"Where else would you go when you have an ax to grind?"

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Adios Ernesto

RIP Ernest Hemingway

July 21, 1899 - July 2,  1961

Your reading assignments for today are:

Hemingway's 1954 Nobel acceptance speech

And this:

What Lured Hemingway to Ketchum?

By Hunter S. Thompson
National Observer, May 25, 1964 

"That poor old man. He used to walk out there on the road in the evenings. He was

so frail and thin and old-looking that it was embarrassing to see him. I was always afraid
a car would hit him, and that would have been an awful way for him to go. I was tempted to go out and tell him to be careful, and I would have if it had been anyone else. But with Hemingway it was different."

The neighbor shrugged and glanced at Ernest Hemingway's empty house, a comfortable looking chalet with a big pair of elk horns over the front door. It is built on a hillside
looking down on the Big Wood River, and out across the valley at the Sawtooth Mountains.

A mile or so away, in a small graveyard at the north end of town, is Hemingway's simple grave, lying in the afternoon shadow of Baldy Mountain and the Sun Valley ski runs.
Beyond Baldy are the high pastures of the Wood River National Forest, where thousands of sheep graze in the summer, tended by Basque sheepherders from the Pyrenees. All winter long the grave is covered with deep snow, but in the summer tourists come out
and take pictures of each other standing beside it. Last summer there was a problem with people taking chunks of earth for souvenirs.

When news of his death made headlines in 1961 there must have been other people besides myself who were not as surprised by the suicide as by the fact that the story was date-lined Ketchum, Idaho. What was he doing living there? When had he left Cuba, where most people assumed he was working, against what he knew was his last deadline, on the long-promised Big Novel?
The newspapers never answered those questions -- not for me, at any rate -- so it was with a feeling of long-restless curiosity that I came, last week, up the long bleak
road to Ketchum, over the drainage divide between the Magic and the Wood River valleys, through Shoshone and Bellevue and Hailey -- Ezra Pound's hometown -- past Jack's Rock Shop on U.S. 93, and into Ketchum itself, population 783.

Anybody who considers himself a writer or even a serious reader cannot help but wonder just what it was about this outback little Idaho village that struck such a
responsive chord in America's most famous writer. He had been coming here off and on since 1938, until finally, in 1960, he bought a home just outside of town, and, not incidentally
a 10-minute drive from Sun Valley, which is so much a part of Ketchum that they are really one and the same.

The answers might be instructive -- not only as a key to Hemingway, but to a question he often pondered, even in print. "We do not have great writers," he explains to the Austrian in Green Hills of Africa. "Something happens to our good writers at a certain age. . . You see we make our writers into something very strange. . . We destroy them in many ways." But Hemingway himself never seemed to discover in what way he was being "destroyed," and so he never understood how to avoid it.
Even so, he knew something had gone wrong with both himself and his writing, and after a few days in Ketchum you get a feeling that he came here for exactly that reason. Because it was here, in the years just before and after World War II, that he came to hunt and ski and raise hell in the local pubs with Gary Cooper and Robert Taylor and all the
other celebrities who came to Sun Valley when it still loomed large on cafe society's map
of diversions.

Those were "the good years," and Hemingway never got over the fact that they couldn't last. He was here with his third wife in 1947, but then he settled in Cuba and 12 years went by before he came again -- a different man this time, with yet another wife, Mary, and a different view of the world he had once been able "to see clear and as a whole."
Ketchum was perhaps the only place in his world that had not changed radically since the good years. Europe had been completely transformed, Africa was in the process of drastic upheaval, and finally even Cuba blew up around him like a volcano. Castro's educators taught the people that "Mr. Way" had been exploiting them, and he was in no mood in his old age to live with any more hostility than was necessary.
Only Ketchum seemed unchanged, and it was here that he decided to dig in. But there were changes here too; Sun Valley was no longer a glittering, celebrity-filled
winter retreat for the rich and famous, but just another good ski resort in a tough
league. "People were used to him here," says Chuck Atkinson, owner of a Ketchum motel. "They didn't bother him and he was grateful for it. His favorite time was the fall. We
would go down to Shoshone for the pheasant shooting, or over on the river for some ducks. He was a fine shot, even toward the end, when he was sick."

Hemingway didn't have many friends in Ketchum. Chuck Atkinson was one of them, and when I saw him one morning in his house on a peak overlooking the town, he had just
received a copy of A Moveable Feast. "Mary sent it from New York," he explained. "I read
part of it after breakfast; it's good, it sounds more like him than some of the other

Another friend was Taylor "Beartracks" Williams, a veteran guide who died last year and was buried near the man who gave him the original manuscript of For Whom the Bell Tolls. It was "Beartracks" who took Hemingway into the mountains after elk, bear,
antelope, and sheep in the days when "Papa" was still a meat-hunter.

