RARA-AVIS: Hemingway and His Hardboiled Children, Grebstein

From: Robison Michael R CNIN ( Robison_M@crane.navy.mil)
Date: 31 Mar 2003

Here's some comments I have on the essay out of Madden's TOUGH GUY WRITERS OF THE THIRTIES:

The central theme of Grebstein's essay is to lend support to the shaky argument that Hemingway originated the hardboiled movement. The essay is worth reading for his sharp observations, even if you find his central theme hard to digest. He compares Hemingway's TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT to Hammett's RED HARVEST and Chandler's THE BIG SLEEP.

He also notes folk heroes Paul Bunyan and Mike Fink, Cooper's Natty Bumppo, London's Wolf Larsen, Melville's Captain Ahab, and real-life characters Jesse James, Buffalo Bill, Daniel Boone, and Davy Crockett. His cataloging of their shared traits is worth quoting:

"All are physically hard and emotionally tough. All are supremely adept at their crafts. All espouse objectives which frequently do not square with conventional moral norms but which are admirable nevertheless. All are pragmatists who employ questionable means towards desirable ends. In the Darwinian terminology, they are superbly equipped in the struggle for existence; in the Nietzchean, they practice a Master rather than a Slave morality. ...They are, in short, the splendid ancestors and prototypes of the tough guy hero who emerged in the popular fiction of the Twenties and Thirties and who is still very much with us in more ways than we can possibly discern."

He is skeptical of the true Proletariat nature of TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT, and I agree with that. He also reflects my feeling that hardboiled and Proletariat are strange bedfellows:

"Although such explicit statements are rare in the tough novel, which is neither a proper medium for social reform nor a suitable forum for the exchange of ideas, the elements of class conflict and social injustice I have outlined do often provide a substructure for the strenuous action and hard-boiled manner of tough writing."

He compares the Hemingway code convincingly with hardboiled ethics, replacing loyalties to ideals with loyalties to people, a committment to their work, self-discipline, a personal familiarity with violence, and a strict sense of conduct outside the norm. He notes the similarities in views and attitudes towards death between Chandler and Hemingway, and he mentions the influence of Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and Sherwood Anderson, Mark Twain, and Stephen Crane.

Grebstein's argument that Hemingway started the hardboiled style is founded on his assertion that Hammett's first hardboiled work was a short story (Fly Paper?) written towards the end of the 1920s. He offers no explanation why none of the Black Mask authors' work before this is hardboiled. I haven't read any of these short stories, so I'm at a loss to even take a guess. I'll take care of that problem over the summer.

He concludes the essay by stating that TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT is the best tough guy novel of the decade.

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