Written by Atorina Saliba / Image by Jakoz Idzie
There is perhaps no other sport in the world (if you could call it a sport) that is more divisive than bullfighting. Why? The source of the controversy is spelled out for you: Bull. Fighting.
Crowds at Pamplona would disagree however, filling the streets by the thousands as sunshine rains down on their heads, their chants rising through the air. The sport’s strongest supporter may just be Ernest Hemingway, who first witnessed the event in 1923 while visiting Pamplona. He would later go on to say, “There are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games.”
Hemingway befriended several matadors and would go on to write The Sun Also Rises [i] and Death in the Afternoon, both books dealing with the thrills of bullfighting. Pamplona would in turn become a big supporter of Hemingway, going on to name cafes, shops, bars, and streets after the writer. The city who loves a good bullfight would surely celebrate Hemingway, who defended the sport as a “Spanish institution.” [ii]
Ernest Hemingway, who is indeed built like a bull, with his stocky stature, and the guns he waves around as though they were sharp horns, takes on his critics one by one.
In Death in the Afternoon, Hemingway writes: “The truly brave bull gives no warning before he charges except the fixing of his eye on the enemy, the raising of the crest of muscle in his neck, the twitching of an ear, and, as he charges, the lifting of his tail.”
Witness Hemingway go up against his biggest critics—a haughty circle of literary matadors foolish enough to taunt the expat bull, thinking they could leave the arena unscathed.
“The bull saw them and charged.”
William Faulkner, novelist
In a contest of bullfighting, it is the job of the matador to apprehend the bull; to subdue it, to immobilise it and, ultimately, to kill it. The weapons of choice in this arena of death are javelins, a cape, and a sword. It is when the matador is deft and agile, and the bull ruthless and enraged, that the fight is intense to watch. The two contenders must be adamant to save their own lives. Such is the case for Hemingway and the matador from the American South, William Faulkner.
In the mid-20th century, there were no two bigger names in literature than Hemingway and Faulkner. But their taste in art and life could not have divided these two any further.
Their dislike for one another is never expressed directly, only in letters written to third parties. Faulkner seems to damage the bull with a spear or two, saying, “He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.”
“The bull, striking into the wood from side to side with his horns, made a great noise.”
Hemingway isn’t afraid to strike back.
“Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.” (From Papa Hemingway: A Personal Memoir)
“Then I saw a dark muzzle and the shadow of horns, and then, with a clattering on the wood in the hollow box, the bull charged and came out into the corral, skidding with his forefeet in the straw as he stopped, his head up, the great hump of muscle on his neck swollen tight, his body muscles quivering as he backed away against the wall, their heads sunken, their eyes watching the bull.
Then, with a final blow to his salacious Southern critic, Hemingway adds, “Did you read his last book? It’s all sauce-writing now, but he was good once. Before the sauce, or when he knew how to handle it.”
Hemingway gets the last strike here. But the matadors are only just beginning, and Hemingway sees red everywhere.
Wallace Stevens, poet
A man should be wary to go up against a young, sturdy bull – no matter his legacy. The case is similar to that of the old and foolish Wallace Stevens, who dares to take on Hemingway.
It’s 1936, and the seemingly conspicuous poet Stevens runs his mouth at a party in Key West, challenging Hemingway’s manhood. The unsuspecting pair of ears that catches this tongue-wagging is none other than Hemingway’s darling sister Ura, who promptly reports back to her brother.
“A man shouted from behind one of the boxes and slapped his hat against the planks, and the bull, before he reached the steer, turned, gathered himself and charged where the man had been trying to reach him behind the planks with a half-dozen quick, searching drives with the right horn.”
This is hardly a fair fight, but poor mister Hemingway cannot be put to blame for protecting his good name. Stevens is fifty-six and an insurance salesman by day. Hemingway is thirty-six, and “lean and sun-weathered from recent adventures in bull-fighting-and-African-safaris-and-Caribbean-sailing.”
Stevens is looking for a real bullfight, and that’s what he gets. Hemingway arrives specially to see Stevens, who immediately takes a swing at him.
Hemingway promptly strikes him down. POW! Stevens takes another shot and manages to break his hand in two places when it collides with Hemingway’s jaw.
Hemingway completely obliterates him, later saying, “Mr. Stevens swung that same fabled punch but fertunatly [sic] missed and I knocked all of him down several times and gave him a good beating.” He goes on further, noting that Stevens’s appearance is “sort of pleasant like the cholera.”
The bull strikes down another matador and gushes blood from his opponent’s ribs.
Wyndham Lewis, writer, painter
There is no truth to the fact that red ignites the hearts of bulls. However, if we give any fodder to the myth, then Wyndham Lewis is doused in red paint and Hemingway sees nothing else.
“He charged straight for the steers and two men ran out from behind the planks and shouted, to turn him. He did not change his direction and the men shouted: ‘Hah! Hah! Toro!’ and waved their arms; the two steers turned sideways to take the shock, and the bull drove into one of the steers.”
What is it about Wyndham Lewis that rubs Hemingway the wrong way? Hemingway notes that Lewis “did not show evil; he just looked nasty.”
