Sunday, February 26, 2017

"Soldier's Home" (1925)

Read story by Ernest Hemingway online.

Even halfway into this very short story I was pretty sure I would be coming away from it complaining again about Ernest Hemingway's mechanized stoicism and all that implicit machismo. To be sure, those elements are here, and they are as annoying as ever. But there's also something distinctly modern about this, like the stories we hear about soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, and before that from Vietnam. But not from Korea, or, before this, from either of the world wars. The stoicism of our hero Krebs, the returning warrior, is palpable, yes, but somehow suffused with dignity and a certain intimidating demeanor. It's not pitiable at all, on a certain level, nor arrogant, except as emotional defense. I don't recall seeing anything like this in Hemingway before. It's one of his early stories, which tended to be his best work. The language is what we've come to expect: a minimum of adjectives, and monolithic paragraphs filled with verbs, nouns, and conjunctions. It's stripped down and clean, but note that the compound clauses can really pile up sometimes. There's machismo, but less in the authorial voice than in the character Krebs, and there it seems for the most part bluster. Yet he's not unsympathetic. More than anything he is opaque, though obviously wounded psychically. It's just that no one knows what to do about it—not Krebs himself, nor anyone around him, nor even the author either evidently. Nowadays we would prescribe time, rest, and psychotherapy, but nowadays we also collectively refuse to follow through on that, leaving our wounded warriors wounded, but thanking them in train stations for their service. I'll give Hemingway the benefit of the doubt that he (sort of) knew the problem, though not what to do about it. That what he did was take the sense of something wrong as his motivation to write, and all the puzzling surface details he saw but could make no sense of as his subject. Hemingway was a journalist first, remember, and in many ways a story like this is just a kind of reporting. Never mind that many sentences here would never get past a copy editor without some judicious attempts for a little more clarity. It's almost better without it. The sense of someone utterly stunned by life is the essence of this story. The soldier has returned to the soldier's home, but the soldier isn't home. Since the war, there's no home for him anywhere.

Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Robert Penn Warren and Albert Erskine

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