Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants”: icebergs, raisin bread, and the short story

What makes Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” so intriguing even some eight decades after its publication is how this brief story illustrates some of Hemingway’s literary rules of thumb in practice. It features Hemingway’s clean, plain-style prose (“My aim is to put down on paper what I see and what I feel in the best and simplest way”); his “iceberg principle” of omitting detail and forcing the reader to decode the story; and his belief that symbols should be naturally baked into a narrative (like, he once wrote, plain bread) and should not stick out “like raisins in raisin bread.”

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Copyright © 2009 Jefferson Flanders
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Jefferson Flanders is author of the Cold War thriller Herald Square.

September 2009: Nobody asked me, but…

Naming the Great Recession, Paul Robeson’s tragic American life, the limits of international law, and other observations

With a tip of the hat to the late, great New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Cannon for borrowing his signature phrase: nobody asked me, but…

WILL THIS GLOBAL ECONOMIC DOWNTURN BE KNOWN AS “THE GREAT RECESSION”? The term has become ubiquitous, appearing constantly in the mainstream media—the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Time magazine, and that traditional arbiter of journalistic practice, the Associated Press. Back in March, Catherine Rampell in the Economix blog looked at the etymology of the phrase and found “Great Recession” had been applied to nearly every downturn since the Great Depression.

But should this slump be called the Great Recession—a near-Great Depression—or is it just another very severe economic downturn? Its relative severity depends, in part, on your perspective. As Ronald Reagan famously said, “Recession is when your neighbor loses his job. Depression is when you lose yours.” (He went on to add the punch line: “And recovery is when Jimmy Carter loses his.”) Judged by some economic yardsticks, the use of the adjective “great” seems overblown. National unemployment has hit 9.8%, but falls short of the 10.8% level of 1983. Employment has held up in some sectors of the economy (biotech, education, government) while cratering in others (construction, real estate, financial services). Now economists say that quarterly GDP is growing again.

Yet there are aspects to this downturn that are unique and historic—especially the stress on the financial system caused by the real estate bubble bursting and the crisis on Wall Street in September and October of 2008. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke announced on September 15 that the recession was “likely over” and that “it’s still going to feel like a very weak economy for some time, as many people still find that their job security and their employment status is not what they wish it was.” The prospects of a jobless recovery make the impact of the 2008-2009 recession long lasting. Two Rutgers economists now say that employment levels could remain disappointing until 2017!

Based on the lingering effects of this downturn, and its persistence negative effect on the job market, perhaps the phrase used should be the Long Recession, not the Great Recession.

PAUL ROBESON (1898-1976) WAS AN AMAZING RENAISSANCE MAN—A SINGER, ACTOR, SCHOLAR, ATHLETE, CIVIL RIGHTS ADVOCATE, AND, SADLY, AN UNREPENTANT STALINIST. Peter Applebome of the New York Times recently reported on a concert to celebrate Robeson’s life in Peekskill, N.Y., near where local thugs disrupted a planned Civil Rights Congress concert in August 1949. (The Civil Rights Congress was a Communist-dominated organization that often clashed with the NAACP and ACLU over emphasis and tactics).

Robeson’s life was tragic in many ways—his turn to Communism largely a response to the racism he faced despite his out-sized record of accomplishment. His ideological commitment caused Robeson to turn a blind eye to Stalin’s excesses, and there’s evidence that he had firsthand knowledge of the Soviet purges. Tim Tzouliadis’ recent book The Forsaken: An American Tragedy in Stalin’s Russia relates the story of how American emigrants to the Soviet Union experienced the horrors of Stalinism, and recounts Robeson’s encounters with persecuted expat Americans and Soviet Jews and his public silence about their plight. Robeson never renounced the Soviet experiment, even after Nikita Khrushchev’s speech in 1956 denouncing Stalin’s crimes.

UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO LAW PROFESSOR ERIC A. POSNER ARGUES THAT HUMAN RIGHTS AND PEACE AREN’T ALWAYS BEST SERVED BY FOCUSING ON INTERNATIONAL LAW in a provocative essay in Foreign Policy. Posner notes that:

International law is only as strong as the states with an interest in upholding it. Ambitious schemes that seek to transcend countries’ interests routinely fail. The 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact outlawed war shortly before the worst war in world history. The League of Nations was bypassed and ignored. The United Nations has never lived up to its ambitions and has only proved effective for narrow projects after expectations were scaled down to a realistic level. The greatest achievement of international law — the modern trade system institutionalized in the World Trade Organization — depends for its vitality on the good faith of a handful of great powers relying on weak self-help remedies.

Human rights fare best in affluent countries, Posner notes, and suggests that economic development is more important in protecting those rights than what he calls global legalism. Posner also predicts that President Barack Obama will disappoint the liberal-left with a realpolitik approach to international law.

ALONG WITH BABE RUTH, DEREK JETER WILL BE SEEN AS THE CONSUMMATE NEW YORK YANKEE. On Sept. 11 Jeter passed Lou Gehrig for the most hits (2722) ever as a Yankee, and the hard-working shortstop “plays the game the right way.”

SEPTEMBER’S UNITED NATIONS GENERAL ASSEMBLY WAS GOOD FOR SOME LAUGHS. As Jay Leno joked: “Libyan leader Moammar Qaddafi-duck, this moron, was at the U.N. today. He talked forever. He talked on Israel and the swine flu and the JFK assassination. Where was Kanye West to grab the microphone away?”

THIS MONTH’S WORDS OF WISDOM FROM THE MAN FROM INDEPENDENCE, PRESIDENT HARRY S. TRUMAN (1884-1972): “I have found the best way to give advice to your children is to find out what they want and then advise them to do it.”

Copyright © 2009 Jefferson Flanders