Let’s say it’s his eyes. Hemingway notes that “Under the black hat, when I had first seen them, the eyes had been those of an unsuccessful rapist.” The bull squares off with the next contender.
In the essay, ‘The Dumb Ox: a study of Ernest Hemingway’, Lewis makes an academic jab at Hemingway’s characters, claiming they are unworthy of being written about. The critique also attacked the political awareness Hemingway lacked, his American vernacular, and, as we learn later, Gertrude Stein’s influence on him.
Hemingway does not let these javelins land without striking back with his horns. These blows tear into Lewis’s writing and paintings. “Don’t let Ezra shove off a lot of Wyndham Lewis bum paintings worse writings on you. Granted that Lewis was great for the sake of argument – and that’s the only way I would ever grant it – he is most certainly dead, finished, done for and no sense in using a life review as a pulmotor. […] He’s a rotten painter and not a good writer – a certain merit – that’s all. He was made by publicity and died of his own work [sic].”
And that’s another matador down. The bull huffs and puffs around the arena.
Let’s make one thing clear, not everyone stands by while poor Mr Hemingway takes a beating or two. The author of Old Man and the Sea does have people come to his defence. One notable person is the founder of the Shakespeare and Co. bookstore in Paris, Sylvia Beach.
Beach is a friend to many artists in Paris. But perhaps it’s this bookkeeper, this champion of Joyce, that can see through Hemingway’s macho armour.
“Hemingway can take any amount of criticism—from himself: he is his own severest critic, but, like all his fellow-writers, he is hypersensitive to the criticism of others. It’s true that some critics are terribly expert in sticking the sharp penpoint into the victim and are delighted when he squirms.”
And yet the fight doesn’t end here. There’s one more contender who was perhaps Hemingway’s greatest champion before she decided to drive spears into his back. The matador steps up to her post, cape in hand, sword ready.
Gertrude Stein, writer
All great rivals first begin by being good friends. Surely there are some bulls who wouldn’t slash the torso of a farmer if it weren’t given reason to. This is the case for Hemingway and Gertrude Stein.
Before delving into the spears and wounds Stein is about to lay into Hemingway, let us first look at another enemy of hers. It seems that Stein, like Hemingway, is prone to making enemies as she is making great artists. Our bullfighter from earlier seems to disagree with the latter.
“The steer came up to him and made as though to nose at him and the bull hooked perfunctorily.”
Wyndham Lewis believes Stein “writes usually so like a child—like a confused, stammering, rather “soft” (bloated, acromegalic, squinting and spectacled, one can figure it as) child.”
Lewis attacks her further in ‘The Dumb Ox’, pulling Hemingway into the fight, complaining about the similarities in Stein’s and Hemingway’s language. Children writing like children for children, it seems. Certainly Stein would have cheered Hemingway on in his mauling of Lewis, but her support would last a short time. She too would turn on the bull.
In the Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Stein calls Hemingway “yellow”. It’s 1932, and the insult will fester for a long time. If Hemingway weren’t so sensitive as he proved to be, perhaps insults such as these could roll off his back. Alas, the spear is thrown and Hemingway is none too happy with these choice words by Miss Stein.
It gets worse. So much worse. In her book, Stein takes the insults further by illustrating Hemingway as a young, ambitious writer, sitting at her feet, being guided and supported by the woman.
In April 1933, Hemingway lets out his feelings in a series of letters to Arnold Gingrich. “G. Stein, who was a fine woman until she went professionally patriotically goofily complete lack of judgement and stoppage of all sense lesbian with the old menopause.”
“Suddenly the bull left off and made for the other steer which had been standing at the far end, his head swinging, watching it all.”
Hemingway is one for loyalty, as men of the army tend to be. He later writes to Janet Flanner, complaining that “Gertrude S. I was very fond of and god knows I was loyal to until she had pushed my face in a dozen times.”
Then, with a final blow to Stein, he writes to Maxwell Perkins in July 1933, “She lost all sense of taste when she had the menopause. […] suddenly she couldn’t tell a good picture from a bad one, a good writer from a bad one, it all went phtt.”
“The steer ran awkwardly and the bull caught him, hooked him lightly in the flank, and then turned away and looked up at the crowd on the walls, his crest of muscle rising.”
At this point, the matadors strike Hemingway with an array of spears of criticism. In the struggle, Hemingway makes the spears dig deeper into himself. It will be at the end of his life when the wounds are so deep, festering, unhelped, that Hemingway surrenders, dying at his own hands; the matadors at a distance, watching, waiting, without a gasp in their throats.
All pullquotes can be found in the pages of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (also known as Fiesta).
[i] It took a trip to Spain, in 1925, for Hemingway to be inspired to write about the country in The Sun Also Rises. In the novel,two expats travel from Paris to Spain to watch the bull fights and bull running at the Festival of San Fermin in Pamplona.
[ii] So enamoured with the sport, Hemingway names the bullfighter and hero of The Sun Also Rises, Romero, after 18th century bullfighter Pedro Romero.