Hemingway and Orwell: Masters of English Prose
In essays, novels, and short stories, the two transformed our written language.
Ernest Hemingway wrote that all American literature derived from one book, Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In a similar sense, one could argue that modern English prose owes its debt to two men: Hemingway and George Orwell. Near contemporaries—Hemingway was born in 1899; Orwell (or setting aside the pen name, more accurately, Eric Blair) was born four years later—the two transformed the way English was written in the 20th century. Orwell’s essays and Hemingway’s novels and, especially, short stories decluttered English prose and stressed concreteness and a crisp, direct use of the language. As noted by the writer Cyril Connolly, who knew both men, they pared their sentences to the bone. At times Hemingway’s prose paring could seem, in the words of the critic Dwight Macdonald, like “inspired baby talk.”
Consider this passage from The Sun Also Rises, an exchange between Lady Brett and Jake Barnes about her lover, Count Mippipopolous:
What’s the matter darling? Do you feel rocky?
Oh, Brett, I love you so much.
Do you want me to send him away?
No, He’s nice.
I’ll send him away.
Yes, I’ll send him away.
This kind of thing can go on for pages.
Orwell and Hemingway probably never met, although they both lived in the Latin Quarter of Paris in 1928. One was an obscure young man trying to become a writer, the other already a famous novelist. I say probably because Hemingway claimed he met Orwell in Paris in the final stages of World War II. The only sources for this meeting are Hemingway himself writing years later after Orwell had become famous and a note from a minor English poet writing after Orwell’s death. It seems implausible that Orwell never mentioned such a meeting to his many literary friends and associates.
Hemingway spoke highly of Orwell’s literary skills, especially his talent as an essayist. Orwell initially viewed Hemingway’s writing as just another example of what he called the “disgusting rubbish” of Yank magazines, while noting that Hemingway produced it in a more refined form. The two men shared some experiences. Both went to Spain to fight on the side of the Republic, although in very different forms. Orwell fought in the trenches and was shot in the throat fighting for a small anarchist faction, the POUM. Hemingway, who dismissed the POUM as “crackpots and wild men,” went to write for a newspaper syndicate in America at $500 a cable. Hemingway retained some guilt over his writings about the civil war because he knew he was exploited by the communists who eventually controlled the Spanish Republic.
Orwell thought that Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls was one of the few books to come out of the Spanish conflict that possessed some literary merit. When Homage to Catalonia, Orwell’s indictment of how the communists betrayed the Spanish Civil War, was published in America in 1952, two years after his death, Hemingway turned down a chance to review it, perhaps out of guilt. We know Hemingway was familiar with Homage because he owned three copies, including a rare 1938 first edition. But unlike some English writers—Evelyn Waugh, for example—Orwell was never a great admirer of Hemingway’s prose, despite sharing some literary qualities with him. In a 1946 essay, Orwell looked back on his early ambitions “to write enormous naturalistic novels with unhappy endings, full of detailed descriptions and arresting similes, and also full of purple passages in which words were used partly for the sake of their sounds.”
In the 1930s, he produced four traditional novels, all of which he came to view as failures and asked not to be reprinted after he became famous. He was probably too hard on himself. Burmese Days contains some colorful passages, especially a tiger hunt and a portrait of the English sahibs right out of the pages of Somerset Maugham. There isn’t much redeeming value in Keep the Aspidistra Flying, which reads like one long whine and grew out of Orwell’s unhappy experience of working in a cheap bookstore. But Coming Up for Air may be the best of his novels. His portrait of the protagonist, George Bowling, appeals perhaps because his yearning for a past England reflects some of Orwell’s own affection for the years before World War I. A Clergyman’s Daughter is a clear failure, partly because the protagonist, Dorothy Hare, is uninteresting and never seems real, but more importantly, because Orwell had problems with his female characters. He could never enter the female mind, and his women, including and especially Julia in Nineteen Eighty-Four, are caricatures of male wishful thinking. In a sense, Hemingway had the same problem. Lady Brett, already mentioned, and Maria in For Whom the Bell Tolls both read like some teenager’s dream of an available mistress.
Although made famous by his two political allegories, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell’s mastery of English prose shows best in his essays. In “A Hanging,” and “Shooting an Elephant,” Orwell produced little morality tales filled with vivid concrete images. No one reading “A Hanging” will forget the scene where the condemned man skips over a puddle of water on his way to the scaffold, nor can anyone fail to remember Orwell’s description of the native mob lusting for him to shoot the elephant so they can skin it for its meat.
Orwell produced serious essays about apparently trivial matters: humorous seaside postcards, English boys’ magazines, the difference between English and American murder mysteries. The concept has become commonplace among writers since his time, though few have approached him in originality. However, it was through his essays and his political journalism that Orwell left his most lasting mark. “Politics and the English Language” became a kind of Bible for a generation of political writers, with its simple rules for good writing. Never use a metaphor or simile which you are used to seeing in print. Never use a long word when a short one will do. If able to cut a word out, cut it out. Use the active voice and avoid foreign words or phrases. And then in a perfect Orwell touch: “Break any of these rules rather than say anything outright barbarous.”
Both Orwell and Hemingway were geniuses who found a way to make the writing of English clearer and more incisive. In their best work, they will live on. But of the two authors, there is little doubt whose influence has been the greatest: Orwell.
Hemingway is largely unread today except for short stories, and he is easy to parody. In fact, in some ways he was parodying himself after World War II. His novel Across the River and Into the Trees—E.B. White spoofed it with “Across the Street and Into the Grill”—is an example of the worst excesses of Hemingway’s prose. By the 1950s, he was writing very little and sounding like a caricature of himself: “I beat Mr. de Maupassant. I’ve fought two draws with Mr. Stendhal, but nobody is going to get me in the ring with Mr. Tolstoy.” His last major work, The Old Man and the Sea, with its faux Biblical prose, resembles nothing he wrote in the past. As the writer Dwight Macdonald noted, it appeared in Life magazine and that’s precisely where it belonged.
But Orwell’s influence continues. His essays are still read in high school and college literature courses. Animal Farm and, especially, Nineteen Eighty-Four continue to have enthusiastic followers, finding new audiences as fresh examples of Orwell’s concerns arise. It continues to sell today, and was a best seller again following the elections of 2016 and 2020, six decades after it first appeared. His themes, such as the corruption of language, the growing trend toward the suppression of speech, and the question of whether objective truth can survive, remain all too alive to us today.
John P. Rossi is professor emeritus of History at La Salle University in Philadelphia.