hemingway

From the Archives: A Mamet Discovery Prompts Unearthing This Piece About Hemingway and TV Writing

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           While researching another project recently at the Harry Ransom Center, on the campus of the University of Texas in Austin, I followed a digression into Hemingway territory and learned something I’d never encountered before. The playwright David Mamet (right) had once set out to write a screenplay based on Across the River and Into the Trees, one of Hemingway’s most problematic novels. Problematic because most critics hold it up as one of Hemingway’s worst. That may or may not be true, but despite its flaws, the book, like several of Hemingway’s lesser works, does serve up some elegant writing here and there. So, Across the River, published in 1950, is at least approachable on a prose, or sentence-by-sentence, level.

            Mamet recognized the novel’s reputation but once noted in an interview that great plays often lead to lousy movies and perhaps the reverse may have been true for a bad book. I’m not sure his logic on paper was quite that clear, but I think that was what he was trying to say.

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            Mamet has often been creatively compared to Hemingway, which, in that same interview (with Playboy, in 1995) he deflected: It would be a “heavy, impossible burden. You know, you can’t play Stanley Kowalski without being compared to Marlon Brando – even by people who never saw Marlon Brando in the movie, let alone on stage. He revolutionized that role and the American notion of what it meant to act. The same is true of Hemingway and writing.”

            That said, the discovery of these Mamet notes sent me back to a newspaper piece I wrote – yikes, sixteen years ago -- that connected some dots between Mamet and Hemingway through the craft of television writing. That piece also made a nod to the likes of Aaron Sorkin and Amy Sherman-Palladino, the creator of a TV series of the day called “Gilmore Girls” and now the creative spirit behind one of the most popular and lauded new streaming series, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” (on Amazon Prime). Again, Hemingway. I watched a few more episodes of “Mrs. Maisel” the other day, which gave me further impetus to repost this piece.

 

The following article first appeared in The Kansas City Star in November 2002.

 

Motor mouths: Smart and savvy TV writers figure it out: Papa knew best

 

“Wall Street Journal says people are talking really fast on

television.”

  “You don't say.”

  “No, really. Especially on `West Wing.' “

  “Smart show.”

  “That's right. Mostly written by a guy named Aaron Sorkin.”

  “All that politics _”

  “Ripped from the headlines!”

  “And real-life drama.”

  “It's nice that Bartlet and his wife are getting closer.”

  “Illness will do that.”

  “I suppose. But it's about -- “

  “Power and powerlessness.”

  ”Good way to put it, but I've been thinking about this TV thing for a

long time. And one thing the Journal didn't mention -- “

  “Only one?”

  “Well, a few things, but one important one was the real source of that

dialogue.”

  “Yeah?”

  “Straight out of Hemingway.”

  “Howzat?”

  “Sun.”

  “Sun?

  “The Sun Also Rises. All that Paris banter. All those young hipsters.”

  “All that drinking -- “

  “That, too, but I first noticed this a few years ago on another show

Sorkin did -- `Sports Night.' “

  “That ESPN thing.”

  “Something like that. But it was great. Behind the scenes at a sports

talk show that had virtually nothing to do with --”

  “Sports.”

  “Yeah. It was all about the people. And they talked fast, and they

talked on top of each other and they completed one another's --”

  “Sentences.”

  “You've got it. And for some reason that's why I put two and two

together.”

  “And came up with Hemingway.”

  “Listen to this. It's when Jake Barnes invites a passing woman to sit

down and have a drink. He's the narrator:

 

  “What's the matter?” she asked. “Going on a party?”

  “Sure. Aren't you?”

  “I don't know. You never know in this town.”

  “Don't you like Paris?”

  “No.”

  “Why don't you go somewhere else?”

  “Isn't anywhere else.”

  “You're happy, all right.”

  “Happy, hell!”

 

  “I see what you're talking about.”

 “Things happen fast on TV comedies, and even some dramas, and this

article I read said it had to do with cramming lots of scenes in a show to

keep people laughing. Wears some people out. ‘Lucy’ was funny. But

‘Seinfeld’ was faster. Just like those old screwball comedies from way back

when.”

  “Yeh, yeh, yeh.”

  “I might add that ‘Frasier’ is just as clever, more urbane, but

slower.”

  “It takes time to make a latte.”

  “And you know `Seinfeld,' that show about nothing.”

  “Yada yada yada.”

  “Exactly. Know where that comes from?”

  “I'm getting a feeling --”

  “Yep. ‘A Clean Well-Lighted Place.’ Seinfeld did yada yada. Hemingway

did nada nada. Read it and weep.”

  “Will do.”

  “These really good TV guys -- Sorkin, David Chase --”

  “ ‘Sopranos.’ “

  “Yup. And Matt Groening _”

  “ ‘Simpsons.’ “

  “Roger.”

