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“You must have no masters, for you are a master”

Brooklyn Daily Eagle officeAs some of you know, I am hard at work (about 250 pages into at any rate) writing a book about my great-grandfather, Guy Hickok, a Brooklyn journalist stationed in Paris in the 20s, and his friends in the American colony. Roughly a third of the text deals with Guy’s close friendship with the younger journalist Ernest Hemingway, then finding his voice as a writer of fiction. Guy and “Hem” were friends throughout Hemingway’s apprenticeship as a writer and for some years afterwards; Guy saw him through the years of trying to break through and was one of the first to write feature articles about Hemingway when he had nearly nothing to his name.

So, how did it feel to see his friend finally break through with The Sun Also Rises and see all that promise fulfilled? This was the letter that Guy wrote to Hemingway after he first read the novel. I am running it here (and in my book) unedited because it’s a cool find that illuminates their friendship very well, but also I think it might be a nice read for the aspiring writers among us.

Dear Hem,

You have been dominating this here house for the last few days. We all have been reading “The Sun Also Rises”, my wife, I, our guests, all sorts of people, and they all can see that a new sun has risen. It’s power that you have, Hem, general power. Some one said that this book had force. Not so. There is no force in it; there is power that is not half used. The reserve is what I feel. I agree with the critics who call it the critics who call it the greatest book of the year, but as I read it I could not help thinking with joy of the other books that are to come. For this is only the start. I wonder whether you are eager or dreading them. Not that it matters. You are an artist, and you have got to pay for that in labor and suffering.

     Sure, and we friends of artists don’t mind what the hell you go through. Only now and then I feel that I would like to tell you that you can’t help doing great things. It’s no use saying so; you can’t believe it. Look at Sherwood Anderson: every time I read his wondering and wishing and doubting about whether he can say it or not, I feel like cabling a laugh to him, my light laughter: that all that holds him back is just that doubt. “For Christ’s sake, man” I want to cable, “Shut up. Write write write. Forget art and yourself- write. Keep your sweat to yourself.” But as I say this now, I remember that you are not that way. You know, you always have known that you can write. Well, that is great too. I know it also, and maybe you will never doubt it. Fine. So you know that you can go anywhere in the world and see and tell what you see; and all I want to add is that you can be and do anything you want to be and write that. Yes, and I would like to rub it into wherever you are sore, so that it will hurt and stick that it makes a hell of a difference what you are and where you go.

        Just now you are a hypocrite living a rotten and (I hope) an uncomfortable life. Gertrude Stein is right. You laugh at her rage or grief, but I told you that she is an artist weeping for art. She doesn’t care a damn for you, personally; I do a little, but I am not an artist; I am a friend, which is bad and weak and not reliable. Friends are no good, not the friends of artists; they may be traitors to art. So you can’t trust me, but Gertrude Stein is unscrupulous; true only to what you are the victim and the lover of. And she says you are all lost, all you young fellows. Well, she is a liar there, as she knows. She only fears you are lost or may be lost. She knows damned well that you are not lost yet. My view is that you are a poser, a hypocrite upside down. Pretending to be hard boiled when you show pure- BECAUSE you know that you are a soft, yellow yolk with some white around it and a broken shell. What of it? You are the author also of My Old Man, Hem. Well what of that? You are ashamed of it, but you liked it. You can’t help it either. It isn’t the fashion to show feeling: No, they don’t do it at the Dome. The English don’t do it. So, you and Sherwood Anderson and the rest of you- you are in the style. Are you? Read “The Sun (Also) Rises”, boy, and “get” the sentiment all through it.

    Hem, you have drilled yourself so that you can correctly express yourself. Now I beg of you to have the guts to be yourself, do what you want to do, go where you want to go, and tell the minority as well as the majority to go plumb to. You must have no masters, for you are a master.

    I wish you would come down here and let me sock you. You can; you needn’t be afraid. I don’t want to change you. On the contrary.

Just to end up on a pleasant note, I will repeat: you have the gift, you can write- anything; not only stories, plays- whatever you know and are. It is wonderful. And I am not expressing surprise, as you know. Only I could not have imagined the Thing done, so free, so utterly controlled. I am expressing my happiness.



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Rufus is an American curmudgeon in Canada. He has a PhD in History, sings in a garage rock band, and does a bunch of other stuff.

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9 thoughts on ““You must have no masters, for you are a master”

  1. This,

    My view is that you are a poser, a hypocrite upside down. Pretending to be hard boiled when you show pure- BECAUSE you know that you are a soft, yellow yolk with some white around it and a broken shell.

    got me thinking of a common perception of Hemingway as they hyper-macho, misogynistic guy. And for all I know, that view is well deserved. But what I get from reading Sun Also Rises (and Farewell to Arms, Hills Like White Elephants, and Big 2-Hearted River) is a challenge to that very machismo. Jake Barnes is macho, in a way, but he also feels pain, and we (or at least I) see that his machismo is kind of a front. He cries in bed at night and imagines Brett and Mike in bed (and probably her and Count Mippipopolous and Cohn). Bullfighting (the matador and the bull “become one” somewhere in the novel) is more than just killing an animal. It’s his (Barnes’s) purpose, in a way (and something he risks losing when he finds that Montoya has to forgive him of his friends.) He’s both envious and resigned and really, really doesn’t want her to feel bad even though he hurts her all the time (some comment about wanting to count up all the men she’s slept with). San Sebastian is “all shot to hell,” but he goes anyway. Barnes, even at 20-something, is a bitter in-the-process-of-becoming old man. But he (Barnes) is not the macho dude of stereotype. He’s not Robert Jordan trying to keep the clod from being washed away from the shore. He’s someone deeply hurt by something that is exogenous (the War) but also his own choice (volunteering on the “joke front” in Italy).

    (((I’m sorry about the stream of consciousness response. It’s just one of my favorite novels and I’m riffing off something that caught my attention in the letter. (I may or may not have been drinking.) At any rate, great post!!!))))


    • It’s striking to me that the early Hemingway novels that most stick with me are essentially romance novels with doomed love relationships at their center. The short stories tend more often to be about men among men, but like he says, even those tend to be more tenderhearted than Hemingway would have liked.


      • Perhaps that suggests that Hemingway was an “honest” writer, who took the story where it led him? If so, good on him.

        As (kind of) an aside, I’m curious about your work-in-progress (and I admit I haven’t read all your posts about it). It seems to be more about “this guy who knew Hemingway.” What about Guy Hickock as a person, and not just as “the person who knew Hemingway and traveled in Fascist Italy with him”? Maybe Hemingway is too much of a center for this piece? (I say this as speculation and (I hope) helpful criticism.)


  2. “The Bumpy Road to Appreciation”

    So at 18 (1968) I knew that as an American male I had to like, or at least experience, Hemingway. Read “The Sun Also Rises.” Really didn’t get what the fuss was about. To my friends: “Jeez, it’s pretty dumb. If they love each other so much, they should just go to bed and get on with it. What’s the fuss? Is that some kind of literature thing? Cripes!”

    At 29, sitting around the pool in LA with a bunch of tanned actors, finishing my second read of the book (because I figured I must have been too young to get it the first time) slamming it shut and saying, too loud, to the entire group: “God, why is this such a big deal? They’re in love fer cryin’ out loud. Everybody is banging everybody. If these two goofs would just get it on the whole thing falls apart. This is literature? Cripes!”

    A close friend leans over and in a quiet voice says. “Check out somewhere around page four where you learn that it’s been shot off in the war.”


    A quick re-read. Damn…that’s one brilliant frikkin’ book.


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