Ideas for teaching Hemingway's A Moveable Feast

Alan Filreis


In many ways, this is a book about the idea of a generation. Consider that, for good or ill, many parallels have been drawn between the "lost generation" of the 1920s and several very recent generations. "Generation X" supposedly was, in a sense, "lost" in something of the way Stein meant the label, as Hemingway recalls it. Such categorical judgments imply a single or mostly coherent attitude. Students responding to AMF in discussion may well be able to characterize what Hemingway takes to be the attitude of the lost generation; it is certainly possible to create a list of qualities. Are there indeed similarities, then, between the generation described in the book and recent generations? Those among our students who resent such generalizations about their generation may be in a good position to assess Hemingway's reasons, rhetorical and otherwise, for making such sweeping statements.


Hemingway makes a number of statements seemingly calculated to offend. Yet it is also true that the Hemingway of A Moveable Feast seems more than in his other writings at the edge of, or fully engaged in, self-parody. (Incidentally, presented with this generalization, students may well be prepared to give examples of Hemingway's self-mockery, or at least self-denigration.) Thus patently unfair remarks may be interpreted as part of the irony that pervades Hemingway's presentation of his memory of himself as a young writer, especially when that young writer is recalled dealing with older and more prominent writers. Ask the students to consider how to interpret the statement (in the final chapter about Gertrude Stein) that "There is not much future in men being friends with great women" (p. 117) in the context of irony and self-mock. Does he really believe this? If it's even partly an ironic statement, how should one interpret the end of that chapter?

In the end everyone, or not quite everyone, made friends again in order not to be stuffy or righteous. I did too. But I could never make friends again truly, neither in my heart nor in my head. When you cannot make friends any more in your head is the worst. But it was more complicated than that. (p. 119)


Student readers will observe that this is not a book with a clear narrative flow. It follows seasonal patterns roughly, and "tours" Hemingway's writerly compatriots somewhat systematically, with several turns to Gertrude Stein, obviously a key figure. But an order or progression of events is not immediately discernible. (It can be argued that the book is really "about" the course of first writings and first marriage; the last chapter does signal an "end of something" (to use Hemingway's phrase from his first book).

Consider what Stein wrote about narrative; students may well be able to decide whether this modernist approach to narrative order aptly characterizes Hemingway's later recollection of early modernist days:

I think one naturally is impressed by anything having a beginning a middle and an ending when emerging from adolescence...but...American writing has been an escaping not an escaping but an existing with the necessary feeling of one thing succeeding another thing of anything have a beginning and a middle and an ending.

Even Hemingway's detractors acknowledge the power and sharpness of his early fictional prose - which can best be described as cubist.

Hemingway's stories in In Our Time - the work he was composing at the time of the events in AMF - don't "describe" in traditional ways. Many passages enact the rejection of the traditional techniques of perspective, foreshortening, modeling, and chiaroscuro and refuting time-honoured theories of art as the imitation of nature. Cubist painters were not bound to copying form, texture, color, and space; instead, they presented a new reality in paintings that depicted radically fragmented objects, whose several sides were seen simultaneously. Cubism in language is difficult to pull off, and many literary critics agree that Gertrude Stein managed it well, especially, for instance, in her Tender Buttons and her verbal "portraits" of figures like Picasso.

In Our Time uses repetition - and a prose rhythm that sometimes give the reader the feeling that he or she is moving three steps forward while two steps backward. Scenes and figures are presented, and then presented again in a slightly repetitious, slightly different way. In one In Our Time vignette we have this "description" of a wartime harbor:

The strange thing was, he said, how they screamed every night at midnight. I do not know why they screamed at that time. We were in the harbor and they were all on the peer and at midnight they started screaming. We used to turn the searchlight on them to quiet them.
Here is the origin of the prose style Hemingway made famous (and infamous). Short sentences, seemingly simple and straightforward - actually unrevealing and difficult. It could be said that Hemingway atomized description in a way that Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, and others, in their cubist phases, broke visual perceptions into perspectival shards. (The Philadelphia Museum of Art, in its Walter Arensberg collection, has many great examples of this.)

Gertrude Stein can be said to have conducted this experiment both at the level of the individual sentence *and* at the level of the "descriptive" passage. Hemingway conducted the experiment at the level of the passage but not at the level of the sentence: the individual sentences are traditional in structure (disarmingly so).

AMF not only remembers the social and emotional scene in which this new style of describing was created, but it also, on occasion, reproduces that style. Because it is remembering and imitating or replicating, it is highly self-conscious writing in a way that the best work of In Our Time (such as the Nick Adams stories) was not. Some would argue that this self-consciousness makes for bad writing, self-parodic and flat. Other readers might argue that the style succeeds.

Here is one passage that students might discuss in this particular context:

When spring came, even the false spring, there were no problems except where to be happiest.... The goatherd came up the street blowing his pipes and a woman who lived on the floor above us came out onto the sidewalk with a big pot. The goatherd chose one of the heavy-bagged, black milk-goats and milked her into the pot while his dog pushed the others onto the sidewalk. The goats looked around, turning their necks like sight-seers. The goat- herd took the money from the woman and thanked her and went on up the street piping and the dog herded the goats on ahead, their horns bobbing. I went back to writing and the woman came up the stairs with the goat milk. She wore her felt-soled cleaning shoes and I only heard her breathing as she stopped on the stairs outside our door and then the shutting of her door. She was the only customer for goat milk in our building.
A marvelous anti-descriptive yet compelling example of cubism in language is Gertrude Stein's passage about a car accident, self-reflectively titled "Let Us Describe":
Let us describe how they went. It was a very windy night and the road although in excellent condition and extremely well graded has many turnings and although the curves are not sharp the rise is considerable. It was a very windy night and some of the larger vehicles found it more prudent not to venture. In consequence some of those who had planned to go were unable to do so. Many others did go and there was a sacrifice, of what shall we, a sheep, a hen, a cock, a village, a ruin, and all that and then that having been blessed let us bless it.
An example of a cubist portrait, Picasso's "Portrait of Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler" (1910), can be found on the web at:

A possibly helpful summary of Stein's prose is provided by poet W. G. Rogers:

As always when at her best, she uses double talk to arrive at plain meanings: she adds nothing and nothing and gets something; her sum is an emotional impact; an excitment, an undeniable deep stirring. This is the marvel and the mystery of her language; it can be an incantation, and like the lingo of the medicine man, it can say little while accomplishing a lot. You don't blame it for what it is, you credit it for what it does.
To what extent does Hemingway's writing follow this analysis of Stein's - "adds nothing and nothing and gets something"?


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Last modified: Wednesday, 18-Jul-2007 16:27:48 EDT