By Colin Woodward
I’ve been lucky enough to visit the Hemingway house in Key West and the Faulkner house in Oxford, Mississippi. The two houses are an example in contrast, which is fitting, considering that Faulkner and Hemingway have been seen as a classic example of literary opposites. Both modernists. Both hard drinkers. And yet, Hemingway was a citizen of the world, while Faulkner seemed unable to get away from his “postage stamp” in Mississippi. Hemingway is accessible. Faulkner is inscrutable.
The Faulkner-Hemingway dichotomy is something of a cliché, and it’s probably too facile. After all, the two men contemporaries, who, as far as I know, had no rivalry. Both won the Nobel Peace Prize for Literature (and five years apart at that). Both went to Paris to soak up the post-WWII culture. Hemingway wrote clean lines. But Faulkner wrote for Hollywood, where he had to write direct, sharp prose. His short stories, furthermore, are pretty straight-forward. Hemingway was no Faulkner, but he did spend a considerable time in the South. Not just Florida but also Arkansas.
Nevertheless, in my first semester seminar in graduate school, Faulkner was shorthand for a long-winded answer. A Hemingway answer was brief and to the point. By the time I hit my early 20s, I had read a little Faulkner (Light in August and Intruder in the Dust), and what I had read I had done on my own. In Massachusetts, they just don’t talk about Faulkner in the public schools.
Somehow, Hemingway had also eluded me for a long time. I had not been forced to read The Old Man and the Sea in high school. I knew more about Mariel Hemingway growing up than her grandfather. But when I started reading literature on my own, I knew I’d have to read some Poppa.
After my first brutal, boot camp year of grad school, I needed a break from history books. That summer, I read two Hemingway novels: The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms. I enjoyed both books quite a bit. That same summer, I also started to read Charles Bukowski, who was a big fan of Hemingway, or at least the early stuff. I liked Bukowski’s uncluttered prose. For me, in the battle of Faulkner vs. Hemingway, Hemingway had won.
The victory is still his, I think. I haven’t read any Faulkner since a semester-long course I took at LSU in my second year there. Other than The Sound and the Fury, I didn’t like much of what we read. Absalom! Absalom! I found unbearable.
I’ve read some Hemingway since I left school. And my writing style owes more to Hemingway, with his crisp, short lines, than anything Faulkner ever wrote. My book, Marching Masters is in the Hemingway school. An eight grader probably wouldn’t want to read my book. But I think he could read it and understand it.
To get back to the houses: Hemingway’s house is in a place as sunny and warm as anywhere in the continental U.S. It makes sense that the author of The Sun Also Rises would have lived there. Key West is a gateway to the Caribbean. A jumping off point to a wilder world of the tropics.
If you read The Sun Also Rises, you can almost feel the Spanish sun on your back. There’s not much plot. The people talk, hang out, drink, and not get much done. No wonder I liked it in my early 20s. Really, it’s a book about being a graduate student. It could also be a book about Key West, minus the bullfights.
Key West is fun, and you can feel a connection to Hemingway by visiting his house. Hemingway wasn’t far from the bars like Sloppy Joe’s. And it’s still there today.
Key West is a bustling, happy, sunny place–the Bourbon Street of Florida. It’s all about the beach, crazy cats, feral chickens, pools, strip clubs, and having a good time.
In contrast, Faulkner’s house, Rowan Oak, is a wonderful example of southern Gothic. Even if you know it’s there, it’s hard to find in Oxford. You can’t really see it from the winding, narrow road that goes past it. It is nestled behind tress. The grounds are dark, a perfect reflection of the dark themes of Faulkner’s work. It’s the kind of house that seems to be hiding something.
But the place also feels mystical. I could see how Faulkner dropped so much money for the upkeep of Rowan Oak (which is not a real type of oak). It’s a writer’s dream. The building drips with the Old South that saturated Faulkner’s prose.
Hemingway’s house feels magical. The huge windows open onto the verandas. The sun beats down hard, revealing everything. The setting is lush and green, but doesn’t feel mysterious. The house has tours and tourists all the time. Faulkner’s house, however, feels quiet and deserted. Haunted, even.
Hemingway’s naked prose reflects well the naked feel of Key West. It is a place where clothing feels optional. Nothing in Faulkner feels naked. Rather, he wants to obscure things. Rowan Oak feels Victorian, a house where children played in the garden while their parents schemed inside and hid dark secrets.
However you feel about Faulkner or Hemingway, both of their houses are must-sees for history and literature nuts. Put Key West and Oxford on your bucket list.
Colin Woodward is an archivist and historian. He published his first book, Marching Masters, Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War through UVA Press. He is working on a book on Johnny Cash.