Each of the past few generations has had their own struggles with upholding the ostensibly American ideal of equality. We have come a long way from reconstruction and disenfranchisement, and we have a long way to go. While many people today are not as obviously racist, homophobic or sexist as they were 50 to 100 years ago, we have plenty of records of American ignorance and bigotry. Most of these records aren’t taken seriously anymore. They’re a relic of a shameful time in history, a reminder of how wrong we’ve been and how to avoid future egregiousness. Most of the records are written by people you’ve never heard of — people in power trying to justify themselves taking advantage of another person. However, more times than anyone would like to admit, you find bigotry and prejudice in cherished authors who are writing during times of questionable morality.
Ernest Hemingway, an extremely influential Pulitzer Prize-winning author, was also an unabashed racist, anti-Semite, sexist, male chauvinist and homophobe. He had four wives, all of whom he cheated on. More often than not, the mistress of one marriage would be the wife in the next. His female characters are either beautiful, pathetic and submissive, or ugly, coarse and accused of being mannish. He uses racist and homophobic slurs offhandedly. Robert Cohn, a central character in “The Sun Also Rises,” is a detestable wretch who lives up to every negative Jewish stereotype there is. But Hemingway is still one of the most revered authors in American history. For decades, men have looked up to him, seeing him as the American ideal for rugged manliness. Unfortunately, Hemingway’s masculinity is the toxic type that degrades women and perpetuates stereotypes.
It’s hard to ignore not-so-subtle bigotry and ignorance in Hemingway’s writing. But it’s also hard to ignore his place in history. Hemingway is necessary to read for a first time visit to Paris. “A Farewell to Arms” was the best depiction of the Italian front during World War I, despite Hemingway spending less than a month in the fray. It’s impossible to deny Hemingway’s a genius. But how do we come to terms with this?
There are many more examples of these hard-to-reconcile problems in literature. In Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” a fundamental novel in the American childhood, racist slurs are thrown around with an ease that is impossible to be mistaken for anything but ignorance. Twain goes as far as capitalizing one of these slurs and sticking it in front of a name, as if there is confusion regarding which Jim the narrator is talking about.
This has continued to be a problem in contemporary literature. The biggest issue I’ve seen is the casual use of the “c-word.” In George R. R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series, the “c-word” is thrown around way too much, especially during the graphic sex scenes, and not always between quotation marks. The same thing goes for Jonathan Franzen, a successful contemporary American author, who writes about women well but then sounds like a douchebag when speaking about them. He peppers in the “c-word” too often for comfort, and not always in the dialogue. It’s as if these men think this word is just another curse word or colloquialism. It’s not.
So, how do we reconcile these great writers with their bigoted writing? The authors I mentioned are among my favorites. But are we to dismiss Hemingway’s faults because “it was different back then?” Or do their works as a whole dwarf the problems that show up in them? Neither of these excuses are viable to me, nor can I abandon my favorite authors altogether. I will never defend Hemingway as a person and will always recommend him with reservation. The point of this piece wasn’t to give answers, but to get you to ask yourself the questions needed to make an informed opinion about reading these great authors who sometimes write some not-so-great words.