Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms Receives Positive Criticism
Published in 1929, Ernest Hemingway finished A Farewell to Arms when he was barely 30 years old. Hemingway had been planning on writing about World War I for more than a decade, and chose A Farewell to Arms to be his attempt at a blockbuster, a novel which would sell very well.1 This view is supported by the fact that one of Hemingway
's original works, presumably loss in the fiasco of Hadley's luggage, was also a war novel, emphasizing Hemingway's firm belief in the importance of war and love as a theme. By this time, of course, Hemingway was already fairly well known, having already published four short story collections and one successful novel in The Sun Also Rises. In this sense, Hemingway's timing in his quest for a big seller was perfect. Fortunately for Hemingway the book did sell, and although he was already close to being a bestseller at the time of A Farewell
publishing, the novel went on to lead best-seller lists after only a few weeks in publication. In contrast to the lack of money-making power of Fitzgerald's novels, A Farewell to Arms sold 45,000 copies in only seven weeks; in fact, the interest in the book was so high Scribner's had to renegotiate Hemingway's contract following the unexpectedly large sales statistics.2
Although at this time declaring the novel a popular success almost worked against its being recognized as a good literary work, the initial reception for A Farewell to Arms was nonetheless strong. Especially impressed were the people Hemingway cared about the most: his fellow famous writers. Ford Madox Ford, in an introduction he wrote for a 1932 publication of the novel, wrote of Hemingway: "The aim - the achievement - of the great prose writer is to use the words so that they shall seem new and alive because of their juxtaposition with other words. This gift Hemingway has supremely."3 This was generally the praise for Hemingway at the time of the books publishing among the literary crowd: his literary technique and writing style. Not all immediate reception was good, however, as some critics, including Robert Herrick who referred to the novel as "dirt"4 lambasted the vulgarity of the work which in turn led to the later publishing of an edited version without such words as "testicles" and "shit." Nonetheless, contemporary criticism of the novel was by and large in total praise of Hemingway. Henry Hazlitt summed it up when he noted Hemingway was "the single greatest influence on the American novel and short story."5
Positive criticism continued to follow Hemingway and specifically A Farewell to Arms throughout the years. In 1949 Ray B. West wrote about the subject matter of Hemingway's writing as "the condition of man in a society upset by the violence of war," and spoke reverentially of A Farewell to Arms as showing "you cannot escape the obligations of action - you cannot say 'farewell to arms.'"6 In 1961 Charles R. Anderson spoke of the way Hemingway wrote about the resonance of "tender spots of sensibility" against the "hard polished surface of his typical prose" as the literary progress Hemingway had made in A Farewell to Arms over his earlier works.7 This was the general critical acknowledgment of the novel: that Hemingway had proved he could continue to use his form of prose in a complete novel. This marked the beginning of the critics understanding Hemingway as a so-called "postwar" writer.
More modern criticism of Hemingway included a brief period of feminist criticism against Hemingway, calling him the epitome of the chauvinistic male pig as a writer. Specifically the feminist criticism was launched against the character of Catherine Barkley, who was seen as a "one-dimensional sex object."8 This criticism has died down more recently as Catherine has been viewed as more and more of a complex character. Even more recent criticism includes the role of Hemingway's work in the humanist-modernist debate, and in the past few years criticism of Hemingway's alcoholism and use of race has come to the forefront.
All in all, reception to A Farewell to Arms was extremely positive. The work cemented his status as one of the elite writers of his time, and as an innovative modernist. In 1937 Claude Mckay wrote of Hemingway "he was the white hope of the ultra-sophisticates," and that many writers felt that there was now a clear delineation between "pre" and "post-Hemingway" literature.9 This was what Hemingway had hoped for, a positive reception from his peers. Although in later years Hemingway turns on many of these fellow writers who praised him so lavishly, (see responding to Fitzgerald's 10 pages of criticism with "kiss my ass") their critical acclaim helped launch him to "writer superstardom."
1 Linda Wagner-Martin. Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms: A Reference Guide. Greenwood Press, Westport, CT (2003), p. viii.
2 Ibid., p. i-viii.
3 Ford Madox Ford in "Introduction to Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms" (1932) p. 246, from Wagner-Martin "Reference Guide."
6 Ray B. West (1949) in Harold Bloom. Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms: Modern Critical Interpretations. Chelsea House Publishers, New York, 1987. p. 36.
7 Charles R. Anderson (1961) from Ibid., p. 46.
9 Wagner-Martin, p. 175-180.