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Poison Pens: Kirk Curnutt’s Review of “Faulkner and Hemingway: Biography of a Literary Rivalry” by Joe Fruscione

Poison Pens: Kirk Curnutt’s Review of “Faulkner and Hemingway: Biography of a Literary Rivalry” by Joe Fruscione


 It is my pleasure to publish Kirk Curnutt’s review of Joe Fruscione’s book, Faulkner and Hemingway: Biography of a Literary Rivalry, here on The Hemingway Project.  Joe’s book was published in January and gives us insight into the complicated and rancorous rivalry between two titans of twentieth century literature, Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner. I am grateful to Joe for the opportunity to share his valuable work and to Kirk, for his thoughtful and insightful reviews.  Enjoy!

     ~ Allie

Faulkner and Hemingway: Biography of a Literary Rivalry by Joseph Fruscione. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 2012. ISBN: 9780814211748. 263 pp. Hardback: $49.95

Hemingway and the Black Renaissance edited by Gary Edward Holcomb and Charles Scruggs. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 2012. ISBN: 9780814211779. 246 pp. Hardback: $52.95.

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Here’s an interesting experiment:

Search Google Images for “Hemingway and Faulkner”—or, if you prefer, “Faulkner and Hemingway.” What pops up, surprisingly, aren’t just pictures of these two tent-poles of modernism, who if they ever met probably met only once (the evidence is sketchy), corresponded only infrequently, and generally had mean things to say about each other in the press. Instead, what appears are amateur illustrations and photo memes of the sort that flow incessantly these days across social networking sites such as Pinterest, Tumblr, Reddit, and the biggest Eye of Sauron of them all, Facebook.

Most of these graphics make use of two quotes:

Faulkner on Hemingway:

“He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.”

Hemingway on Faulkner:

“Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?”

Given the Internet’s ability to reduce complexities to the level of a cute Lolcatz picture, we should be wary of the sheer proliferation of these citations—or at least of the absence of other quotes that might put them in some context. Literary rivalries have always been great for inspiring memorable putdowns, but rarely do the putdowns themselves convey the whole story of why authors go poison pen on each other. Fortunately, we have marvelous studies such as Joe Fruscione’s Faulkner and Hemingway: Biography of a Literary Rivalry to demonstrate, succinctly and yet thoroughly, that the rancor isn’t as cartoonish as these entertaining insults can seem.

Of course, most fans of Ernie and Bill probably know the general outline of their rivalry. Although he was almost two years younger, Hemingway gained renown first, capitalizing on expatriate disaffection and turning Paris into a destination for lost-generation vagabonds eager to sip absinthe, watch bullfights, and go to pot just like the characters in The Sun Also Rises. Hemingway’s association with the city of light and his relentless globetrotting probably had some influence on Faulkner’s decision to stake his métier in that “little postage stamp of native soil” known as Yoknapatawpha. Certainly, Paris was as inversely barren a milieu for him in 1925 as it was fruitful for Hemingway’s art. (The French capital’s greatest legacy for W.F. is the marvelous closing scene in Sanctuary, in which Temple Drake sits with her father in the Jardin du Luxembourg yawning at a classical-music concert).

By the early 1930s, however, Faulkner was in his prolific major phase with The Sound and the Fury, Sanctuary, As I Lay Dying, These 13, and Light in August following one another with breathtaking speed. Somewhat floundering after A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway couldn’t help but notice the competition and took potshots in Death in the Afternoon. “You can’t go wrong on Faulkner,” Ernest grumps. “He’s prolific too. By the time you get [his books] ordered there’ll be new ones out.”

By the 1940s, amid each man’s professional ups and down, Faulkner would spin gold from dross by co-authoring the screenplay to Howard Hawks’ adaptation of To Have and Have Not. E. H. would snipe so much Faulkner finally took umbrage and publicly ranked his rival fourth among his generation’s greatest American writers, adding insult to injury by placing him not only after himself but two particular Hemingway bête-noirs, Thomas Wolfe and John Dos Passos. Amid a smattering of letters, the pair staked their terrain. Hemingway was apoplectic when Faulkner won the Nobel Prize in 1949, a full five years before his own selection, but the two were generally congenial to each other and saved their venting for confidants. Both men could be intermittently generous in their praise. Not surprisingly, Hemingway spewed the most bile. By the time of the thoroughly unpleasant “The Art of the Short Story” (written 1959, but not published until 1981), he uncharitably ascribed W. F.’s decline to “the sauce” while denying the deleterious effects of his own alcoholism.

And calling Faulkner a “rummy” is kids’ play compared to the epithet he used in private correspondence.

(Hint: Rhymes with the last name of Alan Funt).

The chronology of this parrying has been mapped before, most compactly in George Monteiro’s essay “The Faulkner-Hemingway Rivalry” in Joseph Urgo and Ann Abadie’s Faulkner and His Contemporaries (2004). What is compelling in Fruscione’s study is the way he extends these biographical skirmishes to the authors’ writing, and how he discovers in them an intertextual back-and-forth that makes the contest less about professional jealousy and stature-jockeying than aesthetics. The book takes a persuasive ride through both major and minor works to demonstrate the differences involve so much more than polysyllables and dictionaries.

