This is the reading list Earnest Hemingway recommended to a kid in 1934. The kid told him he wanted to be a writer and asked him what he should, therefore, read. Hemingway would have been 35 at the time and had authored numerous novels including The Sun Also Rises copyrighted in 1925:
The Blue Hotel—Stephen Crane
The Open Boat—Stephen Crane
Madame Bovary—Gustave Flaubert
The Red and the Black—Stendal
Of Human Bondage—Somerset Maugham
Anna Karenina—Leo Tolstoy
War and Peace—Leo Tolstoy
Hail & Farewell—George Moore
The Brothers Karamazov—Fyodor Dostoyevsky
The Enormous Room—E.E. Cummings
Wuthering Heights—Emily Bronte
Far Away and Long Ago—W.H. Hudson
The American—Henry James
Hemingway stood out from his peers because he was different from his predecessors. He gave readers, not what they wanted, but something they didn’t know they needed. Henry Ford said that if he’d given the people what they wanted he’d have invented a better horse. Sometimes needs are things we don’t know we want. Maybe someday what you want begins to mirror what you need. Maybe that is enlightenment and maybe that is what separates great artists from everyone else.
When Hemingway started writing, people didn’t yet know they wanted what would become his signature style of simple dialogue, action and brevity of description. It seems he was one of those integrated human beings who knows what they stand for. It’s ironic that these people, if asked, would say they are completely conflicted much of the time. Occasionally you meet these kinds of people.
But this particular style pleased him and, instinctively, he knew that it would please others as well. He found something he wanted and which mirrored what he needed. It was a lucky find for him.
It’s easy to forget that for Hemingway there was no Hemingway. There was no pathfinder like himself. He invented his own torch and carried it forward, lighting the way. There are other such people.
He could not be comforted by the existence of himself in moments of doubt. How do giants survive without the comfort of knowing they exist? Do you ever think about that when thinking of your own heroes? It must be sort of like realizing as an adult you don’t have all the answers you thought you’d have when you were a kid.
Garth Brooks once said all he ever wanted was to be George Straight. Then he became Garth Brooks. Alicia Keys said something similar in her 2019 Grammys performance.
Until Hemingway created Hemingway, he would always be a copy. But he was able at some point to make an idol of nature. He stopped the timeless tradition of making art for affect and began his own tradition of writing for truth, whatever that was for him.