Hemingway’s Short Fiction and the Crisis of Middle-Class Masculinity


© 2002 Sean M. Donnell


            Ernest Hemingway’s short fiction, often lionized for its valorous portrayal of the steadfast male exhibiting “grace under pressure” in the face of an increasingly decadent post-World War I society, has come in the last few decades under increasing scrutiny.  What was once interpreted as the author’s attempt to uphold the ideal of a “manly” code is now—since the reinscription of sexual roles in the 1970s—more often either criticized as misogynist and homophobic, or redressed as a symptomatology of Hemingway’s latent homosexuality.  Concomitant with this sexual recoding was the posthumous release of The Garden of Eden.  This novel, culled from a sprawling, sixteen hundred page manuscript, engenders an alternate sexuality for Hemingway—something far different from the one he publicly created. 

            The release of The Garden of Eden has in part fomented a resurgence in Hemingway criticism, paying special attention to the sex and gender coding in his fiction.  Regarding this rebirth of Hemingway criticism, Debra A. Moddelmog notes:

The information that has moved scholars the most concerns Hemingway’s departures in his writing and his life from the traditional codes of masculinity and heterosexuality, codes that he played no small part in fostering.  Among the disclosures that have drawn the greatest scrutiny are Grace Hemingway’s treating her son as the female twin of his older sister and dressing him in girls’ clothes, apparently for longer than was conventional for the time; Hemingway’s attraction, both sexual and non-sexual, for lesbians; his fascination with the ménage à trois; and his engagement in role playing in bed, the man becoming the woman to the woman’s man.  (187)

Yet many of Hemingway’s sex and gender coding based on the revelations in The Garden of Eden remain questionable for a number of reasons.  First, some critics attempt to use The Garden of Eden as a justification for Hemingway’s copious instances—both in print and in his public life—of misogyny and homophobia.  Whether Hemingway experimented in private with his own gender identity does not excuse his public treatment of gays and women.  While there is still a place for Hemingway in the American canon, using such an argument to reestablish his position is both ludicrous and reprehensible. 

            Second, many critics have used Hemingway’s experimentation to evaluate his fiction (which in itself is not without merit), but they have insisted upon reformulating the author’s other writings solely within the context of androgyny (Mark Spilka’s Hemingway’s Quarrel with Androgyny is perhaps the best-known example of this).  Reducing Hemingway’s experimentation to strictly playing with androgynous codes limits any critique to a reformulation of a heteronormative position and elides the possibility of homosexual expression.  Or, as Moddelmog asserts, “Hemingway critics working with androgyny reassert and reflect sexist, heterosexist, and homophobic views” (189).  For example, if we look at Brett and Jake’s relationship in The Sun Also Rises as strictly androgynous, then we preclude the possibility that Jake is interested in the “mannish” Brett—or that Brett is interested in the “wounded” Jake—because they in part reproduce certain gender codes usually identified with the opposite sex.  In short, we would eliminate the possibility that Jake’s and Brett’s object choices are same-sex oriented.  One could argue that this is precisely the reason why Hemingway scholars like Spilka are using this perspective.  We should not forget that in all of his published texts, Hemingway only once mentioned the term androgynous. 

            Finally, the overwhelming majority of recent criticism on Hemingway persists in viewing the author and his texts on an almost microscopic level.  Since the publishing of The Garden of Eden, most Hemingway scholarship has viewed the novel as the authoritative answer to every question about Hemingway’s gender coding.  Consequently, most readings of Hemingway’s fiction revolve around the author’s personal affairs and his tempestuous relationships with the various women in his life—most notably his mother, Grace Hemingway.  Such evaluations are usually quite reductive, consolidating their analyses into some permutation of the Oedipal complex.  Often these critical approaches assume that the familial influence belies the effects of any social and/or cultural determinants, which usually prove equally important in the formulation of a person’s identity.

            Examining several recent approaches to Hemingway scholarship, we see that fostering a critical methodology of the author’s fiction should include a reading that neither reduces interpretation to merely familial influences, nor serves to recodify the author as an icon of “masculinity.”  One possible approach to Hemingway’s fiction that avoids the problems of other recent criticisms is a historical reading of the cultural determinants present during a given period in which the author was writing.  Such a critique avoids the problem of equating the author with his protagonists.  While strong circumstantial evidence exists supporting the idea that many of Hemingway’s texts are autobiographical, it is impractical and dangerous to assume that Jake Barnes, Nick Adams, or any other Hemingway protagonist (including David Bourne, the hero of The Garden of Eden) is merely a literary stand-in for the author.

            This historical examination of cultural influences also eludes the hearsay trap.  Intrinsically embedded in almost every analysis of Hemingway’s personal life lies the dependency on another’s recollection to support the critic’s thesis.  Whether it is Mary Hemingway or one of the author’s myriad friends and acquaintances, most personal narratives involve the recollections of another for support.  Needless to say, imprecise memory—intentionally or not—creates room for gross textual misinterpretation.  Historically placing cultural determinants and analyzing Hemingway’s texts in light of these seems not only an appropriate method of investigation, but one that is fraught with a minimal amount of opportunities for misreadings. 