Among the many highlights:

In an early chapter on the 1920s, Fruscione explores how differently each author unburdened himself of the anxiety of Sherwood Anderson’s influence. This is well-trod territory, of course, what with Hemingway mercilessly burlesquing his early mentor in The Torrents of Spring (1926) and Faulkner more playfully in Sherwood Anderson and Other Famous Creoles (also 1926) and the New Orleans roman à clef Mosquitoes (1927). What’s most interesting in this reading is how each author’s parody of Anderson’s many stylistic excesses anticipates indulgences the pair would later single out for rebuke in the other. Hemingway, for example, made mincemeat of the windy digressions of Anderson’s Dark Laughter (1925), while Faulkner poked fun at repetition and short, stammering sentences. There are mutually shared points of dissatisfaction with Anderson, of course, and Fruscione is dead-on in arguing that both writers found their mentor limited in technique, which was the natural proving ground for both of them. But it’s the sense that the two had to dispense with the preceding generation before they could engage their contemporaries that is particularly interesting in terms of the psychodrama of influence.

Perhaps the most compelling chapter concerns the 1930s. Here the two find themselves grappling with each other as they explore war, memory, and political engagement. Exhausting his own minimalism with the dour story collection Winner Take Nothing (1933), Hemingway turned increasingly to interior monologue and stream of consciousness, the latter especially evident in For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940), his Spanish Civil War novel. To Fruscione, the book’s passages of “extended interiority” reflect an effort to claim Faulkner’s trademark technique. The thematic and stylistic comparison between For Whom and The Unvanquished (1938) is marvelous; it will remind a reader how the essential moral questions explored in each book are bound up in the mechanics of remembrance and self-consciousness.

New angles of interpretation are also opened on the Hemingway resonances in Faulkner’s “The Wild Palms,” one of two interconnected stories published as a novel in 1939 under that title. (The book is sometimes referred to as If I Forget Thee Jerusalem, Faulkner’s own preference). In a text typically considered “at once parody and homage,” Fruscione finds Faulkner working through his own ambivalence toward the popular marketplace by adopting some of the more melodramatic plot devices that appear in his rival’s work. Thus, Catherine Barkley’s death by childbirth in A Farewell to Arms becomes Charlotte Rittenmeyer’s death by abortion. “The Wild Palms” functions as a “recasting” of elements publicly associated with his rival, a “rewriting” aimed at “making himself look stronger in the process.”

In short, Fruscione’s study is as in-depth an examination of Hemingway and Faulkner’s mutual ambivalence as we have yet had. The book is accessible and entertaining. Say what one will about Hemingway’s fractious personality, the man could write a great insult. One only wishes our Internet maw would satisfy its hunger for zingers and once in a while circulate the compliments the pair did bequeath upon each other.

Fruscione also has a sterling essay in Gary Edward Holcomb and Charles Scruggs’s revisionary collection on Hemingway and African American writers. Right off the bat, it ought to be clear that this book is charting new territory. The cover features a little-seen 1937 photograph of Ernest and Langston Hughes during the siege of Madrid—an image rare enough to remind us of how much work remains to be done on black writers’ regard for Hemingway. (The picture also features Mikhail Koltsov, aka Karkov in For Whom the Bell Tolls).

Individual essays explore Hemingway’s influence on Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Claude McKay, while others address topics from language and style to whiteness and working-class masculinity in a range of black artists. Among the names that pop up are Jean Toomer, Wallace Thurman, Chester Himes, and Alex La Guma. Fruscione’s essay is on Ralph Ellison, and it demonstrates how Hemingway served the author of Invisible Man as a wedge to distance himself from Richard Wright. More importantly, Fruscione offers a profitable analysis of the undeniably racist To Have and Have Not vis-à-vis Ellison’s novel that asks why Hemingway was incapable of creating deep, rounded African American characters.

As with Faulkner and Hemingway: Biography of a Literary Rivalry, Hemingway and the Black Renaissance is accessible to a non-academic audience. Both books are highly recommended.

Reviewed by Kirk Curnutt

Joseph Fruscione is adjunct professor of English at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and an adjunct assistant professor of First-Year Writing at George Washington University. He has been teaching literature and writing at the university level for 13 years and counting. His first book, Faulkner and Hemingway: Biography of a Literary Rivalry, was published in January 2012. He has written on Ralph Ellison’s wrestling with Hemingway’s influence for an essay in the edited collection Hemingway and the Black Renaissance (eds. Gary Holcomb and Charles Scruggs), and he writes the annual review essay on Fitzgerald and Hemingway studies for American Literary Scholarship.


Kirk Curnutt is a Professor of and Chair of English at Troy University Montgomery as well as the author of several books about the Lost Generation including Coffee with Hemingway, Key West Hemingway, The Cambridge Introduction to F Scott Fitzgerald, Critical Responses to Gertrude Stein and more. He also writes contemporary fiction.  Read more about him at:

To read my interview with Kirk about the Lost Generation, click here: