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James Burnham

Incompleat Angler

(March 1938)


From New International, Vol.4 No.3, pp.92-93.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).


To Have and Have Not
By Ernest Hemingway.
262 pp. New York. Charles Scribner’s Sons. $2.50.

No creative writer can be without ideals or values, and the critical commonplace which has called Hemingway’s work “purely negative” is thoroughly mistaken. All of Hemingway’s novels and stories seem to have asserted with unusual consistency two chief ideals: to fight, in strict accordance with the rules, alone; and to be able to take it. These are apparent in the very earliest of his short stories, summed up in the figure of the fisherman, who appears and reappears throughout his writing. The fisherman fights the trout alone, with the lightest possible rod and the lightest possible line (what heresy it would be to imagine a Hemingway fisherman using a heavy rod and a worm!); and he shows not the smallest trace of emotion at the heavy disappointments which come to all fishermen.

It sounds rather silly, particularly when the figure of the fisherman is lifted out of the admirable prose which describes the stream and the cast and the strike and the sunlight and shadows. But the fisherman is no accident. He undergoes constant metamorphosis. Here he is again as the bullfighter, alone with the bull, executing the delicate steps as prescribed by the immemorial rules, never giving way, allowing the horns just to brush across his belly. Or he searches for big game in Africa—and eternal woe to the Philistine who would shoot from the auto (even his wife, as in one story, will have to shoot him). Sometimes he simply gets beaten unconscious, or shot, or dies, without a murmur. Or he is in a hospital, in terrible and silent pain, recovering from an immeasurably cruel wound or operation. Or he is perhaps a gangster—a movie gangster, really, as the movies have bodied him forth. And like all fishermen, he talks little, and he often kills.

In themselves, these two ideals are not necessarily either despicable or absurd. To fight alone, and in strict accordance with the rules: this is not so distant from the conscious adherence to principle which is at the root of moral integrity. To be able to take it: this is at least the negative half of heroism. The trouble is that in Hemingway’s work these ideals have been divorced from an adequate context, from a completing set of values; and, by themselves, they stand stark and lame and often foolish. By themselves, they suggest praise for lack of intelligence, for inarticulateness, for insensitivity and brutality. And this is what we find in Hemingway’s novels and stories. Intelligence is hypocrisy or clap-trap; sensitivity or deep feeling is sentimentality. The “realism” turns into the cult of the sub-normal.

In To Have and Have Not these same two ideals continue, but they have begun a certain change. Harry Morgan, the protagonist is again the fisherman and the bullfighter; he fights alone, and he can take it, take more than perhaps anyone Hemingway ever before wrote about. But, though Harry fights, alone and according to the rules (his rules), part at least of his fight is—to make a living, for himself and his family. This is altogether unprecedented. The notion that people do things in order to make a living, and that authors write about such people, lands us in what is almost another universe. This, then, is the first change in To Have and Have Not. Along with it goes a greater impersonalization. Hemingway seems to be trying to create a character and a situation which are not reflections of his own moods and personal experiences, as the characters and situations of his earlier writings ordinarily are. He is, that is to say, trying to write a very different and more important kind of book than those he has written up to now.

Until To Have and Have Not, almost all that Hemingway wrote was about the aftermath of the last War. The War was his source and focus. What the War did to those who fought in it, and to their friends and mistresses; how it exploded their moral universe; how they have ever since been plunging around, trying to discover some new pole of integration;—this is what Hemingway has been writing of for nearly twenty years. Now, in To Have and Have Not, the focus at last shifts. The War is still there (obviously enough in the American Legionnaires), but it is only a background remnant. Hemingway has finished fighting the War of 1914-1918. In part, perhaps, he seems to be realizing that the War was not in and by itself the dominating and controlling event, but rather takes its normal place in the pattern of our time.

The reviewers have been telling us that To Have and Have Not is Hemingway’s first “socially significant” writing, and have been allotting praise and blame on that basis. This is not, however, strictly the case. Many of his novels and stories have been of very considerable social significance. The Sun Also Rises, for example, is no doubt the most thorough expression of the mood of an important section of a whole generation. But there, of course, the “social interest” is entirely implicit. In the latter part of To Have and Have Not, “social interest” is dragged in by the hair, above all in the scenes describing life on the yachts as Harry is brought into the harbor, or in Harry’s dying words. These, far from marking any sort of advance, are as banal and unconvincing from the point of view of social criticism as they are disastrous to the structure of the novel. Fresh social interests, if properly and successfully integrated, can add to Hemingway’s writing a new and absorbing dimension. Since he has already proved himself, in many technical respects, as able as any contemporary American writer, this is a result very much to be hoped for. But it will not be achieved by transplanting lessons from New Masses, which is what the yacht scenes read like. “Social significance” is not a decoration to be purchased from a political warehouse and tacked on to a novel. It must—as Alan’s Fate or When the Looms Are Silent or Fontamara teach (or, for that matter, all great novels)—be simply the organic relevance of the novel both internally and to its own time.

To Have and Have Not is thus in many key respects a transitional book. Whether Hemingway can complete the transition which this novel confusedly aims toward, the next few years will doubtless show. If he does not, he will either slip back into a rewarmed version of his past, which can be now nothing but stale and vapid; or he will—it is not excluded—turn into a superior People’s Front hack. If he does, his chief work is still ahead of him.

James BURNHAM


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