Hemingway scales the literary heights by plumbing human depths.
The great film director John Huston once made an interesting observation about Ernest Hemingway. He said Hemingway had fallen out of fashion because he wrote about courage. Huston didn't mean courage like Liam Neeson facing a pack of wolves or a terrorist. He meant the willingness to face temporality and mortality, and accept them for what they are. He meant the willingness to try to achieve things of great personal value while realizing none of them would last, and none of them truly mattered. The cultural trend has always been to tell people they're special and what they think and do matters and will last. But Hemingway considers that a conceit. 99.99999% of people are simply forgotten. The things they did are forgotten too.
This has happened to the most famous people of their eras. Name a U.S. governor who was in office during the Civil War. Name the wealthiest landowner of imperial Rome. They probably never imagined they'd be forgotten. Human temporality and mortality, set against the backdrop of nature or conflict, is Hemingway's thing. Nihilistic themes date from the earliest literature, but Hemingway, in projecting these ideas through a modern, almost pop culture lens, spoke for generations who had experienced two of the largest and deadliest wars in human history—we're talking well over 100 million dead. Hemingway was wounded in Italy in 1918. George Orwell was shot through the throat in Spain in 1937 during a precursor conflict to World War II. Erich Maria Remarque sustained multiple wounds in World War I. Imagine literature without them.
100 million war dead, among them writers who never wrote, painters who never painted, inventors who never invented. The world lost untold human capital, immeasurable progress. The literary public was ready for authors to tackle the senselessness of warfare. The between-wars period, encompassing a flu pandemic that killed 50 million, followed by the Great Depression, was likewise a wellspring of disillusionment. All these upheavals made clear that everything hangs by the barest thread. That level of suffering is unknown in the U.S. today, a country that has had its constant warfare sanitized for easy consumption, and that's really why Hemingway is out of favor—because his themes are almost alien to an American public that has forgotten what it means to suffer on a mass scale.
But while it's been fashionable for the last forty or so years to bash Hemingway, it's a self defeating exercise. We think what people usually mean to bash is his stature, or his out-of-date attitudes, which are understandable criticisms. However, to say he's a bad writer is to make oneself look ridiculous. We've said a few times before, and we'll say again here, that a good writer teaches you how to read their work. It's similar to the idea of willing suspension of disbelief in cinema. You accept the premise, or don't bother watching the film in the first place. It's okay to dislike a book as long as you try to read it on the terms the author asks. Otherwise, why bother? You read an adventure author on his or her terms, a mystery author on their terms, and a sleaze author on their terms. And certainly, you read a literary author on their terms. None of this is to say Hemingway didn't have flaws, particularly when viewed trough a modern social lens. At Pulp, we tend to view writers as content producers first. For example, we pointed out recently that Camilo José Cela was a fascist. We personally are the opposite. But Cela still could write. Seeking enrichment only from ethically pure artists makes for a meager diet, and ethical purists should be forewarned—though modern judgments are necessary tools for measuring our progress, judgments come down the pike for everyone eventually. Legions of twenty-somethings who think they're pristine will one day be blamed for enabling slavery because they used smartphones dependent upon forced labor in African cobalt mines. Ethics evolve, and generational judgment comes for all. Green Hills of Africa, originally published in 1935, with the Perma Books edition you see above coming in 1956 with Robert Schulz cover art, is autobiographical. A thirty-six year old Hemingway goes on safari mainly in Tanzania, and sets his personal goals against vast and indifferent wilds. By design nothing important seems to happen, but through his descriptive powers he brings Africa to the fore, and makes himself a bit player, just an ant on the endless landscape. The narrative could be shorter and more focused, but even as it rambles the same way Hemingway rambles across the dry plains, his wide ranging hunt for kudu, rhino, and lion assumes an almighty personal importance. His desire draws you in. His many small triumphs and failures become increasingly gripping, and sharpen the irony of his own impermanence and the impermanence of his acts.
But as we've mentioned before, Hemingway and his ilk operated under an earlier—and mistaken—ecological understanding. Our acts actually do matter, not because we're individually important, but in the accumulation of our billions of tiny effects. Hemingway assumed humans had no meaningful impact on nature. Now we know that's only half true—we're impossibly insignificant and incredibly impactful. We're tiny animalcules that have heedlessly wrecked a vast ecosystem. Green Hills of Africa is like a work of high fantasy, taking place in a reality that never truly existed. Despite its mistaken assumption, it does exactly what Hemingway wanted—says that nature is implacable, while human acts, achievements, and loves are comically impermanent. That was his message, a message people were ready to hear. That was Hemingway.
