The Dictionary Feud: Faulkner versus Hemingway

William Faulkner? Ernest Hemingway? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Two major writers of the twentieth century disagreed sharply about the type of vocabulary that was advantageous in literary works. Apparently, Faulkner said that Hemingway had “no courage” because he tightly circumscribed his word choice. Hemingway punched back by stating that he did not need “ten-dollar words”. He also said that Faulkner’s writing had deteriorated because of his dependence on alcohol. Would you please examine this altercation?

Quote Investigator: In April 1947 William Faulkner visited the University of Mississippi by invitation. He answered questions posed by students in a Creative Writing class, and his remarks were transcribed. After a multi-year delay the text was published in the Summer 1951 issue of the quarterly “The Western Review”. When asked to evaluate his own position in the literary pantheon he made a critical comment about Hemingway. Boldface has been added to excerpts:[ref] 1951 Summer, The Western Review: A Literary Quarterly Published at the State University of Iowa, Volume 15, Number 4, An Interview with William Faulkner, Edited by Lavon Rascoe, (Interview was conducted in April 1947), Start Page 300, Quote Page 304, Published by the State University of Iowa, Iowa City. (Verified on paper in 1967 reprint from Kraus Reprint Corporation, New York)[/ref][ref] 1999, Conversations with William Faulkner, Edited by M. Thomas Inge, (Collection of William Faulkner interviews from miscellaneous publications), Series: Literary Conversations Series, Chapter: An Interview with William Faulkner, Edited by Lavon Rascoe, (Reprinted from Summer 1951 issue of “The Western Review”), Start Page 66, Quote Page 71, University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, Mississippi. (Verified on paper)[/ref]

Q. If you don’t think it too personal, how do you rank yourself with contemporary writers?

A. 1. Thomas Wolfe: he had much courage and wrote as if he didn’t have long to live; 2. William Faulkner; 3. Dos Passos; 4. Ernest Hemingway: he has no courage, has never crawled out on a limb. He has never been known to use a word that might cause the reader to check with a dictionary to see if it is properly used; 5. John Steinbeck: at one time I had great hopes for him — now I don’t know.

. . .
Q. Mr. Faulkner, do you mind our repeating anything we have heard today outside of class?

A. No. It was true yesterday, is true today, and will be true tomorrow.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In May 1950 “The New Yorker” magazine published a lengthy profile article about Ernest Hemingway. QI believes that the pointed commentary from Faulkner had not yet reached Hemingway’s ears. Nevertheless, he was aware of similar criticisms, and he presented a forceful opinion about the selection of words:[ref] 1950 May 13, The New Yorker, Profiles: How Do You Like It Now, Gentlemen? by Lillian Ross, (Profile of Ernest Hemingway), Start Page 36, Quote Page 46 and 48, F. R. Publishing Corporation, New York. (Online New Yorker archive of digital scans)[/ref]

Hemingway told me that he had been cutting the manuscript. “The test of a book is how much good stuff you can throw away,” he said. “When I’m writing it, I’m just as proud as a goddam lion. I use the oldest words in the English language. People think I’m an ignorant bastard who doesn’t know the ten-dollar words. I know the ten-dollar words. There are older and better words which if you arrange then in the proper combination you make it stick. Remember, anybody who pulls his erudition or education on you hasn’t any.

When Faulkner’s statement about Hemingway was disseminated in the summer of 1951 it attracted notice. For example, in October 1951 the journal “College English” reported on the contents of “The Western Review” and reprinted the text of Faulkner’s auctorial ranking with the following prefatory remark:[ref] 1951 October, College English, Volume 13, Number 1, Report and Summary: The Western Review, Start Page 45, Quote Page 52, Published by National Council of Teachers of English. (JSTOR) link [/ref]

In the same magazine is the stenographic record of an interview William Faulkner gave to a class in creative writing at the University of Mississippi four years ago. The fact that Faulkner expressed these views at a time when most of his books were out of print and his reputation at an ebb makes them all the more interesting today.

In 1966 “Papa Hemingway: A Personal Memoir” by A. E. Hotchner was published. The author was a close friend of Hemingway’s and a fellow writer. In a chapter titled “Havana 1951-53” Hotchner noted that a version of Faulkner’s statement was relayed to Hemingway, and the response was astringent:[ref] 1966, Papa Hemingway: A Personal Memoir by A. E. Hotchner, Part One: Chapter 4: Havana 1951-53, Quote Page 69 and 70, Random House, New York. (Verified on paper)[/ref]

“Mr. William Faulkner got into the act by observing that you never crawl out on a limb. Said you had no courage, never been known to use a word that might send the reader to the dictionary.”

“Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use. Did you read his last book? It’s all sauce-writing now, but he was good once. Before the sauce, or when he knew how to handle it.

The words attributed to Faulkner were slightly altered and condensed when compared to his original remarks. Hemingway’s response included an echo of the comment he had previously given within the profile published in “The New Yorker”. The disagreement did not occur face-to-face; the combatants were separated by time and distance.

In 1966 the prominent writer Anthony Burgess presented the dispute in the pages of the London periodical “The Spectator”. His quotations were based on Hotchner’s book:[ref] 1966 July 8, The Spectator, He Wrote Good by Anthony Burgess, Quote Page 47, London, England. (Online Archive of The Spectator at[/ref]

Faulkner said of him that he had no courage, that he had ‘never been known to use a word that might send the reader to the dictionary.’ Hemingway’s reply was according to Hotchner: ‘Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.’

In 1969 the column by Burgess was reprinted in his collection “Urgent Copy: Literary Studies”,[ref] 1969 (1968 Copyright), Urgent Copy: Literary Studies by Anthony Burgess, Section 5.2: He Wrote Good, Start Page 121, Quote Page 124, W. W. Norton & Company, New York. (Verified on paper)[/ref] and in 1979 the humorist Leo Rosten excerpted Burgess in his collection “Infinite Riches: Gems from a Lifetime of Reading”.[ref] 1979, Infinite Riches: Gems from a Lifetime of Reading by Leo Rosten, Quote Page 126, Published by McGraw-Hill Book Company, New York. (Verified on paper)[/ref]

It has been common for quotation references and other books to present Hotchner’s version of Faulkner’s statement because the instance in “Papa Hemingway” was widely-distributed, and the citation for “The Western Review” was not well known. For example, “The Times Book of Quotations” from 2000 contained the following entry:[ref] 2000, The Times Book of Quotations, Section: William Faulkner, Quote Page 764, HarperCollins, Glasgow, United Kingdom. (Verified on paper)[/ref]

Faulkner, William (1897-1962) US writer

Of Ernest Hemingway
He has never been known to use a word that might send the reader to the dictionary.

In conclusion, William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway did strongly disagree about vocabulary choice. The 1951 citation in “The Western Review” is directly from Faulkner, and the 1950 citation in “The New Yorker” is directly from Hemingway. The quotations in the 1966 book “Papa Hemingway” are compelling, but the words are channeled through Hotchner and, hence, less direct.

(Great thanks to The Language List whose tweet on this topic led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

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