            Toward these ends we shall examine the determining cultural factors surrounding the publication of Hemingway’s short fiction, namely the era before and after World War I.  Studying this historical moment will demonstrate that many of Hemingway’s so-called “androgynous” predilections as well as his preoccupation with masculinity to the point of homophobia and misogyny are as much a result of societal forces surrounding his middle-class upbringing as they are the result of any personal influences upon the author.  Many of the issues present in Hemingway’s short fiction devolve from the tension between a middle-class American culture struggling with its masculine identity and a more sexually permissive European culture brought to the United States by American soldiers after World War I.  Analyzing some Hemingway texts in light of this conflict between cultures should demonstrate the determining impact of these cultures upon the author and his work.

            Before we explore the crisis in middle-class masculinity, we need to examine the rise of the male middle class as an autonomous body in the United States.  During the early- and mid-nineteenth century, advancements in industrialization created the opportunity for a division of labor on an unprecedented scale in America.  As a result, increasing numbers of male workers found themselves able to earn a respectable living from means other than manual labor.  As Gail Bederman notes, “Between 1820 and 1860, as increasing numbers of men had begun to earn comfortable livings as entrepreneurs, professionals, and managers, the middle class had become increasingly conscious of itself as a class, with interests, tastes, and lifestyles different from both the very rich and from those who performed manual labor” (209).  By the end of the nineteenth century, the middle class in America had an identity autonomous from both the upper and working classes.

             More often than not, the emergent American middle class forged an identity with a Victorian ideology.  Espousing many such tenets, middle-class Americans strobe to create medical and legal definitions of the “normal” and “civilized” societal roles, classifying anyone who did not fit neatly into the rigidly constructed categories of male or female as “abnormal.”  According to Byrne Fone:

To define what was “normal” the primary task of the medical study of sexuality was to construct a paradigm of the “abnormal” and place abnormality within a scientific rather than a legal/theological discourse.  By the 1880s in both England and America, the Victorian medical theorists and social commentators had participated with social and sexual activities of men and women, assigning to each very different roles.  The “true woman” was to be submissive socially and sexually, the manager of domestic life, pious as well as morally “pure.”  Men were socially and sexually assertive, benign rulers of the patriarchal family, and active providers of material goods.  Victorian theorists argued that these roles were dictated by nature and biology and that their qualities were “naturally” associated with the biological female or male.  Thus the biologically sexed woman was presumed to be naturally “feminine,” the biologically sexed male naturally “masculine,” and gender was defined as having fixed and immutable “natural” characteristics.  (183)

According to the Victorian standard upheld by the middle-class medical profession, the preeminence of the male was not a social construct, but a sign of “civilization,” a natural fact of evolution.  “Civilization,” Bederman asserts, “portrayed white male power as natural; male dominance and white supremacy were products of human evolutionary development” (213).  American middle-class “civilization” depended greatly, in fact, upon the division of the sexes into separate spheres.  Without this division, the middle class was no different than the “savages” from whom they attempted to individuate themselves in order to assert supremacy:

Gender was an essential component of civilization, for extreme sexual difference was seen as a hallmark of civilization’s advancement.  Savage (that is, nonwhite) men and women were almost identical, but civilized races had evolved the pronounced sexual differences celebrated in the middle-class’s doctrine of “separate spheres.”  Civilized women were “womanly”—spiritual, motherly, dedicated to the home.  And civilized white men were the most manly ever evolved—firm of character, self controlled, protectors of women and children.  (Bederman 213)

Ironically, this Victorian insistence on the separate identities between masculine and feminine spheres proved to be one of the greatest contributors to the middle-class male identity crisis.

            Late in the nineteenth century, increasing industrialization coupled with the growing women’s rights movement brought about the deterioration of these “masculine” and “feminine” spheres.  Increasingly large gulfs between the middle and working classes in the United States engendered a heightened awareness in middle-class men that the old standards by which they formerly measured their manhood were quickly vanishing: “By the 1890s . . . both manliness and middle-class identity seemed to falter.  Middle-class manliness had been created in the context of a small-scale, competitive capitalism, which had all but disappeared by the 1890s” (Bederman 210).  Instead of laboring with their hands of for their privately owned businesses, middle-class men found themselves increasingly employed in the offices of expansive corporations—in the employ of other men.  As George Chauncey notes:

Men’s participation in what they regarded as the male sphere of productive work, their ability to support families on the basis of that work, and, above all, their skill as entrepreneurs and their independence from other men had long been critical to their sense of themselves both as men and as members of the middle class.  But the reorganization and centralization of the American economy in the late nineteenth century with the rise of large corporations transformed the character and meaning of the work performed by many middle-class men.  Increasing numbers of men lost their economic independence as they became the salaried employees of other men; the number of salaried, nonpropertied workers grew eight times between 1870 and 1910.  (New York 111)

Coupled with the loss of occupations that formerly served as signs of middle-class masculinity was the growing awareness that the heretofore male dominated sphere of the office was being slowly encroached upon by women.  While they seldom enjoyed the same benefits or positions as their male counterparts, the mere female presence within the male sphere proved unsettling to the concept of middle-class masculinity:

More and more women began working[,] . . . and although they took on different, and usually subordinate, tasks, their very presence in offices . . . seemed to feminize the culture of the corporate workplace and to diminish its status as a masculine domain. . . .  [W]omen seemed to be breaching the division between the sexes’ proper spheres and to be claiming or challenging the prerogatives of men.  (Chauncey, New York 111-112)

Unquestionably, middle-class men felt threatened, even somewhat castrated by women’s attempts at self-empowerment.  Contemporary literature reflected the middle-class male’s struggle with this concept.  As Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar indicate in No Man’s Land, “that men feared they were losing . . . [sexual] contests [with women] is plain even in a number of texts which do not explicitly deal with sexual battles.  Images of impotence recur with unnerving frequency in the most canonical male modernist novels and poems” (35).  Not only were women invading the traditionally masculine sphere of work, but men were forced to acquire “feminine”  sensibilities.  According to Barbara Melosh, “Paid work, a predominantly masculine realm in the nineteenth century, became increasingly ‘feminized,’ both as more women entered the labor force and as new managerial and sales jobs required men to practice traditionally feminine strategies of persuasion” (7). 

            Crossing over what was once considered a firm demarcation between the sexes proved costly to the male concept of “masculinity.”  Since the middle-class masculine sphere and men’s intrusion (albeit forced) into the feminine one upended middle-class sensibilities about gender and civilization.  In their own eyes, middle-class men had become no better than the “savages” whom they reviled for their “uncivilized” failure to define masculine and feminine genders.  According to their medical construction of masculinity and femininity, middle-class men were now coded as sexually transgressive and “abnormal” because they were now occupying a traditionally “feminine” space.

            Instead of helping to quell middle-class fears of increasing effeminacy, other classes of men only served to attenuate this insecurity.  As Chauncey observes:

Threats to the masculinity of middle-class men came from other men as well as from women.  As the “captains of industry” were reducing these men’s independence, workingmen—in, increasingly, were immigrants who enacted their manliness in sometimes foreign ways—also seemed to be bringing middle-class men’s masculinity onto question.  (New York 112)

Unable (or perhaps unwilling) to comprehend middle-class male gentility, many working-class men further reinforced the middle class’s growing unease about their gender identity by referring to them as “sissies” (Chauncey, New York 112), an epithet with decidedly feminine overtones.

            the growing identification of middle-class men with effeminacy fostered in them a belief that they were socially reprehensible and sexually transgressive.  Perhaps because of this identification with transgressive sexuality, middle-class men fearfully began to link themselves with another group of sexually “transgressive” males: homosexuals.  We should note, however, that gays defined homosexuality in turn-of-the-century America not on the basis of object choice, but rather on who took the “passive,” or “feminine” role in a homosexual encounter.  Chauncey aptly illustrates this difference: “The determining criterion in labeling a man as ‘straight’ (their term) or ‘queer’ was not the extent of his homosexual activity, but the gender role he assumed.  The only men who sharply differentiated themselves from other men, labeling themselves as ‘queer,’ were those who assumed the sexual and other cultural roles ascribed to women: (“Brotherhood” 75-76).  It seems conceivable that middle-class men would at this point begin to dread an association with homosexual males, especially since both groups either identified with—or found themselves identified by—through their increasing connection with effeminacy and the “feminine” sphere.

            Ironically, the same mechanism responsible for creating a middle-class male identity also partially facilitated the conception of a queer identity in late nineteenth and early twentieth-century America.  As Barry Adam contends, “The rise of capitalism . . . provided some of the avenues for coalescence of homosexual men and the precondition for the evolution and awareness of community” (288).  In fact, the Victorian attempt to inscribe “masculine” and “feminine” normalcy against the backdrop of homosexual “abnormality” provided, according to Michel Foucault, the agency for a queer identity:

There is not question that the appearance in nineteenth-century psychiatry, jurisprudence, and literature of a whole series of discourses, on the species and subspecies of homosexuality, inversion, pederasty, and “psychic hermaphrodism” made possible a strong advance of social controls into this area of “perversity”; but it also made possible the formation of a “reverse” discourse: homosexuality began to speak in its own behalf, to demand that its legitimacy or “naturality” be acknowledged, often in the same vocabulary, using the same categories by which it was medically disqualified.  (101)

Thus, finding their identities threatened from all side by women, other classes of heterosexual men, and by gay men, turn-of-the-century middle-class men began to formulate elaborate defense mechanism to protect their fragile sense of masculinity.

            In an attempt to recoup their masculine sensibilities list from the feminine invasion of the “male” world, middle-class men engendered what Christina Simmons terms the “Myth of Victorian Repression.”  According to Simmons, “the myth of Victorian repression represented a cultural adjustment of male power to women’s departure from the Victorian order. . . .  [It] rehabilitated male sexuality and cast women as villains if they refused to respond to, nurture, or support it” (19).  Under this system, women were allowed increased sexual freedom, but only within a strictly male-determined framework.  They were free to neck, pet and “dance close,” but women were expected to retain an essential sexual innocence, “a softness that did not threaten men” (Simmons 31).  The woman who refused this reinscription of her sexual role, who attempted to fully realize the female sexual independence, was viewed similarly “to the Victorian threat of the whore” (Simmons 35).  The “Myth of Victorian Repression” indicated a fundamental shift in middle-class male sensibilities, but ultimately the shift was merely an effort to reestablish the patriarchal hegemony.

