Politically Incorrect Okay for Hemingway?

Still from "The Sun Also Rises"

Still from “The Sun Also Rises”


I share today a thoughtful essay on political correctness by Carl Rosin, a wonderful high school teacher who has appeared previously on this blog. Carl uses The Sun Also Rises to complicate the debate over Donald Trump’s attacks on political correctness. As Carl points out, one of the most positive characters in Ernest Hemingway’s novel is politically incorrect, but that doesn’t excuse the ways in which Trump stigmatizes women and minorities. The main issue is one of respect, which Bill Gorton demonstrates and Trump does not.

Carl left a software engineering job to become a teacher and has won various awards, including local and regional awards and also the PLATO (Philosophy Learning and Teaching Organization) national award for high school teaching.

By Carl Rosin, English Teacher, Radnor High School

A few months ago, a 22-year-old San Francisco-based supporter of Donald Trump engaged Atlantic Monthly writer Conor Friedersdorf in an extended conversation that focused on political correctness. The young man wrote that his support for Trump expresses his

resistance against what San Francisco has been, and what I see the country becoming, in the form of ultra-PC culture. That’s where it’s almost impossible to have polite or constructive political discussion.  Disagreement gets you labeled fascist, racist, bigoted, etc. It can provoke a reaction so intense that you’re suddenly an unperson to an acquaintance or friend. There is no saying, “Hey, I disagree with you,” it’s just instant shunning. Say things online, and they’ll try to find out who you are and potentially even get you fired for it. Being anti-PC is not about saying, “I want you to agree with me on these issues.” It’s about saying, “Hey, I want to have a discussion and not get shouted down because I don’t agree with what is considered to be politically correct.

“I feel like I have to hide my beliefs,” he continues. Although he concedes Friedersdorf’s point that President Obama has vociferously opposed PC (e.g.,  here and here), he argues that

Under President Obama, our national dialogue has steadily moved towards political correctness…, but with President Trump, I think our national dialogue will likely move away from being blanketly PC. Even though, as you pointed out, Obama has criticized PC speech, he doesn’t exactly engage in un-PC speech like Trump does. I don’t expect a President Trump to instantly convert people, but when you have someone in the Oval Office giving decidedly un-PC speeches and announcements, I think that would change the discourse, don’t you?

The young Trump supporter’s assertion – one that seems to be shared by observers from Clint Eastwood to Frank Luntz– is that many Americans want to see and perhaps follow in the footsteps of someone who “walks the walk” by eschewing the self-censorship so often disparaged under the term “political correctness.” Clive Crook, in an op-ed for Bloomberg, lays it bare:

The fact that he’s outrageous is essential. (Ask yourself, what would he be without his outrageousness? Take that away and nothing remains.) Trump delights mainly in offending the people who think they’re superior — the people who radiate contempt for his supporters. The more he offends the superior people, the more his supporters like it. Trump wages war on political correctness. Political correctness requires more than ordinary courtesy: It’s a ritual, like knowing which fork to use, by which superior people recognize each other.

The content itself, these commenters suggest, may not really be important. Perhaps it is the style itself that has the greatest appeal: a bluntness, a perceived plain-spokenness, even the mythically democratic and anti-aristocratic coarseness that no less an icon than Alexis De Tocqueville observed in many 19th-century Americans (as opposed to artifice and scriptedness – terms that at least some pundits use often to describe Hillary Clinton’s style).

I tend to focus on content, so I was surprised and intrigued by this perspective. As a teacher of literature, I found myself thinking of Ernest Hemingway, the original straightforward, no-nonsense writer who doesn’t care what you think.

More specifically, these thoughts sent me back to Bill Gorton, one of the memorable characters in Hemingway’s finest novel, The Sun Also Rises (1925).

But first, a brief meander through Hemingway’s Modernist ethos, which is especially appropriate given the fact that structure and style are key aspects of the connection being investigated here.

Modernism offers a rich literary landscape, populated by Joyces and H.D.s and Woolfs and Stevenses and Eliots; Hemingway’s version of the Modernist ethos relies strongly on form. Many Modernists took on the concept that we should question assumptions (about art) that “sustained” previous generations of viewers/readers. Hemingway, for one, took action in the development of his well-known and oft-parodied spare form. He recast an artistic tradition of elegant prose and authorial authority into something plain that doesn’t try to do what it cannot. For instance, land is beautiful, and because language cannot make it so, it shouldn’t try.

I’m thinking specifically of a scene in The Sun Also Rises when narrator Jake Barnes and his buddy Bill Gorton go fishing in the Spanish mountains. They have not invited their problematic friends. Hemingway puts the following description in Jake’s voice:

It was a beech wood and the trees were very old. Their roots bulked above the ground and the branches were twisted. We walked on the road between the thick trunks of the old beeches and the sunlight came through the leaves in light patches on the grass. The trees were big, and the foliage was thick but it was not gloomy. There was no undergrowth, only the smooth grass, very green and fresh, and the big gray trees well spaced as though it were a park.

“This is country,” Bill said.

154 mostly Anglo-Saxon words in six sentences; only 9% of the words are polysyllabic (average word = 1.1 syllables), and nearly every word might be used comfortably by an average third-grader. Three-quarters of the verbs are in the passive voice. Nothing fancy/poetic here. Repetition, concatenation, simple vocabulary, to-be verbs, run-on sentences: prototypical Hemingway prose. I love the lack of an adjective in Bill’s comment.

(I took a quick look at some typical Obama and typical Trump paragraphs of similar length. Guess which one is more like Hemingway in style? I digress….)