  “Homer?"

  “No. Roger. As in `Roger that.' You're right. ‘Simpsons.’ But what I was

trying to say -- “

  “Before I interrupted --"

  “Was that the best of this stuff seems to be so aware of things. Aware

of the world. Aware of pop culture.”

  ”Uh huh.”

  “I mean, some of these guys even love books.”

  “I'll never forget that Jack London episode of ‘Northern Exposure.’ “

  “Brilliant. That's what I mean. Or Amy Sherman-Palladino.”

  “Who?”

  “She writes `Gilmore Girls.' There's some media-savvy dialogue, for you,

even though it feels a little forced.”

  “She's no Hemingway, you mean.”

  ”Well, I don't think I'm too far out on a literary limb with that

theory. Surely Sorkin read `Hills Like White Elephants.' “

  “Who hasn't?”

  “One thing you hear a lot is wordplay. Repetition. You accent something

by repeating it two or three or more times.”

  “Repetition.”

  “It's like ping-pong words. Not sing-song to put you to sleep. Ping-pong to

keep you alert.”

  “Back and forth you mean?”

  “Words ping-ponging, or pinballing. Like one time on `Gilmore Girls'

Rory and a friend were riffing on the word ‘wing-it.’ They didn't know they

were riffing, they were just saying what the writers wrote. But ‘wing-it’ as

a compound verb and an adjective, meaning just the opposite of ‘Zagat,’

meaning you'd look it up in the restaurant guide rather than wing-it. The

friend was having a date and she was worried about not looking

at Zagat and they'd be forced to wing-it. Zagat. Wing-it.”

  “Wow.”

  “It's like action poetry.”

  “Poetry? On television?”

  “TV is literature, you know. I mean look at ‘Sports Night.’ “

  “It's a shame they killed it.”

  “Yeah, that really torqued my chili.”

  “Peter Krause was great.

  “Just like he is on `Six Feet Under.' And now one of those `Sports

Night' guys is on ‘West Wing.’ “

  “The guy with glasses.”

  “But Felicity What's-Her-Name -- she played the lead character, the

talk-show producer -- was married to William H. Macy and they were great,

too.”

  “Great character -- Macy. The ratings consultant.”

  “Huffman. Felicity Huffman. And they're theater people.”

  “Really?”

  “They do Mamet. I mean they're friends with Mamet.”

  “Mamet?”

  “The F-word guy. Plays. Movies.”

  “Yeah, I know, I know. But did you just say, ‘It really torqued my

chili’?”

  “Did.”

  “Where'd that come from?”

  ”People talk that way.”

  “C'mon --”

  “No, they do. The beauty of language. I love it. ‘Torqued my chili.’

Some guy from Oklahoma says it. I heard it at a diner.”

  “A diner?”

  “You know, like in `The Killers.' “

  “Ernie again?”

  “Short story.”

  “Kind of like television.”

  “Except without the ads.”

  “Another reason they talk fast, right?”

  “Yeah. To squeeze in more -- “

  “Commercials."

In Key West, Exploring the Many Alluring Worlds of Caribbean Writers

            An uncanny bit of synchronicity lit a fuse underneath the recent Key West Literary Seminar. The seminar, devoted this year to “Writers of the Caribbean,” kicked off in early January on the very day that Washington D.C. fell victim to reports that the alleged leader of the free world had disparaged various brown-skinned homelands as “shithole countries.” Edwidge Danticat, a New Yorker who writes frankly and plaintively of her native Haiti, addressed the matter head on from the seminar stage. The first words out of her mouth on a panel on “unpacking paradise” the next day: “I’m apparently from a shithole country … so we never had that paradise.” Others throughout the weekend echoed her disgust -- sometimes subtly or ironically, sometimes quite openly. But the subtext certainly heightened the seminar’s great opportunity, which for me was to discover a vibrant geography of literature with which I’d had far too little experience.

            The spirit of Derek Walcott, the great poet from the island of St. Lucia who died last March, infused the seminar. Elizabeth Bishop, who lived in Key West in the 1930s and ‘40s, was cited frequently as well. I’d been reading some of Walcott’s long-line poems recently, and I flashed on my only personal encounter with him. It was 1999 in Boston – he was teaching at Boston University at the time – and he was one of the many global writers invited to speak and sometimes argue during an event commemorating Ernest Hemingway’s 100th birthday. Walcott was somewhat dismissive of the worst of Hemingway’s tendencies but gave him credit for infusing some of his prose with the sound of fine poetry. The examples he read, as I recall, were convincing.