I'm pummeling you extra because I know when you tell the story later you'll say a man did it.
We already showed you a great 1958 Panther Books cover for Dashiell Hammett's 1929 debut novel Red Harvest. This cover comes from Perma and hit newsstands in 1956 with art by Lou Marchetti. We found it on Flickr. Hammett falls into that rare category of authors: a game changer. And this first book length effort from him is amazing. You can read a bit more about it here.
Now that you've shot the continent's last white rhino can we do something I think is romantic?
Jonathan Latimer's African adventure novel Dark Memory needs a more grandiose title, because it's pure Hemingway, and you know how lyrical his titles were. Latimer's novel is about nature, and courage, and women. It reads as if he said to himself after finishing Green Hills of Africa, “I wonder if I could do something like what Papa did here?” Well, he could. Dark Memory is a totally absorbing safari tale, a slice of time long gone. Latimer is in what we call the “trusted” category. He's set-and-forget. He's a concierge who's never failed a customer. If he wants to take us on an African safari, all we can say is, “Where do we get our malaria shots?”
Today people who hunt big game are excoriated on social media, and we understand why. The animals they shoot are simply too rare and valuable to be killed for ego. The hunters of yesteryear also killed for ego, but did so under a more limited ecological understanding and more lax political circumstances. Some practices of the past shouldn't survive, and killing lions for their skins shouldn't survive any more than should gladiatorial combat with swords. Big game hunters of today know that these African animals will be slaughtered unto extinction, but they simply don't care. Some might not want to shoot the last one, or hundredth one, or thousandth, but they're offset by sociopaths who'd pay a fortune to usher a species to oblivion. It's basic economics. The rarer the animal the more someone will pay to kill it.
If you were to search Dark Memory for good explanations why people kill African wildlife you'd be disappointed. Killing to prove one's own courage, killing a silverback gorilla carrying an infant, all seems shallow and pointless even to the main character, Jay Nichols, part of a group slogging through the wilds of Belgian Congo. When he later refers to the shooting—actually his shooting—of that female gorilla as a murder, his feelings are made crystal clear. In one scene another hunter explains how, during his current duties guiding a party of Brits, they've killed two hippos. For no reason except vanity. Then he lists the other casualties: “Zebra, eland, antelope, kuku, oryx, wildebeest, hartebeest, topi, [impala], waterbuck, dik-dik, oribi, bushbuck, reedbuck. I can't remember them all. Yes, and a number of different gazelles. We've killed more than two-hundred animals.”
Latimer is a show-not-tell type of writer, but seems to suggest that, while shooting a charging animal may prove a type of courage, it's of the crudest kind. The same rough men don't have enough courage to be truthful. Nor do they have the guts to be evenhanded—they must always weight the scales. Fairness angers them, because then they lose their advantages. But the book is only partly about all this. There's a woman on the expedition, Eve Salles, and her role barely differs from that of the animals. She's to be conquered for vanity too. In the context of this difficult trek through the Congolese jungle, she will be left in peace only if she belongs to someone. If the cruel, intimidating asshole running the safari has his druthers, it'll be him. She resists this depressing reality, but how long can she last?
Latimer tackles his themes declaratively, methodically, repetitively, and close to flawlessly. The man could definitely weave a tale, but for modern readers it'll be uncomfortable because he occasionally takes the route of racism in his descriptive passages. That's often true of vintage literature. We write—for a living even—so we never cut ourselves off from good writing. There's always something to learn. But those who read for pleasure should focus on the pleasure first. You have no other obligation, because there's plenty of good writing out there that doesn't equate gorillas and black men. But if, like the hunters in this book, you can trek past the hazards, your patience and forbearance will be rewarded—with high tension, savage action, deep reflection, and extraordinary visual power.
In the end, Dark Memory turns out to be a safari adventure that deftly channels the mid-century classics—Hemingway, Blixen, and others. Like those books, there's a level of dismissal toward the inhabitants of the land the characters claim to love, yet also like those books, there's insight into that rarefied realm of rich white Americans in the African wild. Latimer, a highly regarded crime writer, added big outdoor adventure to his résumé with Dark Memory, and as far as we're concerned he pulled it off. Originally published in 1940, the cover at top is from the 1953 Perma-Doubleday edition, painted by Carl Bobertz. It's actually a Canadian cover. We know only because every edition we've seen online has the price of 35¢, and a small notation that says: in Canada 39¢. Ours being 39¢, it must be Canadian. Brilliantly deduced, eh?
