70 Days With Hemingway And Me

Every Novel, Back to Back, Starting With the First

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Hemingway and Ethnicity

July 4th, 2009 · 1 Comment · Ethnicity, To Have and Have Not

I have to employ a bit of mental gymnastics when I read To Have and Have Not.

What I find I must do is divorce the word “nigger” from its 21st century connotation (and profound dearth of political correctness) and try to see it from Hemingway’s perspective some 70+ years ago.

It’s tough going.

I’m not one for self-censorship — or any at all, really. But there’s something abrasive and ugly about that word.

The entry on Wiki offers a good, relatively unbiased overview of the word “nigger,” one that helps set my mind at ease:

Nigger is a noun in the English language, most notable as a pejorative term and common ethnic slur for black people, and also as an informal slang term, among other contexts.

The word originated as a term used in a neutral context to refer to black people, as a variation of the Spanish/Portuguese noun negro, a descendant of the Latin adjective niger, meaning “black”. Although criticized for its pejorative meaning since the 1800s, the term remained in general use in much of the world until around the 1960s – 1970s. It retains a place in popular culture and slang; and is considered offensive in certain contexts.

In the United States the word nigger was not always considered derogatory, but was instead used by many as merely denotative of black skin, as it was in other parts of the English-speaking world. In nineteenth-century literature, there are many uses of the word nigger with no pejorative connotation. Charles Dickens, and Joseph Conrad (who published The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’ in 1897) used the word without racist intent. Mark Twain often put the word into the mouths of his characters, white and black, but did not use the word when writing as himself in his autobiographical Life on the Mississippi.

I don’t think Hemingway was a racist in the way we think of such people today. But he does seem to spend an inordinate amount of time describing people’s ethnicity. In the previous novels I’ve read, he’s referred to people are Jews, Indians, Chinks, and niggers. In To Have and Have Not, he uses the word “nigger” some 12 times in just the first 12 pages.

So what gives? Why the use of the word, and so many times?

Here’s why I think Hemingway is so conscious of ethnicity in his books: His stark, realistic, journalistic style of writing — which I’ve commented on before and likened to screenwriting — allowed him to view the world without filtering it. He wrote what he saw, either in his mind or in real life, in a fashion that I — at this point in time — can only imagine was guileless. Sort of like the conversations his characters have, which seem almost child-like. At best, they’re rudimentary and simplistic. A straightforward statement or question followed by an honest — or, at least, direct — answer. It’s like listening to kids talk to one another.

So when he writes about Red Men (Indians) or Jews or niggers or drunks or drifters or Chinks or streetwalkers or the war or women (or whatever) he does so without adding any connotations to his words. Subject – verb – object. That’s his style. No hidden meanings. Plus, it’s not Hemingway; it’s his characters. And characters can be as racist as they want to be. For example, consider Clint Eastwood’s character in the movie Gran Torino. I doubt Clint is racist. But that character of his was most decidedly so.

In other words, as the Wiki entry suggested, in Hemingway’s time it was not socially unacceptable to use words that describe one’s ethnicity or color. It may not have always been in the best of taste. But doing so didn’t automatically make one a racist, especially since it’s characters talking; not the author.

However, this topic piques my interest. I may investigate further. But not now.

Tonight, I return to Cuba and to another one of Hemingway’s unnamed first-person narrators. And I read to discover…

…what happens next…

…why the book is called To Have and Have Not

…and who the hell the “I” is doing the talking.

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One Comment so far ↓

  • Danny

    I just read the story “the Tradesman’s Return.” Twelve times in 12 pages is nothing, compared to the usage in this story. Closer to 12 times per page, I’d say. It really bothers me. It’s difficult to read it without reading it as hate. Very difficult.

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