and by the time he got back, his wife was able to rush out to greet him with the corrected bulletin that Hemingway had survived. Rather than relieved, John was almost angry as he said, “Wouldn’t you know! . . . Isn’t that just like him, to scare us that way?”

In the mid-1940s, both men at nearly the same time began to wear beards, and Steinbeck, defensive at the coincidence, made a point of telling everyone that he had grown his because he had skin problems. Later in their lives, however, when both once again had beards, Steinbeck was occasionally asked: “Mr. Hemingway, may I have your autograph?” and in good humor he would sign “Ernest Hemingway.” Fortunately for us, however, these were two very different men. They embodied in their almost parallel careers two contrasting ways of looking at the modern world, presenting to us a choice of dangers and a choice of courses of action.

Steinbeck suggested to us that we can either husband our resources, maintain an intimate relationship with the Earth and its creatures, and learn to care for each other in time of need or perish in our blind egotisms, our selfish competitiveness, or our self-hatreds. Steinbeck, the farmer. Hemingway suggested that we must learn to master our environment, compete successfully in the arenas of society and nature, and have the courage to face alone the certain hardships that living entails, or we can be victimized by our surroundings, be forced to surrender our freedom and lose our individual identities, and be enslaved by our fears and illusions. Hemingway, the hunter.

Farmer and hunter--two opposing, traditional roles that date back to prehistory and still compete for our allegiance in the modern age. Steinbeck and Hemingway--between them they would seem to have embodied the fundamental values of the American character. If this is so, we may be able to discern in their fictions the moral alternatives before us, not only as individuals but as a society.

The conclusion of “Looking for Steinbeck’s Ghost” (University of Oklahoma Press: $24.95).