From the Poobah Files: I Hate Hemingway

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The following post is a letter the Poobah wrote several years ago to a college friend. We wrote it on a day that we decided to call in well to work. We’re not sure that it is all that great, but we’re tired today and a proper post is beyond us. Besides, we like the story about the professor. We hated that guy.

— Omnipotent Poobah, 1/28/06

October 21, 1997

Dear G,

I awoke this morning at 4 am, besotted with the most ravaging sinus headache imaginable. I drugged myself until I could barely stand and still it kept at me like some angry wolverine. My first, and probably, best inclination was to lay down and sleep it off, but this was impossible of course. Instead I sat and noodled at the computer and lay plans to skip work and sleep it off later.

Well, now it is later. I still haven’t slept and, in fact, don’t have anything to show for the day except for a wrinkled backside courtesy of a long soak in a warm tub. Instead I’ve decided to write. It seems a shame to waste a foul mood and aching head on mere sleep anyway.

I Hate HemingwayIt sometimes fascinates me that I can’t seem to write except when I’m angry or loopy. I’m always quite amazed by those people who can sit down and use their inner discipline to will themselves to do it. It takes that kind of stuff to write for a living and I clearly don’t have that kind of right stuff. If I had to depend on my ability to will myself to do it I’d be a very hungry man indeed.

Come to think of it; I’m not as alone in that as it may seem. That would be the answer as to why you have to be dead to be very successful at art or writing. It takes you a lifetime to scrape together enough stuff to put into a book and it apparently requires you to be a stone asshole as you do it. A pity.

The day began as foggy as my brain. After the sun came up, I went to the back door to sweep it open and gaze upon my usually splendiferous and panoramic view. Instead I was greeted by gray. It was foggy, or cloudy, sometimes you can’t tell which this far up the hill. When I’m in the right sort of melancholy mood the fog is quite nice, but this morning it was just fog and cold and damp and tres unwelcome.

I had to replace it with a cup of coffee. I tried some of that International Coffee stuff (don’t ask why were drinking that stuff, we can’t imagine why – ed.) to see if it had the same wonderfully energizing effect on me as it does on the models who advertise it on TV. Sadly, it didn’t. It soured my stomach and made my head hurt more. Curses! Failed again by Madison Avenue imagery. The next thing you know I’ll find that you really can’t become orgasmic using shampoo.

Fiona (The Omnipotent Dog – ed.) lies at my feet in a puddle of sun that has finally burned through the clouds. There’s a slow rise and fall to her velvety belly. Every few minutes her thick jowls puff up and a tiny “woooof” comes out. Her front paws wag to and fro, engaged in some imaginary rabbit chase. I always wonder what happens in the minds of dogs. If I find the world as weird and strange as I do, I can’t help but wonder what they make of it.

Why does Fiona suddenly jump up and run like a demon though the house at a terrifyingly high speed (we finally figured out that she does this when she farts. – ed.)? Why does her tail fascinate her so? How can she find such obvious and utter joy in gnawing at a bone for hours on end? People say cats are enigmatic, but I think dogs are really the mysterious ones. Cats act the way they do because they are just high-fallutin’ furry little pricks. Dogs act the way they do for some more mysterious and less obviously mystical reason. I can’t help but believe that if I could figure it out I’ll have cracked the nut of life.

My reading continues. I’m still on Hunter Thompson’s book (Proud Highway – ed.). The word tome certainly describes the thing. It is big and heavy and full of words. I still find it amazing though. The man has written 20,000 letters and saved them all. I can’t imagine saving 20,000 anythings. The letters really are a unique insight into HST (Hunter died by suicide last year – ed.) as a person – a way to cut through all the hype that has grown up around him over the years. Still, I think some people are beginning to take this way too seriously. I found a Website devoted to serious discussions of his works and the meanings therein. There is even one that features a psychological profile that ties into the things he has written. All the whys and wherefores, just like a site devoted to Hemingway or Fitzgerald.

Personally, I think such literary criticism is really bunk. It’s a place for pretentious and tweedy old English professors to make it seem like their opinions count. I suppose I shouldn’t be so harsh on this topic, but I’ve run into so many of these self-anointed old shits over the years they now make my skin crawl.

I had a professor of modern literature in college who was a self-professed “Hemingway expert”. I’m not much for self-professed experts in anything, especially Hemingway, and this old coot certainly rubbed me the wrong way. His lectures were interminable. He droned on in movie-casting-perfect monotone as students dropped off to sleep across the class. He began the year by telling each of us – in his earnest tweedy professor way – that there were no rights or wrongs in his class. Opinions were what counted. You would be graded on how well you expressed them.

Late in the year, we had to write a lengthy critique of a Hemingway work that now escapes me. I set to it with no particular relish because, quite frankly, I loathe Hemingway. I think he is one of the most overrated writers of this century. He was too full of himself and his titanic struggles with life. I think I’m borne out in my opinion because the Father of Machismo was too chicken to keep going until he died naturally. Instead he cut it short with a shotgun to the mouth (oddly enough, just like Hunter Thompson – ed.) in Ketchum when his popularity began to wane.

