I love Ernest Hemingway.
That's a switch for this column, but not for me. Ever since sophomore year in college, I've hung his picture near my desk -- his youthful passport photo, which made the cover of The New York Times Magazine on the publication of a letters collection, which I framed -- and that's a long time ago.
Haven't read him much for nearly as long, although I did take "A Moveable Feast" on a trip to Paris, "The Garden of Eden" to the south of France, and "For Whom the Bell Tolls" to Spain (where the bag the book was in was stolen outside Cadaques), but that's also a while back. Lately, he crosses my mind only when I exchange the occasional glance with his photo on the wall.
But then I began reading about his relationship with his legendary editor Maxwell Perkins, and his lifelong publisher, Charles Scribner's Sons, in a new book called "The Lousy Racket" (Kent State) by Robert W. Trogdon. I now realize how much the path-breaking writer's experience in the 1920s and 1930s says about us as a society, both then -- when Hemingway's writerly urge to use the rare profanity presented his publishers with a legal and moral nightmare; and now -- when four-letter language is shoptalk, ads for sexual performance aids are as much a part of the national past time as home plate, and even children have become consumers of what can only be called pornography.
And whose nightmare is that? The answer is all of us little people who no longer have gatekeepers like Maxwell Perkins to keep what Laura Ingraham, author of the new blockbuster "Power to the People" (Regnery), calls "pornification" at bay. Of course, the absence of gatekeepers is only part of our predicament, as Hemingway's experience also reveals. Included in "The Lousy Racket" are fascinating exchanges between Hemingway and Perkins over the writer's (quite sparing) use of bad language, or the occasional raw scene. Perkins would invariably argue for their elimination on the grounds that even one four-letter word would bring down the censors, leading to the book's repression, or -- and this is even more significant -- the public losing interest in it. This last bit suggests that censorship in the first half of the 20th century wasn't merely the superfluous law of the land; it actually reflected the sensibility of most people, maybe even the Hemingway-reading crowd.
I found this discussion of particular interest because in the course of bringing my own new book, "The Death of the Grown-Up" (St. Martin's Press) to market, I came up against a very different set of attitudes. In describing our state of cultural decline, I found myself quoting foul language -- sometimes spelling it out for shock value, sometimes using dashes to spare the reader.
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