The Innovation of the American Short Story: Ernest Hemingway

The 20th century, for the American short story, had a big revolution in the short story genre. It was a time for innovation, for change; and many authors were willing to make that change happen. In the case of American literature, the largest influencer was Ernest Hemingway, a well-known international author who helped improve not only short stories but also introduced new techniques and perspectives in writing to the general literary world. To see and explain these innovations, this article will discuss the short story ‘Hills Like White Elephants’ by Hemingway. However, before discussing these texts and Hemingway's innovations to the genre, it is necessary to mention the author Antón Chekhov, the predecessor of modern short fiction (May 1994, p.199).

Figure 1: Antón Chekov

Antón Chekhov was a Russian playwright and short-story writer. His work — done in the late 19th century — served as a reference for future writers such as Hemingway. The dominant elements of Chekhov's stories were, as the literary scholar Charles E. May explains:

Character as mood rather than as either symbolic projection or realistic depiction; story as minimal lyricized sketch rather than as elaborately plotted tale; atmosphere as an ambiguous mixture of both external details and psychic projections; and a basic impressionistic apprehension of reality itself as a function of perspectival point of view (May 1994, p.199).

The examples mentioned above are just some of the new techniques that Chekhov provided to the short story genre; he gave the fundamentals for the modern short story to develop as it did, and Hemingway drew inspiration from him for his own future works.

Ernest Hemingway was an American novelist, short-story writer, and journalist. He was born and raised in Illinois. His importance in literature has always been affected by his character which has made academics avoid analysing his texts; this attitude from academics has dissipated especially since Hemingway's death in 1961 (Benson, 1990, p.13). Although mostly known for his stories, he actually worked as a journalist for most of his life, traveling around the globe. In fact, his editor Charles Scribner explained how his travels gave Hemingway more perspective in his writing: “Hemingway must have been one of the most perceptive travelers in the history of literature, and his stories taken as a whole present a world of experience” (1998, p.15). Different cultures thus inspired Hemingway in his art, with Spanish culture having the most relevance, as he has written multiple works about the country with one example being the novel The Sun Also Rises is one of his most famous stories.

Figure 2: Ernest Hemingway

There is a term, created by Hemingway, which has also changed the path of future modern short stories: "The iceberg theory". This theory is analysed by the author Kenneth G. Johnston who explains it as follows: “there are 'hidden' depths, dimensions, to the surface story which are not given direct or full statement, but which are perceived by the reader who is reading truly enough” (1984, p.70). Hemingway came up with this concept before losing most of his unreleased works, which made him reinvent himself by searching for a new way to start over. This writing technique can be seen in 'Hills Like White Elephants' as, throughout the whole story, the reason why the couple is traveling and their discomfort with one another are not explained a single time. Hemingway assumes that the reader is able to understand what is really happening in the story without the necessity of saying it outright.

The author Susan Lohafer defined Hemingway’s short stories as: “spare and concrete, yet riddled with meaning” (2012, p. 68). The definition of ‘spare’ and at the same time ‘concrete’ for Hemingway’s short stories is a great way to understand his art, as one of his main rules in the moment of writing was to be brief. He defended it was necessary to avoid any element that was not needed in the text. The biggest demonstration of this technique would be in one of his most famous stories, which only consists of six words: "For sale: baby shoes, never worn". This extremely short story gave him the recognition of being able to tell a story with the least words possible and demonstrated that creating a narrative with just six words was possible.

Figure 3: Cover of the short story "Hills Like White Elephants"

The effect of abbreviation in Hemingway's writing can be seen especially in the dialogues of his texts, which usually consist of a short exchange of words that do not majorly impact the narrative; they just lead the reader through the story and help hint at the true meaning behind the story. This technique is a clear inspiration from Chekhov's art, as the author Charles E. May explains: “What critics have referred to as Hemingway’s ‘objective magic’ and his creation of stories that seem like ‘nightmares at noonday’ derive from Chekhov’s use of the objective correlative, his objective style, and his love of irony and understatement” (May 1994, p.205). The simplicity of Hemingway’s short stories could be understood as a technique of condensation, where he eliminates so many elements of a story that it almost seems a half-told story. Still, then again, Hemingway believed that the work of the reader is to see beyond the words and find the story's true meaning beyond them.

Hemingway plays with what we know as reality: “Reality is so attenuated and restricted that it takes on a hallucinatory, dreamlike effect even when the events occur in the wide-awake daylight of the world” (May 1993, p. 373). With his techniques and the condensation in his narrations, Hemingway helped the literary genre expand and become a worldwide popularised phenomenon. Chekhov served as an inspiration and base for what Hemingway would become, and important to understand his procedures to create impressive stories with a minimum of elements. In a previous article, it was shown how Edgar Allan Poe elevated the short stories by focusing on the elements that matter and what truly helped the story reach the reader. Hemingway takes this idea and elevates it to the maximum to create a bigger impact on the reader by just giving enough information for the story to be understood. Poe demonstrated the idea of "the shorter the better", but Hemingway proves that "even the shorter, even the better".

Bibliographical references:

Benson, J. J. (1990). New critical approaches to the short stories of Ernest Hemingway. Duke University Press. Hemingway, E. (1998). The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. Simon & Schuster. Johnston, K. G. (1984). Hemingway and Freud: The Tip of the Iceberg. The Journal of Narrative Technique, 14(1), 68–73. Lohafer, S. (2012). The short story. The Cambridge Companion to American Fiction After 1945, 68-81. May, C. E. (1993). Reality in the Modern Short Story. Style, 27(3), 369–379. May, C. E. (1994). Chekhov and the Modern Short Story. In C. Edward May (Ed.), The new short story theories (pp. 199–217). Ohio University Press.

Visual Sources:

Author Photo

Maialen De Carlos

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