Professor Nickel’s Notions of Papa

Alexandria Smith, Web Master

Members of the English Department explore the life and work of Ernest Hemingway with a religious lens in Assistant Professor Matthew Nickel’s new book.

The recently published book, “Hemingway’s Dark Night: Catholic Influences and Intertextualities in the Work of Ernest Heming- way,” is regarded as a “treasure trove of meaning” that will “enrich every reader’s understand- ing of Hemingway, the man and his work.”

The book serves as the most recent scholarly indication that Hemingway was not an atheist, a largely unfounded connection that has been perpetuated for years, according to Nickel.

“A lot of the biographies that came out early on about Hemingway say that Hemingway was anti- religious– a very nihilistic existentialist. A lot of people look at the depressing endings in Hemingway’s stories, like in ‘A Farewell to Arms,’ where Catherine Barkley dies while she’s having a baby, and it seems to be a very hopeless ending. And [people] use those endings to say that Hemingway believed in no hope, believed in nothing, and didn’t have religion,” said Nickel.

Nickel countered a lot of these commonly held views of the author’s life through his study of letters, unpublished manuscripts and close analyses of his works. However, he acknowledges why Hemingway avoided the label of a religious writer.

Openly religious authors alienate readers that don’t want to read religious ideas. According to Nickel, they also establish themselves in a limiting genre.

“I can understand why you would want to do that because I think, as a writer, we want to reach as many people that we can and write about life as it is, not through a filter that should be looked at in a particular light or interpreted based on what somebody thinks a religion is supposed to mean,”said Nickel.

That does not mean that this aspect of Hemingway’s life was not important in understanding his work.

Fellow English Professor Amanda Caleb finds Nickel’s study to be an important aspect in understanding the role of an author’s personal life in the creation of written works.

“While some authors’ personal lives may not be as relevant to their works, you can’t know that unless you explore their personal lives in relation to their works. In other words, it’s self-defeating if you say, ‘It doesn’t matter what the author was doing. I don’t want to think about author, I just want to think about the text.’ You can’t really know that that’s irrelevant until you’ve explored it,” she said.

Dr. Russ Pottle, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences,said literature should be approached from multiple perspectives.

“I think that this book is important in that it does approach Hemingway’s life and work through a particular perspective, or lens, or however you put it, and that would be the lens of Catholic theology, but it employs a number of other lenses to refract the light. There’s the lens of history– it’s very historically oriented. It’s very extensively detailed, a lot of archival research, a lot of primary source research– and italso looks at a lot of the works through the lens of traditional literary studies or, ‘How do you make meaning from a text? What kind of influences come into the text to make certain ideas rise to the surface?’” said Pottle.

Caleb believes that the in-depth exploration of Hemingway’s spiritual life allows for a much deeper, more realistic understanding of literature as a whole.

“Often enough you see in literary studies that people don’t necessarily want to talk about religion and specifically the author’s religion in the text. And there are a few notable exceptions but often you see this attempt to divorce these kinds of things more traditionally. I think in the last 20, 30 maybe even 40 years you’re starting to see this more holistic view of authors,” said Caleb.

Caleb connects the public’s lack of interest in an author’s religious life as being too personal or even “unsexy.”

“Religion seems almost too personal, I think, that it almost seems inappropriate to go down that path. And to some extent, I think for some people, religion doesn’t seem so-called “sexy” enough. We want to talk about drug use. We want to talk about politics. We want to talk about scandal, sexual orientation and these types of things, and religion, in a weird way, has almost become taboo in that regard because it seems almost too personal.”

Pottle believes the world of literary criticism is not comfortable with religiously oriented people.

“I think that the popular conception of Hemingway as sort of an ‘uber modernist,’ a man whose battlefield experience in World War I shorned him of any beliefs in anything absolute or anything divine or anything salvific can, and has, tilted most of the criticism away from a serious examination of Hemingway’s religious tendencies or impulses or orientations. And we tend to think of “religiously” inclined authorsas sort of fanatics, as people who absolutely accept a particular dogma or religious orientation, to sort of ‘thump their bible’ about that,” said Pottle.

“Hemingway’s Dark Night: Catholic Influences and Intertextualities in the Work of Ernest Hemingway” is available for check- out at the Mary Kintz Bevevino Library.

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