In short, I said as much in my essay. Now, I’ll admit that it was not one of the most stunning critiques ever written. I didn’t much like it myself, but that wasn’t supposed to be the point according to the dear professor – the opinions were. I got the paper back with a huge D scrawled across it. His only commentary was a short note to the effect that I didn’t know what I was talking about and that my opinions had absolutely no merit in his “expert” eyes.

I was enraged. If the old fart wanted to give me the D for handing over a poorly written paper, so be it. But, this “your opinion has no merit” gig was a bit much, especially after his stunningly long and boring lecture about no rights or wrongs.

I chose the inopportune time of the final exam to make a case of this point. I challenged him as the other students sleepily wrote soppish essays of undying love for old Buckshot Mouth. I told him I would happily accept the D for poor writing – hell, even poor penmanship – but I was standing my ground that Hemingway was a boor and a hack. We volleyed over it for several minutes. Me expressing my “unmerited opinions”, he expressing disbelief at the overturning of his scholarly life.

In the end, he elevated the grade to a B because I got him to admit that he didn’t know Hemingway personally (so therefore didn’t have a real clue as to what he was all about) and that he hadn’t even read the short story he had assigned (despite being an “expert”). He also seemed to cower at my suggestion that I would take the argument up with the dean, a “personal friend of mine” (proving once again that connections beat expertise any old day). It was a fine performance and I look back on it fondly. Not so much for the improved grade, but because I was able to get under his skin. There’s always a certain satisfaction in that – especially when the pompous are involved.

Having told this story, it makes me wonder where my aversion to authority comes from. I’ve certainly had my run-ins with plenty of sanctimonious windbags, but probably no more than anyone else. Perhaps one day there will be a Website devoted to my inner psychological workings and I’ll be able to find out. Oops! Silly me! I’ll be dead by then, won’t I?

That’s it from my little corner of the world.

Now it’s your turn,

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11 thoughts on “From the Poobah Files: I Hate Hemingway

  1. Miz B,

    Sorry to hear you had the same problem as well. In mu case I didn’t have to worry about grade though. I always got lousy grades because I didn’t have the self and mental disciplinie to work hard enough. Clearly you didn;t make the same mistake.

    I did get some rest thanks. We went to Beach Blanket Babylon and dinner at Stinking Rose yesterday. Jealous?

  2. Ugh! Had me a “Shakespeare Expert” as a professor once. The idiot tarnished my perfect 4.0 GPA! Research papers other teacher found flawless and A+ material she gave B-s… I challenged her and got them up to A-. Damn “-” screwed it all up… and all because I was a poetry major… did the same thing to another one of us!

    Hope you get some rest!

  3. Mary,
    Thats as good an explanation of game show watching and vinyl beanbag chair humping that I’ve heard. Oh, and your comment didn’t sound rude to me.
    I never have understood why people think cats are mysterious. They act the way they do because they’re aloof, not because they are hiding anything. A dog on the other hand does so many inexplicable things they HAVE to be hiding something.
    She is a hoot and thanks for the props, but I bet you could do a pretty good description of a dog soaking up the sunshine. After all, you are the Coyote.
    Thanks. I have to admit I don’t write letters like I used to. When I was in my 20s I wrote many, sometimes sevral a day. I also met Mrs. Poobah by being her penpal. Over a year of romance conducted exclusively via mail. Even now, I’m not sure how I managed to snag her. All I’ve got to say is that I’m much more eloquent in print than in person. With writing you can always edit yourself and I’m abysmal at doing that on the fly like you have to do in a conversation.

  4. Yes there is a satisfaction of getting under the skin of self-proclaimed “I can do no wrong” professors. I had that satisfaction once as well and, like you, it had little to do with the grade. I really enjoyed this, if I could write letters like this, I might actually write some letters. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Fiona sounds like a hoot:)

    I’ve got two crazy spaniels myself but I don’t think I could have come up with a better description of watching them schlep away a sunny afternoon. Nice one.

    “Howl @ The Moon!”

  6. she must watch game shows because she learned it at game show host school; the other dog must not have been getting enough action from her “free-thinking” progressive minded dogs in her company…

  7. Lily,
    I’m not sure it’s so much self-esteem, but rather a shocking lack of common sense that leads me into these things. Self-preservation never seems to kick in at the right time for me. I come from a long line of asshat-hating curmedgeons who follow a zero tolerance policy for the pompous. I fear it is genetically imprinted on me.

    Could be.

    I know she watches television, especially game shows, and tries to hunt deer by following them around the back of the TV. But her least favorite thing is horses, despite the fact she’s never seen one in the flesh. One comes on the tube and we have to physically restrain her from knocking the thing down and ripping it’s virtual throat out. We have a picture in the living room with some horse drawings and she hates them too. Sometimes I come home to find her sitting upright and growling at them.

    We also once had a dog (female) that had a vinyl fetish and always humped bean bag chairs, but that’s a story for another day.

  8. Maybe Fiona is practicing calculus and it just looks to you like she’s knawing on a bone….

  9. Well Poobah, I too hate the types you describe but never had the self esteem academically to let much of that show. I honestly just wanted A’s for grad school and did not care one bit what they droned about. I got what I wanted, learned things I needed, and moved on. I hated Hemingway too and just could not get through it. Maybe I didn’t give it enough of a chance, I dunno. But I hear you.