Some Writers Are Only Born to Help Another Writer to Write One Sentence

Ernest Hemingway? Apocryphal?

hemingway12Dear Quote Investigator: Questions about creative influence and artistic appropriation are often fraught with rivalry and controversy. I recall an extreme remark from the prominent writer Ernest Hemingway in which he asserted that the entire purpose of one artist might be to provide a single phrase or sentence to another artist. Is my memory accurate? Is the remark audacious or arrogant? Does this quotation exist?

Quote Investigator: Yes. Beginning in May 1935 “Scribner’s Magazine” serialized Ernest Hemingway’s soon to be published book “Green Hills of Africa”. The work presented an account of the author’s multi-week safari in East Africa together with brief didactic lectures on literature which were woven into the reported conversations. Hemingway discussed American authors and the works he valued as classics. He believed that “a new classic does not bear any resemblance to the classics that have preceded it”. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

It can steal from anything that it is better than, anything that is not a classic, all classics do that. Some writers are only born to help another writer to write one sentence. But it cannot derive from or resemble a previous classic.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Hemingway contended that the craft of writing should be solitary, and the “Scribner’s Magazine” excerpt employed a harsh metaphorical illustration: 2

Writers should work alone. They should see each other only after their work is done, and not too often then. Otherwise they become like writers in New York. All angleworms in a bottle, trying to derive knowledge and nourishment from their own contact and from the bottle.

When the “Green Hills of Africa” was examined in the “The Springfield Weekly Republican” of Springfield, Massachusetts in December 1935 the reviewer thought that Hemingway’s remark about borrowing sentences was striking enough to share with newspaper readers: 3

Mr. Hemingway tells us that some writers are only born to help another writer to write one sentence.

In 1962 “Esquire” magazine printed a humorous piece titled “The Student Prince: Or How to Seize Power Though an Undergraduate” by Robert Benton and Gloria Steinem. One section was called “Six Quotes to Get You through Any Freshman Exam. Use Them Wisely”, and the following three statements were included. Hemingway’s comment had been rephrased with concision: 4

“Never elated while one man’s oppressed / Never dejected white another’s blessed”—Alexander Pope

“Some writers are born to give other writers one phrase.”—Ernest Hemingway

“Oh, ’tis love, ’tis love, that makes the world go round!”—Lewis Carroll

In 1964 the industrious quotation collector Bennett Cerf printed an instance of Hemingway’s remark in his widely syndicated column. But the expression was again altered: 5

“Some writers are born just to give other writers one phrase.”
—Ernest Hemingway

In conclusion, Hemingway did make an acerbic remark about one writer providing another writer with one sentence. The original phrasing was given in the 1935 citation. Other instances have evolved over the decades.

Image Notes: Ernest Hemingway posing with animal skulls in Africa circa 1933 or 1934. Photograph in the Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston, Massachusetts; accessed via Wikipedia. Low resolution image of a book cover; usage allowed under fair use doctrine. Images have been resized.

(Great thanks to the anonymous person whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1935 May, Scribner’s Magazine, Volume 97, Number 5, Green Hills of Africa by Ernest Hemingway, Start Page 257, Quote Page 262, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1935 May, Scribner’s Magazine, Volume 97, Number 5, Green Hills of Africa by Ernest Hemingway, Start Page 257, Quote Page 263, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York. (Verified on paper)
  3. 1935 December 12, Springfield Republican, Hemingway’s Africa, Quote Page 8, Column 1, Springfield, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank)
  4. 1962 September, Esquire, “The Student Prince: Or How to Seize Power Though an Undergraduate” by Robert Benton and Gloria Steinem, Quote Page 85, Esquire, Inc., Chicago, Illinois. (Verified with microfilm)
  5. 1964 October 17, The Circleville Herald, Try and Stop Me by Bennett Cerf, Quote Page 4, Column 4, Circleville, Ohio. (Newspapers_com)