Now to Bill Gorton, a secondary character but one who is in line with much of Hemingway’s moral code. He is also the king of the politically incorrect statement.

Bill’s very first conversation with Jake features him using the word “nigger” 14 times on a single page in chapter 8, as he rambles drunkenly about a prize-fight he saw in Vienna. He is also dismissive and sarcastic about religious believers, reserving special vitriol for Catholics and Jews. In chapter 9, he complains to a priest on the train,

“When do us Protestants get a chance to eat, father?”

“I don’t know anything about it. Haven’t you got tickets?”

“It’s enough to make a man join the Klan,” Bill said. The priest looked back at him.

His anti-Semitic remarks, of which there are many, generally target Jake’s difficult friend Robert Cohn. Bill rails about Cohn’s “Jewish superiority” and even refers to him as “That kike!” in chapter 15.

Not omitting sexual orientation, he manages to slur both male and female homosexuals in chapter 12.

Bill uses uncouth language and says racist things, but somehow he is still a good person – possibly the best human in the novel. The black boxer he slurs is clearly someone he respects; Bill compliments the man effusively and helps him out of an unfair jam. His anti-Semitism, equally distasteful in vocabulary, is set off against that of another character, Mike Campbell, who rockets past the realm of inappropriate speech to truly distasteful excess in his mistreatment of Robert Cohn. This is literature: we partake in the dialectic of perceiving a well-crafted, multifaceted character.

I didn’t fully appreciate Bill when I first encountered this novel, in part because of the offensive vocabulary. He has grown on me tremendously through repeated readings, however. He embodies a particular intensity, an honest and unfiltered commitment, that the novel promotes thematically.

Along the way, language must be sharpened to draw our attention to the sordid ways in which manners and so-called “civilized” patterns lure us into the kind of lull that brings on existential crisis. Bill himself muses, “After a while you never notice anything disgusting.” Hemingway opposes the kind of sensitivity that obscures a greater truth. Indeed, Bill is a true, supportive, generous, loyal friend to Jake and others who need and deserve one. He works, unlike the more flawed characters (Cohn, Campbell, even the mercurial Lady Brett Ashley). He is funny and straightforward, even as he speeds past the brink of coarseness. In many ways, he epitomizes An American.

So should we, on the basis of Bill Gorton, follow Trump’s advice and jettison political correctness? Examining the two reveals their differences.

For one thing, Bill is revealed as decent despite his crudeness, not because of it. Mike Campbell, the aforementioned foil, makes many similarly crude statements, and yet Mike’s character comes off as profoundly negative. Mike, cuckolded and embittered but not facing his crisis head-on, ferments into a nastiness that sounds a bit like some of Trump’s more infamous tweets. Mike, although a veteran himself, disrespects others and selfishly destroys medals borrowed from another veteran. He does not work but borrows excessively, continuing to spend and gamble promiscuously until he is “stony” and cannot cover his tab. He then borrows from his fiancée, Brett, leaving her with so little that Jake has to rush off to rescue her. Bill, by contrast, is gentlemanly with women, works hard (so he can vacation heartily), lives within his means, and interacts with friends openly and with surprising sensitiveness. Impoliteness itself is not an indicator of merit.

The way Mike and Bill interact with Robert Cohn is instructive. In the chapter 13 scene that follows the first bullfights, Mike sneers viciously at Robert, seeking to unman him by equating him to the castrated steers. Every member of the group has also criticized Robert, but upon witnessing this scene, Jake reports, “We were embarrassed.” When Mike’s attack intensifies, Bill “stood up and took hold of Cohn” to lead him away from the conflict. Bill’s words can be harsh, but when it comes to the decisive moment when character is rendered, his actions reveal a human kindness.

Trump’s statements, in contrast, do not show him opposing sensitivity that obscures a greater truth. The candidate marries outrageousness with inaccuracy and stereotyping, not unpleasant truths. This is where style has to cede ground back to content. Fact-checking websites have made it clear that Trump is uniquely dismal in adhering to the truth.

Trump regularly is applauded for identifying political correctness as the source of what’s wrong with America, and it is true that Bill Gorton also takes arms against patterns of speech that would someday be called “PC.” But Bill’s actions demonstrate that his opposition to customary deference and politeness does not interfere with his trustworthiness, consistency, and loyalty. Setting aside any judgment on Trump’s political positions, his personal, political, and business histories do not offer convincing evidence that he is trustworthy, consistent, or loyal.

Finally, in the context of the novel, while it is true that recognizing and “checking” privilege may not figure into Bill’s actions, they are central in Jake Barnes’s character arc. Jake, rendered impotent by a war wound, laments being unable to pursue a long-desired romance with Brett. In an unusually introspective passage, Jake triggers his movement toward a greater acceptance of his lot. This involves recognizing that his perspective wasn’t the only one worth valuing:

I had been having Brett for a friend. I had not been thinking about her side of it. I had been getting something for nothing. That only delayed the presentation of the bill. The bill always came.

Sensitivity and empathy help us develop toward our more mature selves. Even in Hemingway.

That said, it defies a plain reading of Hemingway to cite him in defense of political correctness. Language can obscure the truth and oversensitivity can create its own breed of intolerance and divisiveness. Blaming political correctness for the nation’s ills, however, creates a straw man out of PC’s excesses, concealing the fact that thoughtful, respectful, polite discourse can lead to personal and national progress. It is hard to discern between appropriate self-control and inappropriate self-repression, but we can do it. As Bill Gorton advises, “Never be daunted.”

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