The early to mid-twentieth century was a tumultuous time for America: World Wars, a Depression, Prohibition. It was an era defined by extremes: the incredibly wealthy alongside the penniless, teetotalers beside moonshiners, soldiers pitted against peacekeepers. Literature was no different, and the two most prominent authors of the first half of the century, Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner, represented the paradoxes characteristic of mid-century America.
Faulkner, the Southern incumbent, was born and raised in the slow, languid airs of Mississippi. Much like the climate he surrounded himself in, Faulkner’s characteristic style was vibrantly languorous and lengthy, the edges of his sentences worn smooth with wear, sticky-sweet with the humidity of his home. His characters were usually salt-of-the-earth, good ol’ boys, or occasionally Southern belles. Reading Faulkner is like taking a leisurely stroll through the mind of a Southerner, catching on thought bubbles like summer’s raspberry brambles.
Hemingway’s style is the exact antithesis of Faulkner’s. His literature seems shaped by the cold, hard edges of his Illinois winters. Where Faulkner’s syntax is protracted, Hemingway’s is precise and brief. Hemingway uses as few words as possible (where Faulkner uses as many as he can and is even the proud author of the longest sentence in literature). The works of Hemingway usually follow socialites and cosmopolitans on their adventures through exotic locales, usually with blatant apathy and despondency (a harsh departure from Faulkner’s down-home Americanism). Where Faulkner employed stream-of-consciousness to introduce his readers to the minds of men, Hemingway set up barricades to protect his characters from any morsel of insight.
Despite their inherent differences, both Hemingway and Faulkner dominated the literature of the early and mid-twentieth century with near-equal success. Both authors were perceived as authorities of the short story and the novel, and both were awarded Nobel and Pulitzer Prizes for their literature. Though the two never met, they corresponded through letters and seemed to share a competitive—though reluctant—respect for one another. Faulkner offered praise for Hemingway alongside his criticism, and vice versa. Hemingway called Faulkner “the best of us all,” in one interview, yet claimed he had to “wade through a lot of crap to get to his gold” in another. And when an editor suggested Faulkner tap Hemingway to write an introduction to his The Portable Faulkner, Faulkner responded, “It seems to me in bad taste to ask him to write a preface to my stuff. It’s like asking one racehorse in the middle of a race to broadcast a blurb on another horse in the same running field.”
Their competition came to a head in 1947. Faulkner disclosed his opinions on Hemingway’s artistic and literary courage by saying, “he never climbed out on a limb,” and he “never used a word where the reader might check his usage by a dictionary.” Sensitive Hemingway perceived Faulkner’s insult as a direct affront on his actual courage and recruited a former World War II comrade, Colonel Charles “Buck” Lanham, to contact Faulkner directly and attest to his courage and fortitude in the face of battle. And Hemingway’s personal response? “Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?”
Faulkner later apologized for his disparagement, but the air remained icy between the two writers. English majors across the country define themselves into two camps, even today: fans of Faulkner or fans of Hemingway, and never both. For us true Southerners, those of us who bask in the lethargic humidity of summer, who speak slow and elongate our vowels, who savor time and avoid the rush of our metropolitan counterparts, our camp is established from birth: we’re Faulkner’s, and yes, big emotions do come with those big words.