When Ernest Hemingway was coming to the end of his brief, seven-month career as an 18-year-old, $75-a-month cub reporter on The Kansas City Star, in April 1918, he wrote back home to his father Clarence, a doctor in Oak Park, Illinois, complaining that his Missouri evening newspaper job was one which would send most people batty.
Hemingway described the demands and pressures that, he said, would have driven lesser mortals around the twist: “To take a story over the phone and get everything exact, see it all in your mind’s eye, rush over to a typewriter and write it a page at a time while 10 other typewriters are going and the boss [assistant city editor Clancy George ‘Pete’ Wellington] is hollering at someone and a boy snatches the pages from your machine as fast as you write them.”
“Responsibility … thousands of dollars hinge on your statements, [which require] absolute truth and accuracy. A middle initial wrong may mean a libel suit. And always under a strain … Having to write a half-column story with every name, address and initial verified and remembering to use good style, perfect style in fact, and get all the facts and in the correct order, make it have snap and wallop and write it in 15 minutes, five sentences at a time to catch an edition as it goes to press.”
The next month, when Hemingway packed in his cadetship and left for New York, en route to Paris and to joining the Red Cross at Fossalta di Piave on the Italian front, he took with him more than mere memories of having shown such “grace under fire” in a Mid-West newspaper office. Apart from learning, fast, to get stories 100 per cent right (or risk being hollered at, or sacked, by Wellington), and writing them against a constantly updating deadline (far tighter than any online newspaper will ever face), a paragraph at a time while a copyboy stood poised at his shoulder, Hemingway had absorbed the Star’s renowned copy style sheet, the 110 rules that governed that paper’s prose.
In 1940, Hemingway told a Star reporter that Wellington had changed his verbose high school writing style into clear, provocative English. “On the Star, you were forced to learn to write a simple declarative sentence. That is useful to anyone. You were just as responsible for having learned [the style sheet] as after you've had the articles of war read to you …Use short sentences. Use short first paragraphs. Use vigorous English. Be positive, not negative. Those were the best rules I ever learned for the business of writing. I've never forgotten them. No man with any talent, who feels and writes truly about the thing he is trying to say, can fail to write well if he abides with them.”
These rules provided the hallmarks of Hemingway’s Nobel Prize-winning fiction. The citation for the 1954 award read, in part,“for his mastery of the art of narrative ... and for the influence that he has exerted on contemporary style”. His creative process was later outlined in A Moveable Feast. The prospective writer would do far worse than to read it again, all the while having The Kansas City Star’s style sheet and samples from The First 49 Stories close at hand.
Many of those first 49 stories date from Hemingway’s time in Italy, and from the early 1920s, when Hemingway returned to Europe as foreign correspondent for the Toronto Star. He took with him a new wife, Hadley, and a Corona 3 typewriter Hadley had given him as a 22nd birthday present. Hemingway would subsequently divorce three times, before meeting Mary Welsh, the estranged wife of an Australian war correspondent, Noel Monks. But he remained married to his typewriters and, he would have us believe, to accuracy, to writing the absolute truth. With age and injuries his writing slowed and showed the strain, but his frustration with this was compounded by his continued ability to visualise stories in his mind’s eye. And he stayed forever loyal to the Star style sheet.
No matter how quickly online newspapers get breaking stories to their subscribers, how well they serve their reading public, they will never nurture writers like Hemingway. There will be no grace under fire, nothing to guide their journalists like the Star style sheet. Indeed, there will be no writing in a perfect style, containing all the facts in correct order while retaining snap and wallop. And nobody to check accuracy. Perhaps the best future generations can expect is that Anthony Burgess continues to prove prophetic about the way in which our society is degenerating, and someone might actually become quite skilled and readable in writing in Nadsat, a language of a type that is already broadly evident. It certainly won’t be in good English.
If I’m to be accused of sounding like a stuck record here, I’ll take it as a compliment. At least my column will be on record, published in a real, tangible, printed newspaper of record. The future appears to hold no place for such a thing.
*Royal portable typewriters used by Hemingway can be seen in his former homes at San Francisco de Paula, Havana, in Key West, Florida, and in Ketchum, Idaho. The same model Royal portable, donated to the Australian Typewriter Museum by Australian National University academic historian Bill Gammage (it belonged to his father), can be seen at From A to Z: Robert Messenger’s Typewriters, which opens at the Canberra Museum and Gallery in Civic Square on July 14.