William Faulkner’s Review of Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea (1952)


Images via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

In the mid-20th cen­tu­ry, the two big dogs in the Amer­i­can lit­er­ary scene were William Faulkn­er and Ernest Hem­ing­way. Both were inter­na­tion­al­ly revered, both were mas­ters of the nov­el and the short sto­ry, and both won Nobel Prizes.

Born in Mis­sis­sip­pi, Faulkn­er wrote alle­gor­i­cal his­to­ries of the South in a style that is both ellip­ti­cal and chal­leng­ing. His works were marked by uses of stream-of-con­scious­ness and shift­ing points of view. He also favored titan­i­cal­ly long sen­tences, hold­ing the record for hav­ing, accord­ing to the Guin­ness Book of Records, the longest sen­tence in lit­er­a­ture. Open your copy of Absa­lom! Absa­lom! to chap­ter 6 and you’ll find it. Hem­ing­way, on the oth­er hand, famous­ly sand­blast­ed the florid prose of Vic­to­ri­an-era books into short, terse, decep­tive­ly sim­ple sen­tences. His sto­ries were about root­less, dam­aged, cos­mopoli­tan peo­ple in exot­ic loca­tions like Paris or the Serengeti.

If you type in “Faulkn­er and Hem­ing­way” in your favorite search engine, you’ll like­ly stum­ble upon this famous exchange — Faulkn­er on Hem­ing­way: “He has nev­er been known to use a word that might send a read­er to the dic­tio­nary.” Hem­ing­way: “Poor Faulkn­er. Does he real­ly think big emo­tions come from big words?” Zing! Faulkn­er report­ed­ly didn’t mean for the line to come off as an insult but Hem­ing­way took it as one. The inci­dent end­ed up being the most acri­mo­nious in the two authors’ com­pli­cat­ed rela­tion­ship.

While Faulkn­er and Hem­ing­way nev­er for­mal­ly met, they were reg­u­lar cor­re­spon­dents, and each was keen­ly aware of the other’s tal­ents. And they were com­pet­i­tive with each oth­er, espe­cial­ly Hem­ing­way who was much more inse­cure than you might sur­mise from his macho per­sona. While Hem­ing­way reg­u­lar­ly called Faulkn­er “the best of us all,” mar­veling at his nat­ur­al abil­i­ties, he also ham­mered Faulkn­er for resort­ing to tricks. As he wrote to Har­vey Bre­it, the famed crit­ic for The New York Times, “If you have to write the longest sen­tence in the world to give a book dis­tinc­tion, the next thing you should hire Bill Veek [sic] and use midgets.”

Faulkn­er, on his end, was no less com­pet­i­tive. He once told the New York Her­ald Tri­bune, “I think he’s the best we’ve got.” On the oth­er hand, he bris­tled when an edi­tor men­tioned get­ting Hem­ing­way to write the pref­ace for The Portable Faulkn­er in 1946. “It seems to me in bad taste to ask him to write a pref­ace to my stuff. It’s like ask­ing one race horse in the mid­dle of a race to broad­cast a blurb on anoth­er horse in the same run­ning field.”

When Bre­it asked Faulkn­er to write a review of Hemingway’s 1952 novel­la The Old Man and the Sea, he refused. Yet when a cou­ple months lat­er he got the same request from Wash­ing­ton and Lee University’s lit­er­ary jour­nal, Shenan­doah, Faulkn­er relent­ed, giv­ing guard­ed praise to the nov­el in a one para­graph-long review. You can read it below.

His best. Time may show it to be the best sin­gle piece of any of us, I mean his and my con­tem­po­raries. This time, he dis­cov­ered God, a Cre­ator. Until now, his men and women had made them­selves, shaped them­selves out of their own clay; their vic­to­ries and defeats were at the hands of each oth­er, just to prove to them­selves or one anoth­er how tough they could be. But this time, he wrote about pity: about some­thing some­where that made them all: the old man who had to catch the fish and then lose it, the fish that had to be caught and then lost, the sharks which had to rob the old man of his fish; made them all and loved them all and pitied them all. It’s all right. Praise God that what­ev­er made and loves and pities Hem­ing­way and me kept him from touch­ing it any fur­ther.

And you can also watch below a fas­ci­nat­ing talk by schol­ar Joseph Frus­cione about how Faulkn­er and Hem­ing­way com­pet­ed and influ­enced each oth­er. He wrote the recent book, Faulkn­er and Hem­ing­way: Biog­ra­phy of a Lit­er­ary Rival­ry .

Note: An ear­li­er ver­sion of this post appeared on our site in July 2014.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Ernest Hem­ing­way Cre­ates a Read­ing List for a Young Writer, 1934

See a Beau­ti­ful­ly Hand-Paint­ed Ani­ma­tion of Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea (1999)

The Art of William Faulkn­er: Draw­ings from 1916–1925

Jonathan Crow is a Los Ange­les-based writer and film­mak­er whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hol­ly­wood Reporter, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. You can fol­low him at @jonccrow.

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Comments (3)
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  • Ken says:

    Unfor­tu­nate­ly the quote above by Faulkn­er about Hem­ing­way read­ers not need­ing to go to the dic­tio­nary, is tak­en out of con­text and is only the par­tial quote. The video above shows the full quote, and from that we can eas­i­ly see more harm­ful intent from Faulkn­er.

  • DDale Hardeman says:

    Frag­ile egos, well bal­anced between the two.

  • Branimir Prelosnjak says:

    I remem­ber read­ing Hem­ing­way referred to Faulkn­er as “old mel­liflu­ous”, at least once.
    A per­fect moniker (and a pret­ty big word, arguably) coined by Hem­ing­way.

    Any­way, a great Faulkner­ian para­graph of a review by the man him­self.

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