            Toward other classes of heterosexual males, middle-class men developed an intense identification—especially with the working-class male—as a methodology for reacquiring the perceived loss of masculinity in the eyes of other males.  According to Bederman:

[M]iddle-class men, uncomfortably confused about the nature and sources of male power, began to cast about for new ways to fortify their shaky constructions of manliness.  They adopted a variety of strategies . . . [like] growing crazes for body building and college football. . . .  A new rhetoric about maleness appeared.  Contemporaries . . . began to speak approvingly about something they called “masculinity.”  (211)

Turn-of-the-century America soon found itself in the grip of what historian Elliot Gorn has termed the “cult of muscularity” (qtd. in Chauncey, New York 114).  Middle-class men began to identify themselves with all sorts of working-class men; bodybuilders and prize-fighters were especially worshipped by the middle class.  As Chauncey asserts, “[Bodybuilding] let boys and men develop their muscles, while [prize-fighting] let them express their admiration for men who literally embodied the new manly ideal of muscularity” (New York 114).  By identifying with muscularity and the working-class men who epitomized it, middle-class men sought to reaffirm their masculinity by erasing the lines of difference between themselves and one of the main groups who was questioning their masculinity.  Yet even this attempt to identify with an ostensibly more “masculine” group served to underscore the middle-class man’s insecurity in his own manliness.  “The glorification of the prizefighter and workingman,” argues Chauncey, “bespoke the ambivalence of middle-class men about their own gender status, for it suggested that they, too, regarded such men as more manly than themselves—more physical, less civilized, less effeminate” (New York 114).

            A figure central to this masculine construct was Theodore Roosevelt.  As an independent candidate for president in 1912, Teddy ran in the National Progressive party, which was nicknamed the Bull Moose party after Roosevelt once commented the he felt “fit as a bull moose.”  Teddy Roosevelt, epitomizing the middle-class identification with the “cult of muscularity,” was the embodiment of the new male.  According to Chauncey:

the growing concern about the danger of the overcivilization and feminization of American men had manifold practical ramifications for men’s everyday lives. . . .  As work began to fail to confirm men’s ease of themselves as manly, growing numbers of them turned to “strenuous recreation, spectator sports, adventure novels, and a growing cult of the wilderness” as a means of proving their manhood.  Theodore Roosevelt was the most famous advocate of the “strenuous life” of muscularity, rough sports, prizefighting, and hunting as an antidote to the overcivilization of American men. . . .  Prizefighters, cowboys, soldiers, and sailors became popular heroes, heralded as paragons of virility.  (New York 113)

Roosevelt’s proactive stance toward the reinscription of so-called “masculine” ideals swept the country into a nationalistic fury whose battle cry was the “barbarian yawp” of reacquired masculinity.

            Not surprisingly, under Roosevelt’s “manly” nationalism war soon became regarded as the ultimate antidote for the “overcivilization” and “feminization” of middle-class men.  A broad spectrum of American men soon came to view war as the only way to cure a hopelessly flagging national masculinity.  Chauncey argues that in order to combat the effeminization of the American middle-class male:

[P]oliticians, businessmen, educators, and sportsmen alike protested the dangers of “overcivilization” to American manhood and thus to American culture, in a not very oblique reference to the dangers of women’s civilizing influence and the effeminization of men.  The Spanish-American war of 1898 and the spirit of militarism it engendered were widely celebrated as the savior of American manhood.  “The greatest danger that a long period of profound peace offers to a nation,” one man wrote on the wake of the “short and glorious war,” was that it encouraged “effeminate tendencies in young men . . . especially in a country where the advancement of civilized methods of living has reached the point now touched by it in the United States.”  (New York 113)

Terming a less than 40 year hiatus from war a “long period of profound peace” underscores the bloodthirsty militarism popular around the turn of the century.  (William Dean Howells’s “Editha”)

            Yet the “cult of muscularity” and the promise of war both held veiled threats to middle-class masculinity.  First the idealization of the male body necessary for this “cult”  reinforced the middle-class identification with homosexuality, since many homosexuals similarly idealized the working-class male body.  So while the “cult of muscularity” helped to reinscribe a sense of middle-class masculine identity, it intrinsically undermined this identification by dredging up the middle-class fear of being identified with/as homosexuals.  According to Chauncey:

The overtness of the fairy’s sexual interest in men was . . . unsettling, because it raised the possibility of a sexual component in other men’s interactions.  Once that possibility was raised, the very celebration of male bodies and manly sociability initially precipitated by the masculinity crisis required a new policing of male intimacy and exclusion of sexual desire for other men.  Claiming that the fairy was different from normal men allowed normal men to claim that the fairy alone experienced sexual desire for men and thus to preclude the possibility that the normal man’s gaze at the working-class male body has a sexual component.  But the very existence of the fairy made manifest and drew attention to the potential sexual meaning of that gaze.  (New York 115-16)

Thus the third threat to middle-class masculine identity—the identification with male homosexuality—proved a nebulous and insidious hurdle for middle-class men to overcome, a crisis which they never truly resolved successfully.

