Hemingway and Faulkner: Tracing Their Resemblances

by Robert Drake

Robert Drake is professor of English at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, November 15, 1978, pp. 1104-1106. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Hemingway and Faulkner, who were contemporaries, shared some of the same concerns, wrote on some of the same situations, became obsessed by some of the same themes — yet they seem about as different as two writers can be from the standpoint of style and geography.

When someone asked me several years ago why I was offering a seminar in Hemingway and Faulkner, what the two writers had in common, and what it all meant anyway (or such I take to have been the design, of the question). I was at first hard put to think of some straightforward answer that would be critically acceptable. I knew, of course, that it made sense to teach the two writers together, but I hadn’t then thought very much about influences, comparisons and contrasts, affinities, rankings in the literary hierarchy and so on. So all I could muster up by way of reply, at least for that moment, was: "Well, they’re both American writers of novels, they both won the Nobel Prize, and they’re both dead."

I don’t know whether this, retort -- fairly discourteous -- settled anything for my questioner. But I think it may have for me, having been thus put on the spot; because it seemed to me that these reasons were about as good as any that might come along, unless one is prepared to do a lot of spadework. And that of course was the whole purpose of my course anyway -- to get the students to do the spadework.

But perhaps my reasons weren’t altogether frivolous, and perhaps it does mean something that both these American novelists won the greatest of the literary awards and that they’re both dead. Now that they have passed into the Valhalla of the utterly eminent, it’s hard to get at them -- at least for the world we live in. And perhaps these men, who were contemporaries, did share some of the same concerns; write on some of the same situations, become obsessed by some of the same themes -- albeit they seem about as different as two writers can be, from the standpoint of style and geography.


But let’s look at them briefly and see what resemblances we can trace out. I would say that both these writers are fundamentally concerned with behavior, deportment, human conduct in the face of formidable, even overwhelming forces. The familiar Hemingway conflict, we are told, deals with grace under pressure -- or rather that’s what the Hemingway hero strives for: he’s the Good Sport and must play the game, not really caring whether he wins or loses but rather what the One Great Scorer (and this is about as close as Hemingway ever gets to the divine or even the cosmic) thinks of the game he’s played. Has he comported himself with dignity and like a man? All the Hemingway heroes, from Jake Barnes down to old Santiago, seem to think that this is the overwhelming question every man, must face. And the worst thing one can be in the Hemingway world is a bad player -- not necessarily, a cheat or a trickster, but a simple mess. That’s really what’s wrong with people like Robert Cohn: they strike attitudes, they complain, they whine, but they don’t do anything.

But the Hemingway hero, whether in the gangster world or the Plaza de Toros or up in the Michigan forests or the Spanish mountains, always behaves; and his life is accordingly a thing of order and symmetry -- the order of the clean, well-lighted place which it’s his whole aim to create, in the midst of the Waste Land, the Great Nada. Death, for Hemingway, isn’t nearly so bad as the Great Nothing, the Great Mess.


I think Faulkner holds to this same code. (Notice how quickly one uses such words as "code" in speaking of Hemingway.) Faulkner too is concerned with behavior: how one behaves toward others now and how one behaves to those in the past -- how one behaves toward history. His code may not be so easily discernible at first (he has not the deceptive simplicity of Hemingway); but he too believes in good behavior, I think. And he’s’ especially concerned, as in The Bear and, say. Absalom, Absalom -- both extremely ambitious and difficult works -- with how such behavior is learned. Faulkner’s world is threatened by Nada, too, but his more tangible enemies are gold and greed and the intellect which thinks in terms of them alone. Both Hemingway and Faulkner seem to be pretty anti-intellectual writers, for what that’s worth. Neither knocks the intellect as such: it’s all right in its place, only one mustn’t ever let it get too far above itself, to take over the whole person. And both these men very much believe in the whole person, not the fragmented, even maimed creature of the 20th century, but the individual who can live life fully, completely, joyfully -- despite whatever wounds he or she may have.

