The tides of literary fashion, unlike those of the Chesapeake Bay or Nantucket Sound, cannot be forecast and published in a daily newspaper. It can be said with absolute certainty that high tide tomorrow will come at such-and-such an hour at Deal Island and low tide at such-and-such an hour at Wood's Hole; but there is no predictable pattern to the rise and fall of literary reputations, so there is no way of knowing how long the current critical vogue for Virginia Woolf will last or whether James Branch Cabell will ever again find an admiring audience within the literary establishment.
Recently, though, The New York Times went out on a limb and attempted to chart one writer's reputation as though it were a body of water rising toward the shore. On the front page of that newspaper's edition for July 26 appeared this headline: "Hemingway's Literary Stock Moving Toward a New High." Under the byline of Edwin McDowell, its conscientious chronicler of publishing news, The Times declared, "Twenty-two years after his death, Ernest Hemingway is enjoying a comeback of the sort so often celebrated in his novels and short stories," and went on to describe at considerable length the details of this alleged Hemingway renaissance.
Because The Times is the hometown newspaper for the book business, this report may well have an influence all out of proportion to the actual merits of the case it advances. Though The Times' reasons for assigning and prominently displaying the story are entirely mysterious, there can be no question that a declaration by The Times that Hemingway is on the way back to critical esteem is a self-fulfilling prophecy, since its word is taken as gospel by so many important people in literary and publishing circles.
Yet it does not take a particularly astute reading of the story to realize that it falls considerably short of gospel. Its principal source of information about sales of Hemingway's books is the publisher who holds exclusive American rights to them; its principal source of literary judgment is a small group of academicians whose careers revolve around Hemingway scholarship. Everyone involved, in other words, except presumably The Times and its reporter, has a vested interest in a Hemingway revival, and for that reason everything they say must be received with some degree of skepticism.
This is not to say that anyone is stacking the deck in Hemingway's favor or otherwise misrepresenting the situation, but that the people with whom McDowell spoke are too involved with Hemingway to view him and his work objectively. Thus, for example, the publishing firm of Scribner's may feel it has responded to an increased "demand" for Hemingway's books by issuing some of them in mass-market paperback editions for the first time; but others, able to take a more clinical view of the situation, may see the decision in less lofty terms--as a calculated if long-overdue attempt to create a new market for Hemingway and to make a profit from it.
Similarly, it may be true that Hemingway's critical reputation "is building toward a newer sic high," but it is useful to bear in mind that Linda Wagner, who spoke those words, is identified by The Times as a Hemingway specialist at Michigan State. It may be true that "you can talk to any elevator operator or cabby and they've all read something by Hemingway," but remember that the speaker, Carlos Baker, is author of the authorized Hemingway biography and editor of the authorized collection of Hemingway letters.
It may be true, as James Nagel says, that "Hemingway has risen to the top because it's more apparent than ever that he was a superb craftsman," but Nagel, as author of "Ernest Hemingway: The Writer in Context," can be expected to say as much. And it may be true that Hemingway's themes "were simple but enduring," but it helps to know that Paul Smith, the speaker, is president of the Hemingway Society.
All of these people may indeed be correct, but from here it looks as though a mountain has been made of a molehill. A flurry of academic interest in Hemingway is one thing and a revision of serious critical opinion is quite another. That the English departments have made his work the focus of intense specialization proves nothing except that the mills of academe have not stopped turning; if you took nothing except academic effluvia as evidence, you could make a powerful case that any one of a number of minor writers is enjoying a renaissance.
Nor should the increase in the sales of Hemingway's books be taken as proof of an improvement in his critical reputation. For almost a half century he has been one of the most popular of all American writers; the real news would be a decrease in sales of his work. People like Hemingway because he is easy to read. As the aforementioned Paul Smith told The Times, "Hemingway is one of the most widely read authors in both secondary schools and college." The reason is obvious, his fiction is ideally suited for the 16-year-old mind; it offers adventure, sex, exotic settings, monosyllabic prose and--best of all--an absolute paucity of challenging or interesting ideas.
Like his contemporary and rival, John Steinbeck, Hemingway has a terrific following among young readers--and some older ones, as well--who are drawn to noble sentiments and visceral emotions; there is nothing at all wrong with this sort of appeal, so long as one does not confuse it with literary excellence. Hemingway is a writer whom teachers understandably like, for students read him with enthusiasm and precious little effort is necessary to interpret his themes. Because of this, and because his influence on American prose style was extremely important, he will be widely read into the foreseeable future; this is not, to put it mildly, news.
Nor is it evidence that serious critical opinion about Hemingway has been significantly revised in his favor. If anything, over the past decade his reputation as a serious writer has steadily diminished. He is still respected, as certainly he should be, as a writer of short stories, and as the man who changed the way Americans write; merely as a formidable physical presence in the American literary scene, he commands attention. But his novels are no longer highly regarded, the absence of complex ideas in his work is seen as a major weakness, and the smoke screen of machismo he put up around his writing and himself has been blown away by critic after critic. Hemingway was and remains a popular writer, but his place in American literature is relatively small and, if anything, getting smaller.