It was horrible! *sob* I don't know if I'll ever get over it. I'm so— Are you seriously grabbing my ass right now?
We can't actually see where the man's other hand is on this uncredited cover for Robert Sylvester's 1953 novel Indian Summer, but no matter what's happening around a man he's always thinking about sex. At least a little. It isn't so weird. We know from the Pulp Intl. girlfriends that they're always thinking about chocolate. A little. Fortunately for both of them, they're tiny, so their obsession has cost them nothing. Men thinking about sex all the time? It costs them plenty. Which is what mid-century fiction is mostly about.
Stop your damn whining! I always ask you nicely to help out around here but you never listen until I act like a bitch!
A bit of western art today, a cover for Hot Town, from Perma Books and Frank Malachy, aka Frank McAuliffe. This is from 1956, with art by veteran frontier painter Tom Ryan.
Hemingway's lament for the downtrodden working class is supposed to be his worst novel. But is it really?
Don't let the cover blurbs fool you. In general To Have and Have Not is considered by critics to be Ernest Hemingway's worst novel. Originally published in 1937, it was completely rewritten and became a great 1944 movie with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. If you've already seen the movie but never read the book, hold onto your hats, because this is extraordinarily rough stuff from Hemingway, a tale of desperation and murder in the depths of the Great Depression. Harry Morgan is a Key West boat captain who's stiffed for $825 after his three-week charter skips town. That would be about $15,000 in today's money, so it's no surprise that losing this bundle means Morgan, who's married, has three kids, the usual assortment of bills and responsibilities, and has spent his life fighting to get ahead, is now destitute.
If you opt to read the book, make sure not to gloss over exactly how far in the hole Morgan is. $825 dollars would bend the morals of most people in 1937, just as $15,000 would today. After being cheated out of this cash he makes a fateful decision to turn criminal himself by running illegals from Cuba to Florida. That's when things go from bad to worse. If you look closely at the cover art on this Perma Books edition from 1953 you'll see what the result of Morgan's criminal foray was. That's one reason cover art is so interesting. The scene the artist chooses to depict—in this case it's Tom Dunn—can sometimes be so specific as to give away an important plot point. If you can't tell what we're talking about by looking at the art we'll give you a hint. What happens to Morgan is the also title of an earlier Hemingway book.
But moving on, To Have and Have Not is—we'll just come out and say it—brutally racist. There are some who would like to gaslight you into thinking you're seeing something that isn't there, and others who would prefer you to ignore this, but you shouldn't, because racism is actually pivotal in the narrative. Morgan's initial foray into crime is against people he clearly feels are subhuman. They and other ethnic groups are referred to with slurs, and these come not just from Morgan's mouth, and from his thoughts, but from the writer's thoughts too. There are places where Morgan uses actual names to refer to characters that Hemingway still refers to by slurs. Think: “Hey Joe, give me a hand with these poles,” said Harry. The [slur] put down his coffee and helped Harry with the poles. So while it's always good to separate the author from their fiction so they have freedom to create any sort of characters they wish, it still raises an eyebrow when you read something like that.
Another aspect of To Have and Have Not that may jar is its lack of sympathetic characters. Morgan's ex-prostitute wife Marie is probably the nicest person in the book, and even she drops n-bombs all over place. But you have to root for someone, so it's her and Harry. You do it because they're at the economic mercy of terrible people. Most of these folks—who are generally of a better class—wouldn't use racial slurs, but they also wouldn't think twice about ruining someone for a few dollars. And while Harry employs a black man and gets along with him fine, you can be sure none of his rich charters would let a black man deign to speak to them. So in its way, To Have and Have Not is relevant in 2020 by starring a working class character who's uncouth, uneducated, and devoid of genuine empathy, but who constantly deals with people that think they're better than him and really aren't.
This is why losing the charter and those $825 bucks is such a clever way to open the novel. The charter, Johnson, flies away and doubtless never gives what he did much thought, but in shafting a working man creates wreckage that crushes not just the man he cheated, but those around him. We think this is the way to focus on the book if you read it—acknowledge the obvious deficiencies of Harry Morgan, but pay close attention to the secondary characters. This is what Hemingway wanted, which is why Morgan's narration lasts for only a while. Everything after his first crime caper is told from outside his point of view. As the book goes on, Hemingway drags you deeper into the lives of these ancillary characters, dispassionately leaving a struggling Morgan to recede into the distance.