Both writers also seem concerned with how we are to behave to the natural world around us. (Were they ecologists ahead of their time?) The earth is good, its fruits are good, and it’s all placed here for our benefit; but we are stewards (a word I inevitably think of in connection with Faulkner) and must not betray our trust. Nature is not another commodity to be used, let alone bought and sold; rather, she is a mother, a goddess, whom one must learn no serve properly and on her own terms (Wordsworth?), or else she will withhold her favors, her blessings. No modern author I can think of can describe the simple pleasures of eating and drinking (and provide accompanying menus) more effectively than Hemingway; no modern writer can more lyrically describe a spring or fall countryside than Faulkner. Yet none of this is by way of travelogue. It’s as though both men were implying that, yes, the earth is good, but you must use it well, be a good steward over it. You must behave toward it.


Perhaps my very random remarks jibe with something Robert Penn Warren once observed about Faulkner: he said that the most important word, perhaps the key word, in studying Faulkner is piety; that’s Faulkner’s main concern. And I think the same observation might be hazarded of Hemingway. One might even ponder whether Richard. M. Weaver’s diagnosis of modern humanity’s malaise in Ideas Have Consequences might not be pertinent for both writers. Weaver said that modern people are signally lacking in three forms of piety: (1) piety toward the past, (2) piety toward nature, and (3) piety toward other human beings. Certainly, the past and our relationship to it seem more nearly central concerns in Faulkner, but Hemingway’s, heroes can, on occasion, be very good rememberers too. Faulkner seems more definitely rooted in one place, one geography, than Hemingway: his piety for nature is piety for southern nature. But though Hemingway varies his terrains, it’s always the same spiritual terrain he writes about: the terrain of the torero and of the bull, the Good Sport and the Great Nada.

Where a person’s relations with other human beings are concerned, both writers seem thoroughly initiated: neither believes in Santa Claus, though its not always easy to tell where the displaced belief has resurfaced. Cleanth Brooks implies that Faulkner doesn’t believe in humanity: he believes in God -- if I may strain a point in Mr. Brooks’s interpretation of The Sound and the Fury. Does Hemingway believe in God? It’s hard to say. Maybe the code, as Brett Ashley suggests, is what the initiates have instead of God. Sometimes he speaks of "they," which may be the purblind doomsters of Thomas Hardy or whatever blind chance seems to be running the universe. And it’s usually a pretty hostile "they," if Frederic . Henry’s reflections or those of the narrator of "My Old Man" are anything to go on. Whether there’s an order, a purpose behind the universe, Hemingway, seems in more doubt than Faulkner. His whole code and one’s allegiance to it suggest, however, that somehow, somewhere, human beings have acquired the faculty of imposing meaning on the meaningless; and this imposed order becomes a kind of substitute for an intelligible universe, which may or may not be presided over by a Nature greater than our own. But whence comes this particular human faculty? Hemingway doesn’t say: he plays about as close to the chest as you can get.

Anyhow, neither of these men seems to believe in natural human goodness or perfectibility. The pages of both writers contain some pretty dark accounts of the doings -- or devilment -- of which people are capable. They can treat other persons as things, as commodities, as people to be bought and sold. Or they can respect others as humans like themselves, whether God-created or not, and behave accordingly. Again, the word behave, which in turn suggests considerations of morality, value, significance, all sorts of things. Whether there’s a moral order, inherent in the universe or whether (who knows how?) we impose that order ourselves, such seems the best climate for human being, and their concerns. It is intelligible, and actions, things, whatever, do matter; they do count.


Perhaps further than this we’d better not venture. We don’t want to yoke too many images together by violence, push our resemblances too hard. Stylistically, of course, there’s all the difference in the world’ between these two writers; yet each style seems appropriate -- indeed, inevitable -- for the tales they propose to tell. Their emphasis, their tales are often so different. Yet out of all this there do emerge some similarities which I think it important to note. Perhaps it’s no accident that Faulkner, when notified that he had won the Nobel Prize, said that he thought it should have gone to Hemingway. In like fashion, perhaps Hemingway’s presumed slap at the rhetoric of Faulkner’s acceptance speech when he himself came to win the prize later on ought to be taken for what it’s worth too -- but no more. Suffice it to say that each of these artists was aware of the other, knew him, knew his work, knew they were both there. And for good or for ill, neither of them could ever forget it.