Ernest Hemingway with his cat, Cristobal, at his home, Finca Vigia, San Francisco de Paula, Cuba. Date unknown (circa 1955?) Photo from Ernest Hemingway Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston. (Copyright status unknown)
Was Ernest Hemingway the greatest writer in English of the 20th century? Fortunately we don’t have to choose. We can read Hemingway, and Faulkner (with whom he had a few bones to pick), and Hammett, and Parker, and Feynman, and Vonnegut, Bellow, Morrison, dos Passos, Shaw, Kipling, Ford, Conrad and a dozen more, enjoying each for the gifts she or he demonstrated so well on a page.
Any way you stack it, though, Hemingway was a great one.
In an interview with George Plimpton, published in the Paris Review in 1958, Hemingway talked about what it takes to be a great writer. Maybe it’s something one needs to be born with:
The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shock-proof, shit detector. This is the writer’s radar and all great writers have had it.
If we could make a machine to substitute for that, a solid-gold, built-in, shock-proof [excrement] detector, we could improve writing, politics, government, business, and a hundred other fields of endeavor.
If we had a just and appropriately skeptical world, everyone would have one, a “solid gold, built-in, shock-proof [excrement] detector.”
What an enormous If.
Also at Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub: