For whom the bell bleeps

Posted: Sep 21, 2007 12:02 AM

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.

During the copy-editing process, I was urged to spell everything out, or, conversely, spell nothing out. (I stuck with my original style.) Never, of course, was I urged not to use the profanities in the first place. That's not our world.

But do we like it that way, really? I was reminded of this question on reading about a gathering of girls -- wealthy, Upper-East-Side-of-Manhattan 12- and 13-year-olds -- orchestrated by The New York Times to document the youngsters' reactions to a rancid new TV show called "Gossip Girl," which chronicles the sex- and drug-obsessed lives of spoiled teens. I don't think the show uses profanity, but it certainly features profane behavior. For example: Boys in blazers smoke marijuana and talk about sampling their fathers' Viagra. The martini-swilling teen heroine engages in "smoldering" sex scenes with her best friend's boyfriend. Yuck.

Not that these young flowers of American privilege blushed. Projecting a sometimes gigglesome ennui, they explained how closely the show tracks their little world. (Sometimes it's wonderful not to be able to afford $28,000 tuition.) You have to wonder about their parents, who not only groomed the girls to be consumers of such smut, but also made them available to go on the record about it. There was something sad about the brazen, pointlessness of it all.

Long ago, Hemingway wrote to Perkins that "it is good for the language to restore its life that they (censors) bleed out of it. That is very important." And maybe it was -- although personally, I've never felt cheated by the constraints your basic Dickenses and Tolstoys and, reluctantly, Hemingway operated under. But if it was necessary to restore vigor to the language then, what do we do now, when the life it too often describes -- unremarkably profane, unnoticeably shameless -- no longer has much meaning?

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