How Hemingway Gradually—Then Suddenly—Defined the Zeitgeist


Hemingway’s phrase always had a great appeal. He anticipated some aspects of complex systems theory, popularized as the turning point. Remember when we once thought that MySpace, benefiting from a media network effect, seemed unassailable? It lost ground on Facebook, slowly and then suddenly. (Perhaps Mark Zuckerberg should think twice before stopping prioritizing personal ties to Facebook in his TikTok search, creating an opportunity for a competitor to address the company’s original focus on friends and family. )

But I think there is a stronger reason for the current ubiquity of the term, and that is the environmental fear that accompanies the feeling of civilization being torn apart by the seams. Check out some recent appointments:

  • Financial review, in an article about a possible civil war in the US: “The democratic setback in the United States is like Ernest Hemingway’s famous observation about bankruptcy …”
  • Bloomberg’s opinion, describing the post-Roe landscape: “Democracy is very similar to the description of Ernest Hemingway’s bankruptcy.”
  • The statesmanon the decline of global democracy: “What Ernest Hemingway said about financial bankruptcy is equally true of political bankruptcy.”

Mike Campbell’s cheerful comment also applies to the climate crisis, another scenario where years of warning signs have finally metastasized into real danger. It is almost difficult to find a report on the weather it doesn’t start with the unfortunate Mike describing his fall from solvency.

Yes, Hemingway’s quote has always been available to social experts and critics. But as our glaciers and our democracy, after years of gradual decline, seem to suddenly collapse, a line from a 96-year-old book has become our emblem, tattooed on the tip. of the tongue. At first gradually, and now suddenly.

Time travel

In June 1983, I wrote about some of the first attempts to write fiction online in my column, Telecomputing, for which I wrote Popular Computing. (Yes, I was covering that pace during Reagan’s first quarter.) Of course, I dug up Hemingway as an example, parodying the master in my introduction to a column that now reads like archeology.

Ernesto logged into the service. Pending the warning, he took a deep breath of the wine. The wine was from the Valdepeñas, and it was good. The indication was now on the video screen. Ernesto began writing. I knew how men were supposed to write: sign in to the news service, stand in front of the keyboard, have a bottle of wine by your side, and use the modem at 1200 bits per second. It went well for a while, then it didn’t go well. Ernesto knew not to get it when he didn’t get it. He decided to see what the others were doing. He agreed to Scotty’s new novel. He then agreed to a draft of a story Dos had put online, letting them know that his writing was good, but not as good as Ernesto’s. Then this appeared on the screen: “PAPA-540, DO YOU WANT CHAT?” Ernesto cursed softly to himself. And he closed the session.



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