America’s Most Commodified: Ernest Hemingway

A few posts back, this blog turned some attention to what happens when writers become commodities sold by persona. Commodification results in a kind of lazy cultural shorthand that pre-empts the need to actually read the author and discuss their works: the author instead becomes a signifier of an abstracted ideal, a rubric of adjectives that the consumer can use to “identify” with their own life. It seems to me that no author has been more commodified than Ernest Hemingway. For example, check out The Ernest Hemingway Collection for a selection of clothes, home furnishings, and other chintzy crap. From their website:

“You can now share in his spirit as an adventurer, author and romantic. His legend can be brought to your home through this entire Ernest Hemingway Collection. Every item has been hand selected and approved to ensure authenticity. Enjoy this celebration of the man and the memory.”

Yes! You too can buy a certain kind of authenticity! But do throw pillows and bed spreads really convey a balance of macho resolve and artistic sensitivity just because a corporartion sticks Hemingway’s name on them? Who buys this stuff anyway? According to this article, it’s the “new male shoppers” that are interested in this kind of decor–and what do the “new male shoppers” read? They don’t have to read Hemingway, because distinguished literary journals such as Maxim and Men’s Vogue have already digested and sanctified it for them: Hemingway gets the stamp of approval–he was macho, a hunter and a drinker and a fighter–just one of the frat boys.

Years ago, at a party in Gainesville, I remember a guy bringing up Hemingway. I was on the outs with Hemingway at this point, so I prodded the guywhy did he like Hemingway? What about the work was so meaningful to him? More prompting yielded what I should have guessed: the guy drunkenly, laughingly admitted that he hadn’t read anything by Hemingway, it was just a stock answer that he gave to the question: “Who’s your favorite writer?”

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Who are the future stock answers? It seems like the hard-drinking ex-pat writers of the 30’s and 40’s had the right balance of persona and mystique to create their own mythos–but what about today’s greats? How will the future sell them?

8 thoughts on “America’s Most Commodified: Ernest Hemingway”

  1. lol…My mother in law purchased a Hemingway chair for us years ago (it now resides in our junk/weight room):

    “This chair is a genuine Hemingway chair! It cost a lot of money. You know, he is a great writer, definitely my favorite!”

    “Really? Which book did you like the best?”

    “Oh, um…The Grapes of Wrath was my favorite!”

    [……????]

    Phil

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  2. While far from being great writers, I think you stand a better chance of seeing guys like Tom Clancy and…um…the guy who wrote The Firm and The Pelican Brief sold as commodities in the future moreso than any “great” writer of today. In fact, I’d venture to say that Hemingway may be the only example that one could ever find of an author’s widespread commodification.

    In your first post, you brought up Nietzsche as an example of a writer / philosopher whose complex ideas have been distilled into an erroneously construed set of popular expectations. In the way that his positivity and romantic ideas about mankind have been distorted, his work is somewhat cheapened. Yet, this is vastly different than having a chair or sheets or playing cards or any number of bars named after you.

    The thing is, Hemingway was as much a symbol of consumption and material advancement as he was for anything else. In fact, the aesthetic associated with him has far outlasted the merits of any one of his books. Whereas Nietzsche gives us insight, Hemingway, with his everpresent themes of loss and detachment — sexually, emotionally, et al. — gives us nothing but escapism. Ultimately, because it’s very easy NOT to read the more complex subtext in his work, his work is appealing to the fraternity set in the same way that any thoughtless action movie would be.

    That said, I would still consider myself a “fan” of Hemingway’s. While I don’t go in for the safari shit or the Key West shit or the depressing scenes of Spain at siesta shit, I admire his writing style. And I think that on a pop-lit level, that’s what he’ll be remembered for the most. He’s easy to read, his stories are about stuff that a lot of guys like to do (drink, fish, complain about women) and, as his appearance resembles that of Santa Claus, he seems completely trustable. So, I doubt we’re looking at some kind of archetype to be repeated. Instead, I see the same commercialism at play with Hemingway that I do with the icons of Elvis, Marilyn, Einstein, etc.

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  3. first, i’m glad that i’m not the only person with this type of (exasperating) experience, so thanks phil!
    second, longlunch (or is it ms. gaia?) your post is excellent. i totally agree with you that hemingway is an easy commodity (however he’s certainly not the only one–consider shakespeare). and i agree with you too that it’s hard to see who the next literary icon-cum-archetype will be…
    i would completely rule out guys whose work represents a brand or a franchise, like grisham and clancy and stephen king–these guys are great at churning out stuff that plays well as a film–but they lack the persona of someone like bukowski or henry miller or hunter s. thompson. anne rice? i forgot about her conversion to christianity. does that help or hurt?
    if i come off as ragging on hemingway, i will point out that “a clean well-lighted place” is still one of my favorite short stories. on the whole though, i think hemingway’s reading doesn’t hold up well to a lot of contemporary reading styles–by this i mean that all of the perspectives are very much The White Man in Charge. i reread “a farewell to arms” a few years ago; i remember having loved the book in high school. i realized though that all the loss and emptiness at the end, all the “nothing” that passes for existential philosophy is really just an escape fantasy, a chance to abandon wife and child and go on some other (infantile and destructive) adventure.

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  4. re: “farewell to arms” – i totally agree. escape fantasy.

    embarrassingly, i forgot about hunter s. thompson and bukowski. HST’s crusher-style hat, red tinted glasses and cigarette holder are fast becoming as emblematic as Nietzsche’s ‘stache and Hemingway’s beard-o’er-turtleneck. and that’s pretty interesting, given that a whole generation of kids are VERY familiar with the film adaptation of “Fear and Loathing…” yet haven’t read the novel or “The Great Shark Hun” or his short pieces for any number of magazines printed over the years. and yet, the Depp character of that movie is becoming the icon. why think about the searing criticism of the political cads of the 60’s when you’ve got a handsome Pirate driving a sharkfin convertible through the center of a technicolor midfuck?

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  5. “Commodification results in a kind of lazy cultural shorthand that pre-empts the need to actually read the author and discuss their works: the author instead becomes a signifier of an abstracted ideal, a rubric of adjectives that the consumer can use to “identify” with their own life.”

    Music to my ears, Ed. Keep on keeping on.

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