            Hemingway’s name barely came up during this Key West seminar; I’m sure if it had, the writers who identify as Caribbean would not have been overly kind to the privileged American who made Cuba his home for two decades. Then again, the great Cuban writer Leonardo Padura, another big-name seminar participant, has acknowledged his debt to Hemingway. (In Cuba, he said, everyone wants to plagiarize Hemingway.) The outsized appetites of Padura’s recurring character, the police detective Mario Conde, certainly parallel Hemingway’s at times, though Padura’s prose, in its English translations, tends more towards lush expressionism, as if he were a painter with an overloaded brush, rather than Papa-style restraint. Padura still lives in Havana, where he manages to walk the fine artistic line that criticizes by slant and irony and thus allows him a certain protected status as well as the ability to publish outside Cuba. Nevertheless his account of the brutally unfair publishing system in Cuba was enlightening. A writer spends three years working on a novel and gets about $250 from a Cuban publisher, he said: “Being a writer in Cuba is practically an act of faith.” (The seminar happened to align with an art exhibit by the youngish Abel Barroso, a highly ironic and talented Cuban who also has earned the chance to show and sell overseas. We had met Barroso in his home during an art tour five years ago, and it was rewarding to see and hear him, during an opening event, surrounded by large and memorable pieces of his work.)

            Caryl Phillips delivered one of the major highlights of the seminar when he read from a forthcoming novel, A View of the Empire at Sunset. In it, he imagines an episode from the life of the complicated writer Jean Rhys (Wide Sargasso Sea) as she returns to the island of Dominica, where she’d grown up before setting off for her Bohemian existence in London, Paris and elsewhere. Little is known about her six weeks on the ground there, which gave Phillips his opening for invention, he conceded. His excerpt was stunning, and I’m sure I was not the only listener planning to snatch the novel up when it comes out in May. Phillips, another displaced islander, also impressed with a keynote essay at one evening’s tribute to Walcott. Phillips spoke about Walcott’s early experience in New York, amidst the theater world in 1958-59. It was a period of mostly unhappiness. Walcott was largely alone, ignored by the literary elite and too disciplined for the Beat crowd, Phillips noted. He cut his fellowship short. “In New York,” Phillips said of Walcott, “by learning what he wasn’t, he learned what he was – a West Indian.” Phillips’s rather downbeat portrait prompted the publisher Jonathan Galassi to lament the next day that Phillips had left out Walcott’s later successes. Well, sure, but it bears reminding that true achievement often follows failure, and the status of a Caribbean outsider in New York’s high-brow white culture was a point not lost on the rest of us.

            Jamaica Kincaid shared a typically circuitous essay on the subject of cultural appropriation. She began with an image of Dana Schutz's controversial painting of the embalmed mangled face of Emmett Till, and came down on the side of chilling-out about it. "All that we make belongs to all of us," Kincaid said. "The only thing we can't take from us is freedom."

            Along with the superstar presenters such as Phillips, Danticat, Padura, and Kincaid, the seminar gave voice to a slew of younger writers. I’d read Teju Cole (Open City and some of his writing on photography) and Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings, but had not yet encountered the likes of Rowan Ricardo Phillips, Kei Miller, Ishion Hutchinson (National Book Critics Circle winner in poetry for 2016), Nicole Dennis-Benn, Andre Alexis, or Tiphanie Yanique. Each had a unique perspective on where he or she had come from (Antigua, Jamaica, Trinidad, U.S. Virgin Islands) and what informs the poetry and prose. I read one of Hutchinson’s book’s on the airplane heading home. Rowan Ricardo Phillips began his wide-ranging, beautifully rendered keynote talk ("I Who Have No Weapon But Poetry") with a reading from Emily Wilson's new translation of The Odyssey (note to self: must read). He read the chapter where Odysseus confronts the Cyclops and tricks the sleeping giant with the "No Man maneuver," suggesting perhaps the potential power of a Caribbean identity as No Man. (Read Polyphemus as the U.S., or the current POTUS?) And it was a subtle prelude to Phillips's later acknowledgment of Walcott, whose masterwork is the epic Omeros. (Time to revisit that, too, and to read Rowan Phillips's books as well.)  

            Marlon James’s novel is steeped in Jamaican patois. He had trouble writing it early on, almost defeated by the task of juggling its multiple voices, he said, until someone suggested he read William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. I also appreciated his shout-out to Jessica Hagedorn’s novel Dogeaters (1990), which I’d admired years ago, as the “greatest novel about Jamaica” even though it’s set in the Philippines. I never got a chance to suggest to James that A Brief History of Seven Killings, winner of a Man Booker prize, reminded me a bit of Richard Price’s streetwise novel of young drug dealers, Clockers, but it did. I’ll look forward to a forthcoming TV series based on James’s big novel. James is an executive producer and one of five writers working on scripts for the 10 episodes (for Amazon). More power to him.

