Hemingway out-simples Keller on simplicity

My superego is busting my chops. 

Before I exact revenge on Gottfried Keller, literally, I feel compelled to offer a final word on Green Henry. Because I’m interested in naive metaphysical realism, literary realism and all species of simplicity and common sense, I’d like to share two passages that have something in common.

Here’s Keller offering oblique literary criticism in the first third, my favorite part, of Green Henry. “…I learnt now that the incomprehensible and the impossible, the fantastic and the extravagant or not poetical, and that, just as in the universe, calm and quiet must prevail in motion, so here, nothing but simplicity and honesty must reign in the midst of brilliance and form, in order to produce something poetical, or which means the same thing, something living and reasonable….”

According to Keller’s literary aesthetic, the simple is rational and the artist discerns it instantly and can reproduce it fully. Normal people, on the contrary, can only stand in amazement. I don’t know about you, but I totally dig being normal. I stand in amazement all the time over simple things.

But not Keller’s passage.

It speaks of simplicity out of one side of its mouth but bludgeons you with volubility out of the other. It’s a question of style, I suppose. Look at the sentence again. How breathlessly long it is. How fantastic and extravagant its syntax. The sentiment is fine, but the sentence is atrocious.

In contrast to Keller, here’s Hemingway, doing what he does best, relishing simplicity as an antidote to the anxiety that often attends the quest for Flaubertian perfection.

“So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say. If I started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I could cut that scroll work or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence I had written.”

That’s my gripe with Keller. He spurns simplicity even as he praises it. In literary prose, I’m not sure what a “true” sentence is. But I’d like to think it has something to do with the agreement of form and content. Otherwise it clanks awkwardly like Keller’s long-winded riff.


4 Responses to Hemingway out-simples Keller on simplicity

  1. khalid mir says:

    Only going by the passage you’ve cited, I dunno..I mean, doesn’t he say “learnt” (therefore possibly not “instant”) and is reasonable really the same thing as rational?

  2. About “learnt” and “instant,” I’m not interpreting the text. I have the advantage of summarizing an additional thought Keller expresses after the passage I cite. As for “reasonable” being the same thing as “rational,” I’m sure we can tease out key differences in meaning, but I was more interested in alluding to Hegel, a master of dense complexity, in a post that has simplicity as its theme.

  3. khalid mir says:

    Fair point, Kevin. I see what you’re saying. Just don’t think it’s as oblique as you make out here though. Something that is ‘living and reasonable’ is a nice, simple phrase (in my opinion). No?

    ‘True’, ‘agreement of form with content’, on the other hand, can sound a bit too philosophical. And is there really that much of a difference? Is the ‘one true sentence’ the calmness or the honesty amidst ornament?

    best wishes,


  4. Yes, it’s a nice simple phrase, but it’s buried amidst syntactical rubbish. It’s no simple declarative simple, that’s for sure. Which is why I contrasted it with H. And yes, “agreement with form with content” is too philosophical. Perhaps style and substance is better, or maybe even a sentence that walks the talk. Time to visit your blog!

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