Not surprisingly, Hemingway has acquired quite a few friends since his death. "You're writing a story on Ketcbum?" asked a bartender. "Why don't you do one on all the people who knew Hemingway? Sometimes I get the feeling I'm the only person in town who didn't."
Charley Mason, a wandering pianist, is one of the few people who spent much time with him, mainly listening, because "When Ernie had a few drinks he could carry on for
hours with all kinds of stories. It was better than reading his books."

I met Mason in the Sawtooth Club on Main Street, when he came in to order coffee over the bar. He is off the booze these days and people who know him say he looks 10 years younger. As he talked, I had an odd feeling that he was somehow a creation of Hemingway's, that he had escaped from one of the earlier short stories.
"He was a hell of a drinker," Mason said with a chuckle. "I remember one time over at the Tram [a local pub] just a few years ago; he was with two Cubans -- one was a great big Negro, a gun-runner he knew from the Spanish Civil War, and the other was a delicate little guy, a neurosurgeon from Havana with fine hands like a musician. That was a
three-day session. They were blasted on wine the whole time and jabbering in Spanish like revolutionaries. One afternoon when I was there, Hemingway jerked the checkered cloth off the table and he and the other big guy took turns making the little doctor play the bull.
They'd whirl and jerk the cloth around -- it was a hell of a sight."

On another evening, out at Sun Valley, Mason took a break on the stand and sat down for a while at Hemingway's table. In the course of the conversation Mason asked him what it took "to break in on the literary life, or anything else creative, for that

"Well," said Hemingway, "there's only one thing I live by -- that's having the power of conviction and knowing what to leave out." He had said the same thing before, but whether he still believed it in the winter of his years is another matter. There is good evidence that he was not always sure what to leave out, and very little evidence to show that his power of conviction survived the war.
That power of conviction is a hard thing for any writer to sustain, and especially so once he becomes conscious of it. Fitzgerald fell apart when the world no longer danced to his music; Faulkner's conviction faltered when he had to confront Twentieth Century Negroes instead of the black symbols in his books; and when Dos Passos tried to change his convictions he lost all his power.
Today we have Mailer, Jones, and Styron, three potentially great writers bogged down in what seems to be a crisis of convictions brought on, like Hemingway's, by the mean nature of a world that will not stand still long enough for them to see it clear as a

It is not just a writer's crisis, but they are the most obvious victims because the function of art is supposedly to bring order out of chaos, a tall order even when the chaos is static, and a superhuman task in a time when chaos is multiplying.
Hemingway was not a political man. He did not care for movements, but dealt in his fiction with the stresses and strains on individuals in a world that seemed far less
complex, prior to World War II, than it has since. Rightly or wrongly, his taste ran to
large and simple (but not easy) concepts -- to blacks and whites, as it were, and he was
not comfortable with the multitude of gray shadings that seem to be the wave of the
It was not Hemingway's wave, and in the end he came back to Ketchum, never ceasing to wonder, says Mason, why he hadn't been killed years earlier in the midst of violent
action on some other part of the globe. Here, at least, he had mountains and a good river
below his house; he could live among rugged, non-political people and visit, when he chose
to, with a few of his famous friends who still came up to Sun Valley. He could sit in the
Tram or the Alpine or the Sawtooth Club and talk with men who felt the same way he did
about life, even if they were not so articulate. In this congenial atmosphere he felt he
could get away from the pressures of a world gone mad, and "write truly" about life as he
had in the past.

Ketchum was Hemingway's Big Two Hearted River, and he wrote his own epitaph in the story of the same name, just as Scott Fitzgerald had written his epitaph in a book called
The Great Gatsby. Neither man understood the vibrations of a world that had shaken them
off their thrones, but of the two, Fitzgerald showed more resilience. His half-finished
Last Tycoon was a sincere effort to catch up and come to grips with reality, no matter how distasteful it might have seemed to him.

Hemingway never made such an effort. The strength of his youth became rigidity as he grew older, and his last book was about Paris in the Twenties.
Standing on a corner in the middle of Ketchum it is easy to see the connection Hemingway must have made between this place and those he had known in the good years. Aside from the brute beauty of the mountains, he must have recognized an atavistic distinctness in the people that piqued his sense of dramatic possibilities. It is a raw
and peaceful little village, especially in the off season with neither winter skiers nor
summer fishermen to dilute the image. Only the main street is paved; most of the others are no more than dirt and gravel tracks that seem at times to run right through front

From such a vantage point a man tends to feel it is not so difficult, after all,
to see the world clear and as a whole. Like many another writer, Hemingway did his best work when he felt he was standing on something solid -- like an Idaho mountainside, or a sense of conviction.