            Middle-class men gravitated toward a harsh, often brutal pronouncement against homosexuality in order to recuperate the loss of their masculinity through their identification with gay men: the radical disavowal of homosexuality.  Because of their shared perceived effeminacy, the gay male, or, as Chauncey terms it, the “fairy,” intimidated the middle-class male more than any other group did.  Doubly threatened by the “fairy” stereotype (first through other males’ characterization of them as effeminate, and again through their own parallel idealization of the working-class male body) the homosexual proved a daunting figure, psychically accosting the middle-class male’s sensibilities.  As a result, middle-class men often reacted strongly to “fairies.”  As Chauncey asserts:

the scorn heaped on overcivilized men established the context for the emergence of the fairy as the primary pejorative category against which male normativity was measured. . . .  The fairy became one of the most prominent and volatile signs of the fragility of the gender order, at once a source of reassurance to other men and the repository of their deepest fears.  On the one hand, men could use their difference from the fairy to reassure themselves of their own masculinity. . . .  But the fairy also provoked a high degree of anxiety and scorn among middle-class men because he embodies the very things middle-class men most feared about their gender status.  His effeminacy represented in extreme form the loss of manhood middle-class men most feared in their manly status.  (New York 115).

Only by violently disavowing any relationship to “fairies” were middle-class males able to repossess a modicum of the masculinity they felt that they lost by being identified with the “queer” male.  Repercussions from this rabid disassociation with the gay subculture are still felt today in society’s deeply ingrained and socially validated homophobia.  According to Fone:

By the beginning of the twentieth century medical science had legitimated homophobia by inscribing it within the presumed “objective rationality” of its proscriptive and prescriptive discourses.  For those who doubted the truths of religion and could find no way to punish homosexuality by invoking the law of God, or for whom the laws of man did not go far enough to effectively suppress homosexual acts, it could now be stigmatized far more effectively by declaring it to be behavior that was not only immoral and illegal but sexually unnatural, emotionally abnormal, mentally diseased, and hence dangerous to the familial foundations of society.  (189)

Othering the effeminate “fairy” morally, legally, and medically allowed the middle-class male to reclaim his lost masculinity only if he consistently denied the knowledge ho too was often considered effeminate.  As Chauncey argues:

[T]he fairy served to contain the threat of gender nonconformity and to free other men from any taint of it, for he alone was a real invert, but any man risked being stigmatized as a fairy if he displayed any of the signs of inversion.  Similarly, the personality if the fairy or the queer served to contain the threat of homosexuality—by suggesting that it was limited to a deviant minority of men—but it also made it possible to conceive of men’s solidarity as having a sexual component.  Given the crisis in middle-class masculinity, many middle-class men felt compelled to insist—in a way that many working-class men did not—that there was no sexual element in their relations with other men.  (New York 116)

The middle-class male’s identification with homosexuality, despite his frantic efforts to deny the connection, proved to be the one threat to his masculinity from which he was never able to recover fully.  While he recuperated some of his lost masculinity, hi did so only by denying access to his male sociability.

            World War I, while initially appearing to be an excellent forum for the middle-class male’s revitalization of his masculine ideology, in many ways proved to be as much of an insidious threat to his maleness as was the “fairy.”  First, being fought solely on foreign soil, World War I presented the middle-class American soldier with a masculine aesthetic vastly different to the one constructed in the United States.  In general, Europeans were much more tolerant about alternative expressions of sexuality than were Americans.  Specifically, several European cities had well defined gay cultures far beyond the scope of any American metropolis.  According to Chauncey:

The war not only took many Americans from their small towns, it sent them to Europe, where they were likely to encounter a cultural and political climate for homosexuals that was almost unimaginable at home.  By the time of World War I, there existed in Paris and Berlin a highly developed gay commercial subculture that easily surpassed the scale of the gay world in New York.  (New York 144)

Because of the higher tolerance exhibited by most Europeans toward homosexuality, many American “purity crusaders” feared that the rural farm boys they were sending off to war would come back as sexually charged monsters ready to sleep with anything—male or female.  The French government’s permissive sexual attitudes provided ample cause for worry.  According to Chauncey, “The French government had demonstrated its strikingly different attitude toward sexual matters by refusing to cooperate with the U.S. Army’s effort to suppress prostitution near its French military bases” (New York 148).

            Besides the patience that many Europeans held toward alternate expressions of sexuality, American “purity crusaders” had to contend with the potentially devastating prospect of an extended period of forced male homosociality: “the political movements and more tolerant sexual mores of France and Germany had less of an impact on most men than the experience of military life itself” (Chauncey, New York 145).  Chauncey argues that, isolated from the familial supervision in the single-sex environment of the armed forces, the young, middle-class soldiers would become exposed to “self-identified-gay men and explore their homosexual interests” (New York 145).  Yet perhaps more insidious than potential exposure to homosexuality, is the economy of maleness that the armed forces generate.  In the United states, it was practically impossible for young men to interact for extended periods within a single-sex environment since the middle-class preoccupation with disavowing homosexuality precluded this kind of interaction.  During World War I, however, young men were forced into single-sex relationships for long periods of time, potentially allowing for the development of at least homosocial, if not homosexual bonds.  (Barkin’s observation)