So is To Have and Have Not Hemingway's worst book? We don't like it as much as his other works, but with its changes in point-of-view, mood, and even narrative tense, it's also more challenging than those books. Ultimately, the most serious indictment of To Have and Have Not comes from the author himself—he thought it was his worst book too. And who are we argue with Ernest Hemingway? But on the other hand, when you write The Sun Also Rises and For Whom the Bell Tolls, and win a Pulitzer Prize for The Old Man and the Sea, and later win a Nobel Prize for your body of work, your worst book can still be pretty good.
To a true hunter everyone is prey.
Richard Stark's, aka Donald E. Westlake's The Hunter, which was also published as Point Blank, is a landmark in crime literature, a precursor to characters like Jack Reacher. The standout qualities of this novel are its brutality and its smash cuts from set-piece to set-piece. As an example of the former, the main character, named Parker, basically scares a woman into committing suicide, dumps her body in a park, and slashes her face post-mortem as a way of foiling police attempts at identification. The latter quality, the narrative's disorienting transitions, is exemplified by a chapter that ends with Parker's hands mid-murder around an enemy's throat, and the next opening with him sitting in another enemy's house, holding a gun on him as he walks through the door. Westlake stripped away every bit of transitional prose he could in order to create breakneck pacing and heightened menace. Parker is not only dangerous, but is also emotionally barren. He feels nothing beyond the need to best his rivals. Permanently. Westlake's publisher knew The Hunter was something special, and convinced him to turn what was supposed to be a stand-alone novel into a series. Twenty-four entries in that series speak to its success. This first of the lot is highly recommendable. It came from Perma Books in 1962, and the excellent cover art featuring Parker's lethally large hands is by Harry Bennett.
Famed author Ian Fleming arrested after strangulation rampage at his publishing company.
We talked about how Ian Fleming feuded with his publisher Perma Books over name changes to his James Bond novels. This is another one of the offending paperbacks, 1957's Too Hot To Handle. Not only had this book already been successfully published as Moonraker by the British hardback imprint Jonathan Cape, but the Lou Marchetti cover art Perma used doesn't fit the Bond brand at all. Signet Books did infinitely better when it got the rights in 1960. As far as Fleming trying to strangle everyone at Perma, we can't confirm that as fact. But we bet he thought about it.
He's been eaten down to the bones. I don't know about you but this is by far the worst case of frostbite I've ever seen.
We imagine Boston born author James Holden sitting around one bitterly cold night, probably just a little tipsy from drinking warm brandy, staring out at a December snowstorm, thinking to himself that if anyone's out there in such terrible weather they're risking frostbite. And then his eyes grow wide and he says aloud, “What if the frost... takes more... than just a bite? Yes! Writer's block cured!” And some months later he finishes Snow Fury, in which the snow eats people entirely. Yep. How could snow eat people? Might have something to do with a scientific experiment run amok. And just to push the entire concept to full fruition Holden named the main character David Storm. Well, at least the cover is brilliant, and for that you can thank James Meese. This Perma edition is from 1956 and the book originally appeared in hardback in 1955.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1930—Movie Censorship Enacted
In the U.S., the Motion Pictures Production Code is instituted, imposing strict censorship guidelines on the depiction of sex, crime, religion, violence and racial mixing in film. The censorship holds sway over Hollywood for the next thirty-eight years, and becomes known as the Hays Code, after its creator, Will H. Hays.
1970—Japan Airlines Flight 351 Hijacked
In Japan, nine samurai sword wielding members of the Japanese Communist League-Red Army Faction hijack Japan Airlines flight 351, which had been en route from Tokyo to Fukuoka. After releasing the passengers, the hijackers proceed to Pyongyang, North Koreas's Mirim Airport, where they surrender to North Korean authorities and are given asylum.
1986—Jimmy Cagney Dies
American movie actor James Francis Cagney, Jr., who played a variety of roles in everything from romances to musicals but was best known as a quintessential tough guy, dies of a heart attack at his farm in Stanfordville, New York at the age of eighty-six.
1951—The Rosenbergs Are Convicted of Espionage
Americans Ethel and Julius Rosenberg are convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage as a result of passing nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union. While declassified documents seem to confirm Julius Rosenberg's role as a spy, Ethel Rosenberg's involvement is still a matter of dispute. Both Rosenbergs were executed on June 19, 1953.
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