Ernest Hemingway: T.S. Eliot “Can Kiss My Ass As a Man”


T.S. Eliot may have been the most unavoid­able force in Amer­i­can let­ters in the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry, but he was prob­a­bly not a very lik­able per­son. At least Ernest Hem­ing­way didn’t think so. The burly nov­el­ist, often in the habit of telling fel­low writ­ers to “kiss my ass,” wrote in a July 1950 let­ter to writer and edi­tor Har­vey Bre­it that Eliot could do just that “as a man,” since he “nev­er hit a ball out of the infield in his life and he would not have exist­ed for dear old Ezra [Pound], the love­ly poet and stu­pid trai­tor.” Of Pound’s “stu­pid” trea­son, Hem­ing­way had pre­vi­ous­ly writ­ten some choice words; Of Eliot’s sins—in addi­tion to his fail­ing to mea­sure up to Yogi Berra, despite both of them hail­ing from St. Louis—Hemingway includ­ed the fol­low­ing: “Roy­al­ist, Anglo-Catholic and con­ser­v­a­tive”

Despite all this, how­ev­er, Hem­ing­way, like most of his mod­ernist con­tem­po­raries, owed a debt to Eliot, whom Papa almost-grudg­ing­ly admit­ted was “a damned good poet and a fair crit­ic,” though “there isn’t any law a man has to go and see [Eliot’s play] the Cock­tail par­ty” [sic]. Writes Wen­dolyn E. Tet­low, author of Hemingway’s In Our Time: Lyri­cal Dimen­sions, “despite Hemingway’s acid com­ments, how­ev­er, he could not escape Eliot’s influ­ence.” Of par­tic­u­lar sig­nif­i­cance for Hemingway’s terse, ellip­ti­cal style was the Eliot doc­trine of the “objec­tive cor­rel­a­tive,” some­thing of a refine­ment of Pound’s imag­ism. In Hemingway’s rumi­na­tions on his own process, it seems he could not have done with­out this poet­ic technique—one of encap­su­lat­ing abstract con­cepts and fleet­ing, insub­stan­tial emo­tions in the amber of con­crete, dis­crete objects, sym­bols, and acts.

“Find what gave you the emo­tion,” Hem­ing­way wrote in “The End of Some­thing,” remark­ing on a schooner mov­ing through a ruined mill town, “then write it down mak­ing it clear so the read­er will see it and have the same feel­ing.” Eliot would nev­er have been so vul­gar as to plain­ly spell out his method in the text itself, like a set of instruc­tions, but Hem­ing­way does so again in Death in the After­noon:

I was try­ing to write then and I found the great­est dif­fi­cul­ty, aside from know­ing tru­ly what you real­ly felt, rather than what you were sup­posed to feel, and had been taught to feel, was to put down what real­ly hap­pened in action; what the actu­al things were which pro­duced the emo­tion that you expe­ri­enced.

Com­pare these pas­sages with Eliot’s def­i­n­i­tion in his 1919 essay on Ham­let: “The only way of express­ing emo­tion in the form of art is by find­ing an ‘objec­tive cor­rel­a­tive’; in oth­er words, a set of objects, a sit­u­a­tion, a chain of events which shall be the for­mu­la of that par­tic­u­lar emo­tion.” The influence—if not out­right borrowing—is unmis­tak­able. Yet Hem­ing­way remained leery of Eliot “as a man.” In 1954, Robert Man­ning of The Atlantic vis­it­ed Hem­ing­way in Cuba and found him surly on the sub­ject and “not warm toward T.S. Eliot,” pre­fer­ring instead to “praise Ezra Pound.” Hem­ing­way would go so far, in fact, as to claim that Pound deserved Eliot’s Nobel.

We shouldn’t take any of this salty talk too seri­ous­ly. After all, Hem­ing­way, the great boast­er, liked to trash peo­ple he envied. Even Joe Louis, whom you would think aspir­ing box­er Hem­ing­way would hold in high­est esteem, “nev­er learned to box,” though he was, Papa admit­ted, “a good get­ter-upper.”

via Bib­liok­lept

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Ernest Hem­ing­way to F. Scott Fitzger­ald: “Kiss My Ass”

Ernest Hem­ing­way Writes of His Fas­cist Friend Ezra Pound: “He Deserves Pun­ish­ment and Dis­grace” (1943)

Ernest Hemingway’s Delu­sion­al Adven­tures in Box­ing: “My Writ­ing is Noth­ing, My Box­ing is Every­thing.”

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (3)
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  • fishygod says:

    You’re cer­tain­ly right that Hem­ing­way trashed every­one whom he envied or to whom he was indebt­ed. Just ask Gertrude Stein or Sher­wood Ander­son.

  • Eddie Vega says:

    The dis­cov­ery of the “objec­tive cor­rel­a­tive” was not Eliot’s. It was made by Pound in his stud­ies of the Romance poets. In short, he asked why it was that cer­tain poems retained their pow­er in trans­la­tion. The answer, he found, was in the use of objects that also served as sym­bols. These were ideas he shared with Hem­ing­way, Eliot, Yeats… every­one.

  • Philip Sturges says:

    Hem­ing­way was in fact, a bul­ly, and essen­tial­ly a real ass­hole. I am not sur­prised that he thought lit­tle of Eliot, he derid­ed many writ­ers who intim­i­dat­ed him, who he envied. He was fierce­ly com­pet­i­tive and could be ruth­less and dis­mis­sive with oth­ers in an instant of anger. I tend to think Hem­ing­way was very intim­i­dat­ed by Eliot, and his naysay­ing of him was just his way of annulling Eliot’s work and val­i­dat­ing his own.

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