            Since an extended economy of maleness resembles—at least on the surface—homosexual economies, the forced homosociality of the armed services proved to be yet another angst-ridden incarnation of the middle-class identification with homosexuality.  Middle-class men had been struggling for years to shrug off this identification with homosexuals, and yet, ironically, during World War I they found themselves forced into a n environment the engendered strong same-sex affinities, and they found themselves reveling in the experience.  While in Europe during World War I, the middle-class male discovered that his denial of male sociability so necessary for the disavowal of his homosexual identification robbed him of a great source of masculinity.  Yet this source of masculinity was such that the middle-class male could only utilize it during the very special forced male economies prevalent during times of war.  After being influenced by the more tolerant European culture, and after being exposed to the emotional satisfaction of single-sex economies, middle-class American soldiers were expected to return to the United States and eschew the European sensibilities to which they were now accustomed.  The tension engendered between these two cultures underscores the middle-class American male’s crisis of masculinity.

            So what does this middle-class crisis of masculinity have to do with Hemingway?  Growing up in Oak Park Illinois, an affluent suburb of Chicago, the son of a doctor and a music teacher, Hemingway epitomized the middle-class male.  Hemingway’s trips to northern Michigan as a youth embodied in large part the ideology behind Teddy Roosevelt’s intense popularity and the “cult of muscularity,” causing one to pause over Gertrude Stein’s oft-repeated jibe about Hemingway’s affiliation with Roosevelt: “Teddy’s kind of action is what set the pattern of Ernest’s childhood” (qtd. in Brian 67). 

            Hemingway’s possession of the middle-class preoccupation with proving his masculinity is manifestly evident in his life as well as his art.  Denis Brian describes Hemingway’s predilection toward violence whenever someone challenged his manhood: “Writer Max Eastman questioned Hemingway’s manliness, not to his face but in print.  Soon after, the two met by chance in their editor’s office where Hemingway first used Eastman as a duster to clear the editor’s desk, then wrestled him to the floor” (5).  (Add about fishing with a machine gun, “liberating” Paris in W.W.II, searching for German subs off the coast of Cuba)

            Similarly, Hemingway—despite any of his private dispositions—rabidly and violently disavowed any identifications with homosexuality.  According to Brian, “Publisher Robert McAlmon called [Hemingway] ‘a fairy’ who had beaten his first wife, and deserted her to marry a lesbian. . . .  Hemingway had responded to McAlmon’s slurs by punching him in the face and calling him a half-assed, fairy ass-licking, fake husband” (Brian 194).  Putting a fist in the offending orifice questioning Hemingway’s masculinity as well as his affiliation with homosexual practices underscores his efforts to reify his sense of masculinity.  (Crossing the street to punch the queer, the You’re a fairy taunt)

            After serving in the Red Cross in Italy during World War I, and after becoming an American expatriate in Paris following the war, Hemingway—like may other middle-class American men—showed some signs of an increasing tolerance toward alternate styles of sexuality.  According to Warren Bennett, “Hemingway’s interest in variant sexual behavior as a subject that could be exploited in fiction was kindled . . . in 1920 when Hemingway began reading Havelock Ellis’s Erotic Symbolism” (226).  Whether Hemingway first explored alternative sexualities through Ellis does not seem nearly as important as does the fact that Hemingway read Ellis and exhibited an intense interest in his works.  Michael S. Reynolds asserts, “Early in 1921, Hemingway began corresponding with his first wife Hadley on the sexological theories of Havelock Ellis.  By April, Hemingway had sent her three volumes of Ellis’s work” (120).  While sexological treatises like Ellis’s had been popularized in the United States for some time, we should not forget that Hemingway’s interest in Ellis and sexology began only after his visit to Europe during World War I. 

            Hemingway bisects the crisis of middle-class masculinity at many points in his personal and public life.  the author’s many physical attacks upon friends who question his masculinity; the threats leveled at innocent passersby whom Hemingway perceived as “fairies”; his practically manic desire to hunt and kill as many animals as possible; his incessant need to experiment sexually—all of these indicate a symptomatology of angst that Hemingway shared with his fellow middle-class men.  Developing such a critique, however, cannot definitively quantify anything about Hemingway; instead, we should search for examples of the middle-class struggle for a masculine identity in the author’s fiction.  Finding examples of a crisis in middle-class masculinity in the author’s texts indicates a more readily quantifiable cultural determination at work upon both the author and his fiction.  Turning to Hemingway’s short fiction, we see in many tales the same middle-class themes prevalent in the larger culture.

