Death in the Afternoon

The following doesn’t really fit under the heading of War Stories, but it’s so great I’m compelled to make it today’s post anyway. I’m copying this piece now from a yellowing, typewriter-pecked page I’ve kept with me for years. If technically it isn’t about war, it’s certainly from a man who wrote masterfully about that subject and who struggled, suffered and bled to fight the internal “war of art.”

From Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon:


Hemingway: Old School

When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature. If a writer can make people live there may be no great characters in his book, but it is possible that his book will remain as a whole; as an entity; as a novel. If the people the writer is making talk of old masters; of music; of modern painting; of letters; or of science then they should talk of those subjects in the novel. If they do not talk of those subjects and the writer makes them talk of them he is a faker, and if he talks about them himself to show how much he knows then he is showing off. No matter good a phrase or a simile he may have if he puts it in where it is not absolutely necessary and irreplaceable he is spoiling his work for egotism. Prose is architecture, not interior decoration, and the Baroque is over. For a writer to put his own intellectual musings, which he might sell for a low price as essays, into the mouths of artificially constructed characters which are more remunerative when issued as people in a novel is good economics, perhaps, but does not make literature. People in a novel, not skillfully constructed characters, must be projected from the writer’s assimilated experience, from his knowledge, from his head, from his heart and from all there is of him. If he ever has luck as well as seriousness and gets them out entire they will have more than one dimension and they will last a long time. A good writer should know as near everything as possible. Naturally he will not. A great enough writer seems to be born with knowledge. But he really is not; he has only been born with the ability to learn in a quicker ratio to the passage of time than other men and without conscious application, and with an intelligence to accept or reject what is already presented as knowledge. There are some things which cannot be learned quickly and time, which is all we have, must be paid heavily for their acquiring. They are the very simplest things and because it takes a man’s life to know them the little new that each man gets from life is very costly and the only heritage he has to leave. Every novel which is truly written contributes to the total of knowledge which is there at the disposal of the next writer who comes, but the next writer must pay, always, a certain nominal percentage in experience to be able to understand and assimilate what is available as his birthright and what he must, in turn, take his departure from. If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.

A writer who appreciates the seriousness of writing so little that he is anxious to make people see he is formally educated, cultured or well-bred is merely a popinjay. And this too remember: a serious writer is not to confounded with a solemn writer. A serious writer may be a hawk or a buzzard or even a popinjay, but a solemn writer is always a bloody owl.

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  1. Mike Byrne on June 27, 2011 at 7:10 am


    This is great insight into the process, but also into Hemingway and how he lived his life and crafted his work.

    Thank you.

  2. Tricia on June 27, 2011 at 7:53 am

    Yes, thank you very much for this one.

  3. Jim on June 27, 2011 at 11:35 am

    I LOVED the last sentence.

  4. John Hoban on June 27, 2011 at 6:29 pm

    Why did he hunt and kill so much? His safaris in Africa are well known and why did he shoot himself?

  5. Phaneuf on June 27, 2011 at 9:57 pm

    Our forefathers hunted to live, and a long day of hunting produced divinity for their family’s table.

    As time evolved, a successful hunt was held in high esteem, with the best meat hung to age until a night with dinner guests. The pride of the hunt is equated with bringing home the fruits of harvest.

    The need of an activity that equates with providing for oneself, and others, is imminent. The animal’s death was a virtue to life, with the actual result out of mind.

    It could be argued that the hunt, commonly for the less affluent, is a self-fulfillment of achievement and glory. Writers don’t often live affluent lives; rather, they choose a life of passion. It’s only natural for one to want to feel success, which for many, equates with self love. The result of the actual action of killing the living animal is not thought of as an injustice. The only injustice is barring an individual from the freedom to succeed, or the ability to be treated with respect.

    Hunters that kill out of ill will do not apply to the prior statement. If a hunter is laughing as he kills, then the death is a great injustice. If a hunter is loyal to his forefathers, and to others, he does not laugh or commit acts out of spite. That type of hunter remains deserted.

    A loyal, passionate hunter does so, because it’s truly needed. He hunts to rectify a great injustice, and to respect the teachings of our forefathers. “The lazy man does not roast what he took in hunting, but diligence is man’s precious possession.” When one is deprived of rights to feed themself, and thus, provide for others, he is righteous in hunting if the result is eating, not making a tropy of, what is killed.

    A loyal, quiet hunter does not have to speak to be understood. And when that hunter, who never laughed at the act, reappears, everyone will rejoice, and he will never be deserted.

    • Tricia on June 28, 2011 at 5:22 am

      So beautifully put.

    • Jeremy on June 28, 2011 at 5:45 am

      Excellent, Phaneuf, thank you for sharing that with us. It’s a great companion to WHAT A WRITER’S DAY FEELS LIKE from The War of Art.

      And Steven, I think this fits nicely under War Stories. I love it. “The Baroque is over” is going on my wall right next to “Contempt for Failure.”

  6. ari on June 28, 2011 at 10:54 am

    thank you so much for this, I can never get enough of Hemingway’s ruminations on the craft of writing and living. I try my best to live a life that is congruent with the values of warriors from back in the day, it is hard to find men of equal caliber in the present, people to emulate. Why do you think that is? I wish there were more people like him walking around these days.

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