Hemingway’s 1926 Classic – The Sun Also Rises
The Sun Also Rises – a 1926 novel written by American author Ernest Hemingway – is about a group of American and British expatriates who travel from Paris to the Festival of San Fermín in Pamplona to watch the running of the bulls and the bullfights. An early and enduring modernist novel, it received mixed reviews upon publication. Hemingway biographer Jeffrey Meyers writes that it is “recognized as Hemingway’s greatest work”, and Hemingway scholar Linda Wagner-Martin calls it his most important novel.
In the 1920s Hemingway lived in Paris, was foreign correspondent for the Toronto Star, and traveled to places such as Smyrna to report about the Greco–Turkish War. He wanted to use his journalism experience to write fiction, believing that a story could be based on real events when a writer distilled his own experiences in such a way that, according to biographer Jeffrey Meyers, “what he made up was truer than what he remembered”
The basis for the novel was Hemingway’s 1925 trip to Spain. The setting was unique and memorable, showing seedy café life in Paris, and the excitement of the Pamplona festival, with a middle section devoted to descriptions of a fishing trip in the Pyrenees. Hemingway’s sparse writing style, combined with his restrained use of description to convey characterizations and action, became known as demonstrating the Iceberg Theory.
The novel is a roman à clef; the characters are based on real people of Hemingway’s circle, and the action is based on real events. In the novel, Hemingway presents his notion that the “Lost Generation”, considered to have been decadent, dissolute and irretrievably damaged by World War I, was resilient and strong. Additionally, Hemingway investigates the themes of love, death, renewal in nature, and the nature of masculinity.
The novel is well known for its style, which is variously described as modern, hard-boiled, or understated. As a novice writer and journalist in Paris, Hemingway turned to Ezra Pound—who had a reputation as “an unofficial minister of culture who acted as mid-wife for new literary talent”—to mark and blue-ink his short stories. From Pound, Hemingway learned to write in the modernist style: he used understatement, pared away sentimentalism, and presented images and scenes without explanations of meaning, most notably at the book’s conclusion, in which multiple future possibilities are left for Brett and Jake. The scholar Anders Hallengren writes that because Hemingway learned from Pound to “distrust adjectives,” he created a style “in accordance with the aesthetics and ethics of raising the emotional temperature towards the level of universal truth by shutting the door on sentiment, on the subjective.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald told Hemingway to “let the book’s action play itself out among its characters.” Hemingway scholar Linda Wagner-Martin writes that, in taking Fitzgerald’s advice, Hemingway produced a novel without a central narrator: “Hemingway’s book was a step ahead; it was the modernist novel.” When Fitzgerald advised Hemingway to trim at least 2500 words from the opening sequence, which was 30 pages long, Hemingway wired the publishers telling them to cut the opening 30 pages altogether. The result was a novel without a focused starting point, which was seen as a modern perspective and critically well received.
On the surface the novel is a love story between the protagonist Jake Barnes—a man whose war wound has made him impotent—and the promiscuous divorcée Lady Brett Ashley. Brett’s affair with Robert Cohn causes Jake to be upset and break off his friendship with Cohn; her seduction of the 19-year-old matador Romero causes Jake to lose his good reputation among the Spaniards in Pamplona.
Barnes is an expatriate American journalist living in Paris. He is in love with Lady Brett Ashley, a twice-divorced Englishwoman. Brett, with her bobbed hair and numerous love affairs, embodies the new sexual freedom of the 1920s.
Book One is set in the café society of young American expatriates in Paris. In the opening scenes, Jake plays tennis with his college friend Robert Cohn, picks up a prostitute (Georgette), and runs into Brett and Count Mippipopolous in a nightclub. Later, Brett tells Jake she loves him, but they both know that they have no chance at a stable relationship.
In Book Two, Jake is joined by Bill Gorton, recently arrived from New York, and Brett’s fiancé Mike Campbell, who arrives from Scotland. Jake and Bill travel south and meet Robert Cohn at Bayonne for a fishing trip in the hills northeast of Pamplona. Instead of fishing, Cohn stays in Pamplona to wait for the overdue Brett and Mike. Cohn had an affair with Brett a few weeks earlier and still feels possessive of her despite her engagement to Mike. After Jake and Bill enjoy five days of fishing the streams near Burguete, they rejoin the group in Pamplona.
All begin to drink heavily. Cohn is resented by the others, who taunt him with anti-semitic remarks. During the fiesta the characters drink, eat, watch the running of the bulls, attend bullfights, and bicker with each other. Jake introduces Brett to the 19-year-old matador Romero at the Hotel Montoya; she is smitten with him and seduces him. The jealous tension among the men builds—Jake, Campbell, Cohn, and Romero each want Brett. Cohn, who had been a champion boxer in college, has fistfights with Jake, Mike, and Romero, whom he beats up. Despite his injuries, Romero continues to perform brilliantly in the bullring.
Book Three shows the characters in the aftermath of the fiesta. Sober again, they leave Pamplona; Bill returns to Paris, Mike stays in Bayonne, and Jake goes toSan Sebastián in northeastern Spain. As Jake is about to return to Paris, he receives a telegram from Brett asking for help; she had gone to Madrid with Romero. He finds her there in a cheap hotel, without money, and without Romero. She announces she has decided to go back to Mike. The novel ends with Jake and Brett in a taxi speaking of the things that might have been.
Hemingway’s first novel was arguably his best and most important and came to be seen as an iconic modernist novel. In the book, his characters epitomized the post-war expatriate generation for future generations. He had received good reviews for his volume of short stories, In Our Time, of which Edmund Wilson wrote, “Hemingway’s prose was of the first distinction.” Wilson’s comments were enough to bring attention to the young writer.
Good reviews came in from many major publications. Conrad Aiken wrote in the New York Herald Tribune, “If there is a better dialogue to be written today I do not know where to find it”; and Bruce Barton wrote in The Atlantic that Hemingway “writes as if he had never read anybody’s writing, as if he had fashioned the art of writing himself,” and that the characters “are amazingly real and alive.” Many reviewers, among them H.L. Mencken, praised Hemingway’s style, use of understatement, and tight writing.
Other critics, however, disliked the novel. The Nation‘s critic believed Hemingway’s hard-boiled style was better suited to the short stories published in In Our Time than his novel. Writing in the New Masses, Hemingway’s friend John Dos Passos asked: “What’s the matter with American writing these days? …. The few unsad young men of this lost generation will have to look for another way of finding themselves than the one indicated here.” Privately he wrote Hemingway an apology for the review.
Hemingway’s family hated it. His mother, Grace Hemingway, distressed that she could not face the criticism at her local book study class—where it was said that her son was “prostituting a great ability …. to the lowest uses”—expressed her displeasure in a letter to him:
Reynolds believes The Sun Also Rises could only have been written in 1925: it perfectly captured the period between World War I and the Great Depression, and immortalized a group of characters. In the years since its publication, the novel has been criticized for its anti-Semitism, as expressed in the characterization of Robert Cohn. Reynolds explains that although the publishers complained to Hemingway about his description of bulls, they allowed his use of Jewish epithets, which showed the degree to which anti-Semitism was accepted in the US after World War I. Cohn represented the Jewish establishment and contemporary readers would have understood this from his description. Critics of the 1970s and 1980s considered Hemingway to be misogynistic and homophobic; by the 1990s his work, including The Sun Also Rises, began to receive critical reconsideration by female scholars.
Legacy and Adaption:
Hemingway’s work continued to be popular in the latter half of the century and after his suicide in 1961. During the 1970s, The Sun Also Rises appealed to what Beegel calls the lost generation of the Vietnam era. Aldridge writes that The Sun Also Rises has kept its appeal because the novel is about being young. The characters live in the most beautiful city in the world, spend their days traveling, fishing, drinking, making love, and generally reveling in their youth. He believes the expatriate writers of the 1920s appeal for this reason, but that Hemingway was the most successful in capturing the time and the place in The Sun Also Rises.
The novel made Hemingway famous, inspired young women across America to wear short hair and sweater sets like the heroine’s—and to act like her too—and changed writing style in ways that could be seen in any American magazine published in the next twenty years. In many ways, the novel’s stripped-down prose became a model for 20th-century American writing. Nagel writes that “The Sun Also Rises was a dramatic literary event and its effects have not diminished over the years.”
The success of The Sun Also Rises guaranteed interest from Broadway and Hollywood. In 1956 the novel was adapted to a film of the same name. It was again adapted into a film in 1984. It was adapted into a one-act opera in 2000.
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