            “Soldier’s Home,” one of the stories from In Our Time, tells the story of Harold Krebs, a young soldier returning home after World War I.  Like many soldiers, Krebs is from rural America—Oklahoma, in this case.  We also see his religious background manifest in the Methodist college he attended in Kansas before the war.  We can infer that Krebs is middle class from his college education as well as from his father’s employment in a real estate office; both the office and the college were coded as bastions for the middle-class.  In the story, Krebs has trouble becoming reenculturated into American middle-class life.  As we can probably infer from his name, Krebs suffers from and/or represents some form of social infection.  In German, “Krebs” is used for both the infectious social disease crabs as well as for cancer.  This play on words denotes not only a social disease potentially spread among the middle-class culture, but also a disease that inherently assaults the body from within.  The narrator asserts that Krebs feels changed by his experience in the war, and after being home again, he feels lifeless against the static model of middle-class suburbia.  The only change that Krebs notices is in the women:

Nothing had changed in the town except that the young girls had grown up. . . .  There were so many good-looking young girls.  Most of them had their hair cut short.  When he went away only little girls wore their hair like that or girls that were fast . . . [but] They were too complicated. . . .  He did not want any consequences.  He did not want any consequences ever again.  He wanted to live along without consequences.  Besides, he did not really need a girl.  The army had taught him that.  (147; emphasis added)

Krebs’s assertion that the women have changed belies the possibility that he is actually the one—not the women—who has changed.  Hence, his lack of desire for women denotes a fundamental shift in the protagonist’s view of the opposite sex.  His army “education” further suggests that Krebs probably encountered an alternative sexuality while abroad.  His mother’s concern that he does not seem to be fitting in properly like other men his age indicates that she is perhaps aware of her son’s transformed sexuality.  For her, “fitting in” means working, getting married, having children—in other words, reproducing the middle-class status quo of heteronormativity:

I’ve worried about you so much, Harold. . . .  One knows the temptations you must have been exposed to.  I know how weak men are. . . .  You father is worried too. . . .  He thinks that you have lost your ambition, that you haven’t got a definite aim in life.  Charley Simmons, who is just your age, has a good job and is going to be married. . . .  [Y]ou can see that boys like Charley Simmons are on their way to being really a credit to the community.  (151)

Mrs. Krebs’s fear that her son will not “settle down” reflects that angst held that returning veterans would not reproduce the heteronormative model of middle-class culture, like the one Charley Simmons embodies.  Mrs. Krebs’s concern over the “temptations” of war reinforces the middle-class concern that the wartime culture produced a climate counterproductive to middle-class heteronormativity.  In “Soldier’s Home,” Krebs is the embodiment of the middle-class fear that young men, returning from war, will prove to be fundamentally changed by the European and wartime cultures that they experienced; hence, they will, through some nefarious method, corrupt the society into which they are returning like some malignant tumor or embarrassing social disease.

            Another story from In Our Time reflecting cultural trends prominent at the turn of the century is “Mr. and Mrs. Elliot.”  This tale playfully manipulates the gender coding of the characters so that, while the story is ostensibly a heterosexual narrative, it becomes coded as homosexual.  The protagonist, Hubert Elliot, is a self-styled puritan.  As the narrator indicates, “He [Hubert] was twenty-five years old and had never gone to bed with a woman until he married Mrs. Elliot. . . .  He called it to himself living straight” (161).  Used in this context, “living straight” constructs a hyperbolic pun on “straightness.”  Hubert means “straight” in the sense of walking the “straight-and-narrow.”  Yet part of this narrow path is defined adopting a heteronormative lifestyle, so while Hubert might think that he has been living the life of a “straight” man, his attitude toward other people’s “straight” sexuality suggests that Hubert is anything but straight.  Hubert is “shocked and really horrified” by women who want stereotypically “straight” males (161-62).  Furthermore, Hubert learns about ostensibly heterosexual practices (male-female kissing) solely from the lips of another man—even if it is only in the form of a story (162).  Thus, the knowledge of a heterosexual practice can only be passed through a male-male interaction—an example of heterosexuality being transmitted through a homosexual dynamic.

            Hubert’s wife, Cornelia, fifteen years his elder, similarly exhibits a problematic sexuality.  She has sex with her husband, or, as the narrator states, they both try “very hard to have a baby . . . as often as Mrs. Elliot can stand it” (161).  Cornelia’s dislike for sex (at least with males) is also evident through her falling asleep on her wedding night and her constant “sea-sickness” throughout her and Hubert’s honeymoon cruise to Europe.  Similar to Mrs. Krebs, Hubert’s mother appears to have a awareness of her new daughter-in-law’s sexuality (and, implicitly, of her son’s as well).  After all, she “cried when he [Hubert] brought Cornelia home after their marriage but brightened very much when she learned they were going to live abroad” (162).  Choosing to live among the more sexually tolerant Europeans also connotes the hidden homosexual dynamic in Hubert’s and Cornelia’s marriage. 

            Further indications of Cornelia’s dubious sexuality manifest themselves through her owning a business—a marked intrusion into the male sphere, even if it is only a tea shop—and through her “girl friend” (162).  Admittedly, many women of this period had friends who were “girls,” but as we see in the story, Cornelia’s friend is more than simply a friend.  Shortly after their marriage, Cornelia has Hubert send for her “girl friend”; and soon after, the two women sleep in the same bed and have “many a good cry together” (164).  Cornelia’s and her girl friend’s “crying” imports a sexual determination on the verb “to cry,” indicating crying out from a specifically sexual pleasure.  The fact that they are having “many a good cry” denotes that the “girl friend” is apparently more apt at sexually satisfying Cornelia than Hubert is.  After all, Cornelia does not fall asleep or become ill when her “girl friend” is near.  Finally, Hubert’s satisfaction with this situation indicates an acceptance of not only his wife’s lesbianism, but also an implicit acceptance of his own homosexuality: “In the evening they all sat at dinner together in the garden under a plane tree and the hot evening wind blew and Elliot drank white wine and Mrs. Elliot and the girl friend made conversation and they were all quite happy” (164). 