            All of this literary immersion, of course, takes place deep in the heart of Duval Street, the spine of Key West’s daily carnival of unleashed hedonism. Key West is slowly recovering from the hurricane that ravaged the middle Keys; though it suffered relatively little damage, Key West is still affected by misperceptions, and the tourist business did not yet seem fully up to speed. Some street performers certainly were having a tough time of it. “These literary fuckers aren’t giving anything up,” said one noodling flutist. He was crouched on a sidewalk down the block from the San Carlos Institute, a historic Cuban building that houses the annual seminar.

            I felt rather lucky landing a place in the seminar, which has been going on for 36 years. The seminar sells out quickly and seems to have become a literary playground for Key West’s high society. (Next year: Margaret Atwood!) Oh well; I can think of worse places to take a winter vacation. And the chance to expand my literary boundaries and add to my must-read piles seems kind of worth it.

Discovering Hemingway's Legacy at 1729 Grand

I wrote this piece originally for an Associated Press blog published daily by former Kansas City bureau chief Paul Stevens, he of the near mirror-image name.

 

In my earliest days at The Kansas City Star, the AP officed on the third floor in the temple of journalism that William Rockhill Nelson built, and Ernest Hemingway's ghost was hardly around.

Hemingway had been dead for a decade, and, to me, he was just someone whose work I'd read in school. I don't recall any substantial discussions about him in the building, nor was I impressed that his name appeared in bronze on a plaque that listed Star staffers who served in the first world war. It would be years before I began to appreciate not only his place in American literature but also his legacy as a cub reporter in the very newsroom where I spent more than 40 years as a writer and editor.

A WWI service plaque in the historic Kansas City Star building keeps the Hemingway link alive. I'll be curious to know where the plaque will go when a new owner takes over the building.. 

A WWI service plaque in the historic Kansas City Star building keeps the Hemingway link alive. I'll be curious to know where the plaque will go when a new owner takes over the building.. 

By 1999, the centennial year of Hemingway's birth, I had leapt into his world with abandon as I prepared a special-section tribute for The Star, "Hemingway at 100." I read deep into Hemingway's work, met many literary scholars at conferences, and began researching his life and work, especially his Kansas City period of 1917-18.

 It seemed like such a folly, expecting to find morsels that hadn't already turned up in the many Hemingway biographies and scholarly works published even then. But I trudged on periodically, examining Hemingway's papers at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston and elsewhere, inching through The Star on microfilm, and traveling to places that shaped the outsized talent, who possessed an indelible sense for the art of the word along with a knack for bombast and bad behavior.

When I chose to retire from the newspaper in March 2016, it was full-steam ahead on the biography that I'd been scratching at for too many years. A couple of months into the new round of work, an important insight emerged. For all those years I thought I'd been working on "Hemingway in Kansas City." But who would care about that? I finally realized. The morning that I reshaped my project as "Hemingway at Eighteen" turned out to be critical. Long story short, I refashioned a formal proposal that I'd been floating and within two weeks sold the book to an editor at the Chicago Review Press. The expanded time frame allowed me to take Hemingway from Kansas City to the ambulance service in Italy, where, two weeks before his 19th birthday, he suffered a near-death wounding on the war front along the Piave River.

Those two peak, teen-age experiences now form the bulk of my book.

At a conference last spring, I learned that slice-of-life biographies had taken the publishing world by storm. Sure, full-life biographies remain the ultimate standard for many authors and readers. But the kind of closely focused books expertly cast and popularized by my friend Candice Millard (on Teddy Roosevelt, President John Garfield and Winston Churchill) have blossomed. Ever since, I've been saying that of the dozen or more Hemingway books appearing in 2017 alone, mine, I'm sure, is the sliciest.

The book, subtitled The Pivotal Year That Launched an American Legend, begins with the recent high school graduate unsure of what to do with his life as he worked his family's vacation farm fields in Michigan and fished for trout. College was out of the question for a while, and Kansas City became the default when Hemingway ultimately determined the Chicago newspapers weren't hiring but an uncle could get him a job at The Star. Kansas City's lively, gritty and sometimes mean streets, along with the newspaper's colorfully intense daily grind, served as something like a college education for Hemingway. The book details some of his more notable pieces for the paper, presents some little-known background about The Star and the city, and delivers some previously unheard contemporary voices about Hemingway, the budding writer. For the world of journalism, it also raises new questions prompted by a surprising piece of history I was finally able to confirm after many years of trying - the time that Hemingway was called to testify before a federal grand jury.

Hemingway at Eighteen comes out in October, 100 years after Hemingway's arrival in Kansas City. And 100 years after the very beginning of his self-invented life as a writer.