This month, The Toronto Star released ‘The Hemingway Papers’ consisting of more than seventy original Hemingway articles presented in news-print form exactly as they appeared in the newspaper over ninety years ago. Complete with vintage adverts and comics, I dare any man or woman to unearth a relic of journalism so fine as this.
It was not until prying open the over-sized daily (adorned with a blow up of Hemingway’s 1923 passport photo) that I came to discover a certain pattern, a cipher if you will, in the technical arch of the man’s Pulitzer Prize winning writing style.
Ernest Hemingway was a negative guy. He was a fine writer, sure, but not exactly the portrait of a buoyant disposition. He entered the feral arena of news writing by way of The Kansas City Star during his late teens. The daily had a specific ‘style guide’ to which their writers must adhere: "Use short sentences. Use short first paragraphs. Use vigorous English. Be positive, not negative."
The first half of the blueprint is thought to be responsible for the machine-gun-style sentences that came to be Papa’s literary calling card. But it is the latter half that really shaped his news writing. ‘Be positive, not negative’. Difficult for an ill-fated man such as he. And so a polarity was born. A chasm between the airy tone with which he had to write and the inner gloom that presided over his brawny sentiment.
A Lesson In Passive Aggression
I’ve never enjoyed reading the news. If the paper is on the counter while I pour my morning coffee, I may turn a page or two out of counterfeit curiosity but rarely do I stick around for an entire column. If it is about something that is of great import to me I make the effort, but it is just that, an effort. I never read the news just to read. It feels watered-down. A palpable ‘just-the-facts’ approach reigns, bereft of personality, charisma or spirit.
But it’s in Hemingway’s post-WWI Toronto Star articles that a vibrant telling of the news exists. A vivid reveal of the writer mingled with an informative account of scattered goings-on. A skillful exposure of not only the event but he who reports it. The gulf between staying positive and inner gloom filled to the brim with colorful, albeit sometimes passive aggressive, news.
In a tense article published on March 6th, 1920 entitled ‘Taking A Chance For A Free Shave’, Hemingway composed a story around a relatively dry piece of news to make it not just something worth knowing, but also, something worth reading. “...for a visit to the barber college requires the cold, naked valor of the man who walks clear eyed to death. If you don’t believe it, go to the beginners’ department of the barber’s college and offer yourself for a free shave. I did.”
It’s classic Hemingwaynia. It’s teeming with gusto. It’s what news looks like when it doesn’t take the reader for a vacuous fool.
In another article, perhaps his most brazen to date, he took jabs at Canadians who ‘served their country’ by working in munition factories south of the border for the valued US dollar only to return and reap the dividend on exchange. He shared some tips on how one of these ‘slackers’ could best fit in with the Canadian service-men who saw action over seas. ‘How To Be Popular In Peace, Though A Slacker In War’ was published in The Toronto Star on March 13th, 1920. “Buy or borrow a good history of the war. Study it carefully and you will be able to talk intelligently on any part of the front...With a little conscientious study, you should be able to prove to the man who was at first and second Ypres that we was not there at all... Go to your room alone one night. Take your bank book out of your desk and read it through.... Stand in front of your mirror and look yourself in the eye and remember that there are fifty-six thousand Canadians dead in France and Flanders.”
A few weeks later, he took the opportunity to point out flagrant fear-mongering among the medical society and media alike in ‘Toothpulling Not A Cure-For-All’. Again, covering the news while injecting his two cents in an article that reads more like a Dickensian excerpt than a Canadian rag. “To the mind of the man in the street the practice of medicine is swayed by a series of fads. A few years ago we all had appendicitis. More recently we all were the unwilling victims of tonsils and adenoids. Still more recently it seemed to the layman that blood pressure controlled all things.”
In June of 1920 he took on a much more local annoyance with ‘It’s Time To Bury The Hamilton Gag, Comedians Have Worked It To Death’ which will strike a chord even with today’s Torontonians “...usually it comes out like this. First Comedian: ‘Do you live in the city?’ Second Comedian, hitting him across the face with a sausage so the audience will not forget that he is a comedian: ‘No, I live in Hamilton!’ Always someone laughs heartily... Mark him well... One thing is for certain, it is his first time at a musical show in Toronto.”
The Arc Of Greatness
Others recognize Hemingway’s early news cuts as defining works as well. “What becomes clear is the pivotal role the Star played in his development as a writer,” says Star reporter Bill Schiller. “He arrived from Chicago as a frustrated 20-year-old-unknown. He had toiled seven months at the Kansas City Star and had never earned a byline. The Star gave him that and more, not only a platform with the freewheeling Star Weekly the paper’s premier publication - but later the keys to the world by making him the Star’s correspondent in Europe.”
Sometimes the best crystal ball is simply looking to the past and recognizing the curvature to which we belong. This exclusive potpourri of columns courtesy of The Star exhibits perfectly the transfiguration of written news. The colorful past giving way to the watery future. A destiny of over-edited facts plated sloppily for the lowest common denominator while he sips his morning Nescafé.
This collection, prepared carefully and presented beautifully, is a true touchstone in news history. It’s classic Hemingwaynia. It’s teeming with gusto. It’s what news looks like when it doesn’t take the reader for a vacuous fool. It’s news I can read. Or should I say, would read.
Pick yourself up a copy and you’ll see what I mean. The Hemingway Papers is available at the Star Store.
Click here for more People stories
Click here to follow Sabotage Times on Twitter
Click here to follow Sabotage Times on Facebook