            In Mr. and Mrs. Elliot,” Hemingway manipulates middle-class understandings of “masculine/active/heterosexual” and “feminine/passive/homosexual” sexual and gender roles in order to create a heterosexual narrative that contains a homosexual dynamic.  Describing Hubert as a passive male who is sexually inexperienced with women codes him as the middle-class epitome of a homosexual.  Giving Cornelia a “girl friend” and placing her in the masculine sphere of business codes her as the ideal middle-class representation of a lesbian.

            A final example that reflects the crisis of masculinity is Hemingway’s short story, “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.”  Hemingway’s heavy-handed portrayal of the tale’s heroine denotes the antipathy that many males held for the “feminine” invasion of the male sphere.  Aggressive and sexually active, Margot Macomber epitomizes not only what Marvin Mudrick describes as a Hemingway “bitch-heroine” (12), she also personifies the female threat to middle-class American masculinity.  Margot’s sexual betrayal of Francis to Wilson, the white hunter, is merely the first instance in which she openly defies male authority.  From a certain perspective, one can argue that Macomber’s failure to uphold a middle-class masculine ideology (one that would include putting down a rebellious wife) made it acceptable for Margot to seek solace in the arms of a “real” man like Wilson.  However, this argument ignores Margot’s sexually transgressive role as the active seeker of sex instead of the passive receptacle for it.  Margot’s second betrayal of Macomber cannot be explained under any understanding of a masculine ideology except as a paranoid fantasy of the castration anxiety.  In perhaps the greatest moment of literary parapraxis, Margot “accidentally-on-purpose” kills her husband at the exact moment that he discovers his latent “masculinity.”  While Margot claims to have been shooting at the water buffalo, Wilson has other ideas: “Why didn’t you poison him?  That’s what they do in England” (37).  Wilson’s accusation underscores the deterministic way in which middle-class men viewed aggressive women.  Margot is more the castrating female, the vagina dentata than the bitch heroine” because despite Macomber’s attempts to realize his burgeoning sense of maleness, and despite whether he remained cowardly or became courageous, Margot was still destined to betray him.  (Also Segdewick’s Triangulation of Desire between Macomber and Wilson)

            Hopefully, examining some of Ernest Hemingway’s early fiction in light of several culturally determined factors fomenting a crisis in middle-class masculinity has helped, at least in part, to expand the scope of present Hemingway criticism.  While a vast amount has been amassed on Hemingway in the last century, little has been done to examine his status in American literature since the advent of sex and gender studies in the 1970s.  While this is not meant as an apology for Hemingway’s actions, perhaps it will engender a reexamination of the author in light of more recent historical perspectives.  Much has been done to blame Hemingway for his masculine “code”; perhaps in some small part, this helps to better understand Hemingway’s code.

Works Cited

Adam, Barry D.  “A Social History of Gay Politics.”  Gay Men: The Sociology of Male Homosexuality.  Ed. Martin P. Levine.  New York: Harper, 1979.

Bederman, Gail.  “Civilization, The Decline of Middle-Class Manliness, and Ida B. Wells’s Anti-Lynching Campaign (1892-94).”  Gender and American History Since 1890.  New York: Routledge, 1993.

Bennett, Warren.  “Sexual Identity in ‘The Sea Change.’”  Hemingway’s Neglected Short Fiction: New Perspectives.  Ed. Susan F. Beegel.  Ann Arbor: UMI Research P, 1989.

Brian, Denis.  The True Gen: An Intimate Portrait of Hemingway by Those Who Knew Him.  New York: Grove Press, 1988.

Chauncey, George Jr.  “Christian Brotherhood or Sexual Perversion?: Homosexual Identities and the Construction of Sexual Boundaries in the World War I Era.”  Gender and American History Since 1890.  New York: Routledge, 1993.

---.  Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of a Gay Male World, 1890-1940.  New York: Basic Books, 1994.

Fone, Byrne R. S.  A Road to Stonewall: Male Homosexuality and Homophobia in English and American Literature, 1750-1969.  New York: Twayne, 1995.

Foucault, Michel.  The History of Sexuality.  Vol. 1.  New York: Vintage, 1978.

Gilbert, Sandra M. and Susan Gubar.  No Man’s Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century.  Vol. 1. New Haven: Yale UP, 1988.

Hemingway, Ernest.  The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway.  New York: Scribner’s, 1938.

Melosh, Barbara.  “Introduction.”  Gender and American History Since 1890.  New York: Routledge, 1993.

Moddelmog, Debra A.  “Reconstructing Hemingway’s Identity: Sexual Politics, the Author, and the Multicultural Classroom.”  Narrative.  1.3 (1993): 187-206.

Mudrick, Marvin.  On Culture and Literature.  New York: Horizon Press, 1970.

Reynolds, Michael S.  The Young Hemingway.  Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986.

Simmons, Christina.  “Modern Sexuality and the Myth of Victorian Repression.”  Gender and American History Since 1890.  New York: Routledge, 1993.  

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