The Great Hemingway-Faulkner Feud

They were rivals. They were competitors. And they certainly didn’t like each other’s writing style.

One of my favorite motion pictures of all time is To Have and Have Not.

It’s old.

It’s black and white.

I never hear anyone else talk about it.

Perhaps I like the movie because it was based on an Ernest Hemingway novel.

Perhaps I like the movie because the screenplay was written by William Faulkner.

As far as I know, the film marked the only collaboration ever undertaken by two of the great literary figures of the twentieth century.

I’m surprised it ever happened.

Howard Hawks owned the film rights.

He hated the book.

He wanted the story re-written.

He hired Faulkner to fix the story.

Faulkner wanted nothing to do with Hemingway’s book.

But he was broke and his books were out of print.

Hemingway didn’t give a damn.

He took the money and ran.

Faulkner gave a damn.

But he took the money and ran as well.

Hemingway and Faulkner were contemporaries.

They were rivals.

They were competitors.

They didn’t like each other very much.

And they certainly didn’t like each other’s writing style.

Hemingway used short words, straightforward sentence structures, vivid descriptions, and declarative sentences.

He pared down the language and made every word count.

He definitely believed that less was more.

And Hemingway always said his style utilized the principle of the iceberg, believing that as much as seven-eighth of the story lay beneath the surface.

As he once wrote: “If you leave out important things and or events that you know about, the story will be strengthened. If you leave out or skip something because you do not know it, the story will be worthless. The test of anything is how good the stuff you, not your editors, omit.

Faulkner, however, never fully grasped the power of Hemingway’s sparse writing.

He once said of Hemingway: “He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.”

Hemingway was quick to strike back.

Faulkner, he believed, wrote with deliberate obscurity.

His sentences were too long.

They could be convoluted.

Faulkner never used a single word when a whole paragraph would do just as well.

His works were an entangled web and confused illusion of parenthetical prepositional phrases, and some of his sentences were a whole page long.

Hemingway once snapped: “Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?”

However, when an editor suggested hiring Hemingway to write the preface for one of his books, Faulkner said, “It’s like asking one racehorse in the middle of a race to broadcast a blurb on another horse in the same running field.”

He thought it would be in bad taste.

And maybe he was right.

Yet, Faulkner set aside any deep-seated animosity and did write a review of Hemingway’s 1952 novella, The Old Man and the Sea.

He wrote: His best. Time may show it to be the best single piece of any of us. I mean his and my contemporaries. This time, he discovered God, a Creator. Until now, his men and women had made themselves, shaped themselves out of their own clay; their victories and defeats were at the hands of each other, just to prove to themselves or one another how tough they could be. But this time, he wrote about pity, about something somewhere that made them all; the old man who had to catch the fish and then lose it, the fish that had to be caught and then lost, the sharks, which had to rob the old man of his fish; made them all and loved them all and pitied them all. It’s all right. Praise God that whatever made and loves and pities Hemingway and me kept him from toughing it out any further.

Faulkner gave Hemingway high praise, but it did it with long and laborious sentences.

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  • What a curious piece of information – I will have to see that movie. Is it any good? That’s the proof of the principle, the only one worth having. And it’s subjective. But it will enrich the watching. And with Bogart and Bacall? You couldn’t have a better set of possibilities.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      I love the movie, Alicia, and am fascinated with Faulkner’s contributions to the Hemingway story. The storyline is a lot like Casablanca. Bogie could easily be Rick. And Bacall sets the screen on fire. It was her first movie, and she was nineteen. To make it even better, Bogie’s sidekick is Walter Brennan, and he is brilliant. You need to see it just for your education if nothing else.

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