How Hemingway Gradually—and Then Suddenly—Created the Zeitgeist

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Hi all. Summer in full swing. And this is the latest Covid option! I would dive into the pool to save myself, but the lifeguards at home are sick.

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“How did you go bankrupt?” Bill asked.

“Two ways,” Mike said. “Gradually, and then suddenly.”

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This is from Ernest Hemingway’s breakthrough 1926 novel: The sun is rising too. It happens somewhere in the middle of the book. Mike Campbell, about whom one of the characters previously said that “one day he will be damn rich”, utters a line about his financial failure in a Pamplona cafe while waiting for a bullfight. (There’s no more Hemingway.) But the pope himself might have been shocked to learn that this impromptu joke went viral nearly a century later.

But that is exactly what happened. Sometimes a ten-year-old literary phrase intrudes into the collective psyche like an exotic brain parasite. Whatever the author originally had in mind, suddenly the circumstances of the posthumous zeitgeist make their points convincing. You will find that they are mentioned in countless analytical articles, essays and essays. For a time the king of this hill was William Butler Yeats, with a phrase from his poem: “Second coming”. It was impossible to go weeks without tripping over someone (who has probably never read Yeats) referring to the poet’s iconic line about the center not holding up.

The center still isn’t holding up, but it’s too obvious now to mention it. Instead, we’re fixated on evaluate where things fall apart. Thus, Hemingway’s four-word description of Campbell’s financial decline has become the darling of many commentators. Because what happens after the center can’t hold is the collapse that we all feel is going on around us. And this happens in two ways: gradually and suddenly.

It’s everywhere. Type “Hemingway went bankrupt” in Google news and over 2,000 links will appear in your browser, taking you back to Iruña Cafe. When the former Time editor Nancy Gibbs attended the college reunion, she noted “As Hemingway said about bankruptcy, we age very slowly, and then all at once.” BUT The newspaper “New York Times columnist for fiction last month talking about split between two characters, taking place in the rhythm of Hemingway’s famous line. When it comes to the stock market, and especially cryptocurrencies, the quote comes up so often that people apologize for it. Last October, one commenter wrote“So far in 2021, we must have used this Hemingway-inspired phrase at least a dozen times by now.” And just this week, when Boris Johnson resigned as British Prime Minister, No one but three commentators called the exact same quote to describe British politics.

Hemingway’s phrase has always resonated widely. He anticipated certain aspects of complex systems theory popularized as a watershed. Remember when we thought MySpace, enjoying the network effect in the mid-2000s, seemed unassailable? He lost ground to Facebook, gradually and then suddenly. (Perhaps Mark Zuckerberg should think twice before he prioritizes personal connections on Facebook in pursuit of TikTok, giving a competitor an opportunity to highlight the company’s initial focus on friends and family.)

But I believe there is a better reason for the term’s current omnipresence, and that is the surrounding fear that accompanies the feeling that civilization is coming apart at the seams. Look at some recent quotes:

  • Financial overview, in an article about a possible US Civil War: “America’s democratic retreat is like Ernest Hemingway’s famous bankrupt observation…”
  • Bloomberg’s opiniondescribing post-Caviar Landscape: “Democracy is very similar to Ernest Hemingway’s description of bankruptcy.”
  • Statesmanon the collapse of global democracy: “What Ernest Hemingway said about financial bankruptcy is equally true of political bankruptcy.”

Mike Campbell’s hilarious remark also applies to the climate crisis, another area where years of warning signs have finally turned into a real danger. It’s almost hard to find a climate report that not start off with the unlucky Mike describing his decline in solvency.

Yes, the Hemingway quote has always been available to experts and social critics. But as our glaciers and our democracy, after years of gradual decline, seem to be collapsing at the same time, a line in a 96-year-old book has become our emblem, tattooed on the tips of our tongues. At first gradually, and now suddenly.

Time travel

In June 1983, I wrote about some early attempts at writing fiction on the Internet in my Telecomputing column, which I wrote for Popular calculations. (Yes, I covered this bit during Reagan’s first term.) Of course, I dug up Hemingway as an example, parodying the master in the introduction to a column that now reads like archeology.

Ernesto connected to the service. Waiting for the prompt, he took a long sip of wine. The wine was from Valdepeñas and it was good. The hint appeared on the video display. Ernesto began to write. He knew how men should write: you enter the information service, stand at the keyboard, next to you is a bottle of wine, and you run your modem at 1200 bps. For a while everything went smoothly, then it did not go smoothly. Ernesto knew you couldn’t make it come when it didn’t come. He decided to see what the others were up to. He got access to Scotty’s new novel. He then accessed a draft of the story that Dos posted online, letting them know that they had written well, but not as well as Ernesto’s. Then the screen appeared: “PAPA-540 – WANT TO CHAT?” Ernesto cursed softly to himself. And he logged out.

Sorry Dad, but I’m using you to emphasize that the telecommunications revolution will change the way people write, not just business executives handing out notes to sales reps or hobbyists gossiping about the latest popular software, but also creative writers.

ask me one thing

Steve asks, “Why not? Hackers 2?

I get asked all the time why I never wrote a sequel to my first book, hackers. I’m not offended because the question implies that the book was worth a sequel. I usually answer that almost everything I write is a continuation hackers. The spirit that I documented in that 1984 volume has spread farther and wider than I even expected, and I constantly run into people who have taken over from the original coding wizards.

However, let me state that of all my books since hackers, one stands out as a continuation. It would be Cryptopublished in 2001. As in the case with hackers, my traditional publisher wondered if the title was too esoteric, a fear that turned out to be laughable long after the book’s release. Like hackers, it described a group of enthusiasts who changed the world. And how did it happen to hackersit turned out that I tell the origin of the story, which became even more than I imagined.

PS: Crypto refers to cryptography— although I wrote about digital currency in a book.

You can send questions to [email protected]. Write ASK FOR A FEE in the subject of the email.

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