Ernest Hemingway’s novel Torrents of Springis not very good. An author’s note at its end informs us that it was written in ten days and if this account of its composition is true, it very much shows. The reason I am choosing to inflict this reading experience on myself is because of my PhD research; my stylometric analysis of nineteenth and twentieth century literature, which involves identifying words which are particular to each author, informs me that Torrents of Spring marks a departure from Hemingway’s usual range of expression, away from words like ‘hell’, ‘bottle’, ‘drink’, ‘hit’ and ‘you’re’, to words like ‘wife’, ‘woman’, ‘happiest’, ‘agreed’, and ‘herself’, words Hemingway does not use anywhere else in his oeuvre. It’s worth pointing out that Hemingway wrote Torrrents of Spring as a satire of Sherwood Anderson’s novel Dark Laughter. How successful it is in this regard I don’t know, what I am more interesting in tracing, is the opportunity Hemingway takes to launch a broadside against the modernist project at large.
There’s not a page that goes by that Hemingway does not satirise the prose styles of either Gertrude Stein (‘Yogi Johnson walking down the silent street with his arm around the little Indian’s shoulder. The big Indian walking along beside them. The cold night. The shuttered houses of the town. The little Indian, who has lost his artificial arm. The big Indian, who was also in the war. Yogi Johnson, who was in the war too’) the more folksy thoughts of Leopold Bloom (‘What is that old writing fellow Shakespear says?’) or the weightier thematising of D.H. Lawrence (‘In some ways the pump-factory had hardened him. His speech had become more clipped. More like these hardy Northern workers’). More than these individual examples however is the broader alienation or discomfort intergral to modern life in industrialised Anglosphere after the first world war, summed up in the persistent refrain: ‘What was it all about? Where was it taking her?’
This is a familiar story underpinning literary modernism’s emergence, and we know well the formal strategies which emerge as a means of containing the modern sensibility, be it fragmentation, referentiality, the drawing on literary antecedents as a guarantor of one’s own fundamental seriousness. And none of these emerge unscathed either. The waitress at the diner to whom one of the main characters becomes engaged is from the Lake District (‘Wordworth’s country’ comes the helpful gloss), for instance.
The culmination of all this comes in Hemingway’s solicitous addresses to the reader which are interleaved throughout the text, about his luncheons with John Dos Passos and how F. Scott FitzGerald’s just been by, and how difficult it was to research the history of Native American tribes in the last chapter and if the reader has a manuscript themselves to drop it by one of the cafés, etc. Subtlety is obviously not what Hemingway’s about here, but it’s an interesting observation on the tension between what the modernist project said about itself and how Hemingway regarded it in practice. Rather than being founded on autonomy and transcendence, it inculcates a cult of the author and whatever mastery they exhibit over their materials. The insular gossip culture of Paris travels as far as Petoskey, Michigan, with factory workers and waitresses trading anecdotes about Henry James’ last words and Ford Madox Ford’s encounters with high society. It is this sublimated, parasocial aspect to the modern that is most noteworthy in Torrents of Spring, and certainly appears to be the most enduring, based on how the vast majority of them are now marketed (‘just think of it, H.G. Wells talking about you right in our home. Anyway, H.G. Wells’). The final author’s note, injuncting the reader to tell their friends about the book if they enjoyed it because of how hard it is to shift units these days, make clear in precise terms what these poses, aesthetic though they may be, are really all about.