Perhaps he found what he came here for, but the odds are huge that he didn't. He was an old, sick, and very troubled man, and the illusion of peace and contentment was not enough for him -- not even when his friends came up from Cuba and played bullfight with him in the Tram. So finally, and for what he must have thought the best of reasons, he ended it with a shotgun.
National Observer, May 25, 1964 


Sunday, June 30, 2013

Signal to noise ratio

Look at any newspaper, watch any newscast, and compare the amount of space and time given to actual hard news (breaking events, politics, court, natural disaster, policy, war, events of community and/or global significance, local crime)  opinion (arts reviews, political punditry, letters to the editor, columnists),  useful practical information (recipes, DIY tips, travel stories about places you might actually go, restaurant reviews, community calendar listings), pure entertainment (the comics, serialized fiction, humour columns and feature stories of  and the amount of absolute junk - film studio advertising thinly disguised as 'entertainment news', bullshit advice columns, stories based on bullshit polls or worse - dodgy 'scientific" studies based on a test group of 17 people, celebrity gossip, clothing ads thinly disguised as 'fashion news', product placement stories ("According to the cornstarch marketing board, cornstarch can be used to help you lose weight and improve your car's gas mileage!", new product stories, 'business profiles", new business openings, almost all investment news, anything to do with the internet, especially internet memes, horoscopes (what century is this?) - and worst of all, second hand stories about any of the above ( Our newspaper has learned that London's Daily Mirror is reporting that Princess Kate will give birth to quintuplets! Oh those wacky Fleet Street papers!").
I think features and practical information have their place in a newspaper. I think opinion deserves its own section and I'll buy one newspaper over another on the strength of their columnists, arts reviewers and comics. I'll even concede that in our sports-obsessed society, the case can be made for sports deserving a few pages of its own.
But the junk news, celebrity gossip and other garbage that originally began running in newspapers to attract a broader readership among the great unwashed no longer attracts readers. No one buys a newspaper to find out what happened to the goddamned Kardashians. No one buys a newspaper to find out how their stocks are doing or what company they should invest in. No one buys a newspaper to find out how healthful and tasty new improved lo-fat sugar-free Soylent Green might be. No one needs to read about how 8 out of ten people are potential serial killers base on a study of fourteen federal prisoners  and two jail guards. Nobody buys a newspaper to find out what Selena Gomez said about Justin Beiber's vestigal tail in People Magazine or which starlet Maxim thinks is the most "do-able" --- Maybe they did, once upon a time, back when the daily newspaper or suppertime daily new hour was the quickest way to get information and the only source of information.
Now, people who want celebrity gossip can get a steady drip of it from TMZ, Entertainment Tonight and the other more specialized arms of the entertainment industry PR machine. People who want the score and the stats from the big game right away don't wait for the morning paper, they watch the game on their smartphone or download the scores-and-stats app and get the information seconds after the final buzzer. No one -- and I mean no one who cares how their investments are performing-- relies on the 24-to-48-hours-old stock price information in the newspaper. People looking to buy a car don't suddenly go out  and buy a newspaper for the driving section to read about how every single car "reviewed" by the marketing stooges automotive journalists has its charms - when was the last time you read a car review that called a vehicle a complete lemon? Even in the unlikely event that such an article were to be written, no newspaper whose driving section is paid for by advertisements for car dealers and carmakers, is likely to run it. Even stories about product recalls usually run in another section.

Not everyone who writes for a newspaper or who stands up in front of a camera with a microphone is a journalist.

Sometimes I lament for my profession. Nobody goes to journalism school because they idolize Walter Winchell or because they want to get stuck writing thinly-veiled advertising copy, but too many embrace the easy path to a paycheque and write what the marketing department thinks people want to read. ("Hey, this Justin Beiber kid is selling a pile of records and has a million twitter followers -- we should carry a Justin Beiber story every day! Our sales among ten-year-old girls will skyrocket and we need that youth market!) Most people going into journalism dream of breaking the next Watergate, not sharing the startling and important information that a study by the National Cocoa Research Council of 27 laboratory test subjects found that eating chocolate will enhance your sex drive.

But just to keep the ink pumping in our veins we cater to the whims of the market, thinking that will save us as all the eyeballs of the great unwashed migrate to infotainment television and the internet. The crowd has moved on to the latest pretty thing and they are not coming back. The newspaper industry and journalism in general need to ask our collective selves why people get angry about the press. Do you hear them bitching about how we don't run enough sport analysis, hollywood gossip or stories about how 45% of people claim to have had a prayer answered by their guardian angel. No, you don't. You will never hear complaints about that shit because no one paid their $1.50 at the news stand for that crap. They get mad because we missed the story about the Prime Minister's parliamentary secretary cheating in the last election. They get mad because we didn't tell them about how that company covered up that pipeline leak. They get mad because their third cousin in jail for backsassing a cop and no one from the press is interested.

 If newspapers and journalism want to survive, we need to get back to afflicting the comfortable and provide the afflicted with more bread and less circus. We need to stop trying appeal to people who want infotainment and cotton candy and won't read a newspaper until their particular ox is gored on the front page, and start concentrating on covering a few more ox gorings  in a more comprehensive and meaningful way. We need to do our jobs a little better and try giving readers more of what they really buy the newspaper for --- NEWS.

We need more signal and less noise.


your Sunday sermonette