Literary Grudge Match: Hemingway v. Fitzgerald

I’ve been kicking around this idea of a literary “grudge match.” I take two contemporaries – ideally with a bitchy history – and do an appraisal of sorts. This likely won’t be the most rigorous or dignified literary discussion, but, eh, maybe it’ll be a little bit of fun.

And why not start with the most pugilistic writer in the history of the written word: Ernest Hemingway. It’s hard to chose which one of Papa’s adversaries to pick; he made a lot of enemies. But I would argue Hem’s most significant feud was with his long-time frenemy, F.Scott Fitzgerald.

So, I pose this glib question: Who is the better writer?


Whenever considering Fitzgerald, you must first address The Great Gatsby. Why? Because it’s the shit. The book explodes with lyrical and metaphorical possibility. Gatsby captures post-WWI America unlike any other work of its time. As such, it is the greatest novel as time-machine ever composed. It sublimates any and all hyperbole you can throw at it.

And nothing Hemingway ever did compares.


Nevertheless, while Gatsby is a huge hit, it’s not enough to knock Hem out of the fight. Papa has the body of work to go the distance. I would argue Hem never hit a true home run, but he did hit a lot of triples and doubles. The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms are brilliant novels, and there is his voluminous collection of excellent short stories like “The Snows of Mount Kilimanjaro” and “Hills Like White Elephant.”

Interestingly, Hemingway never really wrote about the American experience. There are some short stories that draw on his experience growing up, particularly the Nick Adams stories, but most of Hem’s settings are European. Moreover, most of his characters are expatriate Americans, but he rarely wrote about America qua America like F.Scott.

But I must confess, I find Hem’s lack of maturation as a writer disappointing. He mastered a winning formula early in his career with the iceberg technique and he never reached much beyond that. Moreover, he stuck near-religiously to his trademark themes: courage and grace under pressure, fractured masculinity, the meaninglessness of the universe and the redeeming quality of material, corporeal pleasure.

That said, however frustrating Hemingway’s lack of growth as an author, it doesn’t nearly measure to the disappointment of F. Scott’s unfulfilled promise. Before Gatsby, Fitzgerald wrote two minor novels, and after he completed only one more novel, Tender Is the Night, which though brilliant at moments, felt uneven and unfocused. Then there is the unfinished, posthumous, The Love of the Last Tycoon.

Why the untapped potential? In A Moveable Feast, Hemingway’s memoir about his time in Paris during the 20s, he writes of Fitzgerald:

His talent was as natural as the pattern that was made by the dust on a butterfly’s wings. At one time he understood it no more than the butterfly did and he did not know when it was brushed or marred. Later he became conscious of his damaged wings and of their construction and he learned to think and could not fly any more because the love of flight was gone and he could only remember when it had been effortless.

Throughout Feast, Hem is endlessly critical of F. Scott’s lifestyle, often mean-spiritedly. He mocks the Fitzgeralds’ tumultuous relationship and criticizes F. Scott’s alcoholism. Yeah, seriously. Hem’s biggest gripe, though – and I’m inclined to agree – was that Fitzgerald became distracted with screenwriting and maintaining an affluent lifestyle, instead of focusing on his art.

Papa is likely correct, but I can’t help but notice a shade of jealousy. Hemingway’s competitiveness is well documented, and it isn’t a stretch to conclude that he resented Fitzgerald for his talent. However, Hem could never bring himself to dismiss F. Scott’s writing, so he attacked him personally. Low blow, Papa.

In the end, I have to give this one to Hemingway. Like I said earlier, Papa’s body of work gives him the edge. If only Fitzgerald had lived longer to complete Tycoon, or perhaps another novel, we might’ve seen a return to form. Alas, it was not to be. F. Scot’s untimely death is one of the most regrettable tragedies in American literature for me.

~ by braddunne on April 14, 2014.

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