Great Novels of the 1920s: The Sun Also Rises

By Mrs. Parker

Copyright 2004 by Michele Gouveia. All rights reserved.

In December 1921, a newly married American couple arrived in Paris. They had a small income that his wife had inherited from her family and an even smaller income from the husband’s job as a correspondent for the Toronto Star. But they were young and full of hope, starting a new life together in the city of lights. Paris was the place to be if you were young and poor and artistically inclined. And so they moved into a two-room flat in the working-class neighborhood of Mont Sainte-Genevieve where the husband set out to make a name for himself as a great American writer. His name was Ernest Hemingway and his first serious novel to come out of his Paris stay—The Sun Also Rises—would catapult him to literary stardom and become one of the most important books of the decade, giving us the deciding portrait of the Lost Generation and one of the best flapper characters in literature.

Ernest Hemingway in his first passport photo from the 1920s. He had yet to become a famous writer.

Hemingway knew he was going to be a writer and a famous one, informing everyone he met of this fact. Armed with letters of introduction from Sherwood Anderson, the Hemingways soon got to know the other members of the expatriate community in Paris. Before long, Hemingway or “Hem” as he was called by his friends, was getting advice from Gertrude Stein, borrowing books from Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare and Company, and helping Ford Madox Ford edit the transatlantic review.

Hemingway, unlike a lot of his other peers, was serious about his writing and disciplined himself, renting a small studio in which he wrote every morning. Sometimes, driven by cold or hunger, he’d venture out to one of the cafés like the Closerie des Lilas to work. During this time he finished a collection of short stories, In Our Time (1925), and a novel, The Torrents of Spring (1925), which parodied Sherwood Anderson’s style. But it was his next work that would help him cross over to full-blown novelist.

In the summer of 1925, Hemingway set out for Spain with his wife, Hadley, his best friends, Bill Smith and Don Stewart, and Harold Loeb, Pat Guthrie, and Lady Duff Twysden. Hemingway had visited the city two years before with Robert McAlmon and had become enamored with bullfighting. Hemingway, who was once known for shadow boxing while walking through the streets of Paris, was now seen making imaginary bullfighting plunges and cape swings. The trip was a relief from the heat of Paris and from the care of the Hemingway’s baby son Bumby. It was also Hemingway’s chance to show off his expertise and knowledge of the fight to his new group of friends, especially to Twysden. Hemingway had become enthralled with her the previous winter and his feelings had become noticeable to most, including his wife. But Hadley kept quiet, assuming the infatuation would fade.

Lady Duff Twysden, born Mary Smurthwaite, had become a lady by marriage. Known around town as a hard drinker and a woman largely dependent on men for money, Twysden was popular with the mainly male crowd. She embraced the new liberated woman role of the 1920s and pictures show a tall, thin boyish woman with hair cropped close to her skull, wearing rakishly tilted hats. Hemingway, who was always attracted to boyish women (Martha Gelhorn being a striking exception), fell immediately for Twysden, who was fond of referring to herself as “chap.”

Whatever plans Hemingway had in mind regarding Twysden in Spain soon soured when Loeb confessed to having spent a romantic weekend with her, and the angry Hemingway took it upon himself to out best Loeb for the rest of the trip. Drunken days and nights were filled with rows by Hemingway, Loeb getting caught up on the horns of a bull (a photo of which made the New York Times), Hadley being given the ear of a slain bull by the bullfighter Nino de la Parma (whom Hemingway worshipped), and Twysden and McGrath unable to pay for their final hotel bill. All of which made for perfect material for a first novel.

The Sun Also Rises is about a group of expatriates in Paris who journey to Pamplona for the bullfights. The main character, Jake Barnes, is an American journalist whose war injuries have left him impotent. He is deeply in love with the British Lady Brett Ashley who loves him in return. Yet they cannot consummate their relationship, and Jake is left to watch helplessly while Brett goes from man to man, with devastating consequences.

When Hemingway first sat down to write what was to become The Sun Also Rises, he began with a description of the bullfighter Nino de la Parma. Hemingway admired his skill and agility with the bulls and recognized his bravery and courage in the ring. Yet de la Parma, who was the role model for the crucial character of Romero, was replaced in the second draft by Lady Brett Ashley. He wrote 15 pages to introduce her: “This is a novel about a lady. Her name is Lady Ashley and when the story begins she is living in Paris…”[1]

Brett dominates the novel, even when she is not present. This is largely because Jake’s inability to fully love Brett leaves her to act as the lead in many scenes. Jake drinks a lot but Brett drinks the most. It is Brett who goes from relationship to relationship. And it is Brett who bridges a connection between the major characters in the novel—Jake, Cohn, and Romero.

Brett embodies the new woman to the point that she is often described in masculine terminology. When first introduced, Brett enters the bal musette surrounded by a group of homosexual men. She has her hair “brushed back like a boy’s,”[2] and although she is dressed in a tweed skirt and sweater, Jake notes that she is “very much with them.”[3] The qualities of Brett that are the most admirable—her easy camaraderie with men, her willingness to take risks, her devil may care attitude (all of which were shared with Twysden), symbolize the new woman of the decade, the flapper.

In the closing scene, Brett and Jake are together in a cab driving through Madrid. “We could have had such a damn good time together,”[4] Brett sighs to Jake. All of their mutual frustration is expressed in an understatement of Jake’s: “Yes, isn’t it pretty to think so,”[5] summing up the cynicism of the decade.

Regardless of Hemingway’s original intent, Robert Cohn, not Brett, opens the story in the final version. After allowing F. Scott Fitzgerald to read a rough draft, Hemingway, on Fitzgerald’s advice, cut the opening 20 pages of the novel. Although cocky, secretly Hemingway was still insecure about his writing and respected the already published Fitzgerald. The novel now opened with a secondary character and Brett’s introduction was pushed back to the evening at the bal musette, but her presence and her role in the novel are still as strong.

When the novel came out, the expatriate crowd scrambled to try and identify the characters in the novel. Many associated Jake with Hemingway but many of Jake’s qualities were not Hemingway’s. Jake, who doesn’t really seem to care one way or the other what people think (which was the exact opposite of the emotional Hemingway), bore a much closer resemblance to Robert McAlmon. Jake is also given the job of head of the Continental Press Association in one of the original drafts, which was Bill Bird’s job in real life. Much easier to identify is Twysden as Brett, Loeb as Cohn, Pat Guthrie (Twysden's fiancé) as Mike, and Ogden Stewart as Bill Gorton. Many in Paris were angered by some of the portraits and general assessment of their group. Hemingway wrote to Fitzgerald that “it was rumored that Loeb was out to shoot him so he had put out the word that he could be found unarmed, sitting at Lipp’s brasserie.”[6]

Regardless of what his peers thought, the book won rave reviews. The New York Times Book Review stated that it’s “hard athletic narrative prose puts more literary English to shame”[7] and sold well for a virtually unknown author. Hemingway had arrived.

At the beginning of the novel, Hemingway quotes Gertrude Stein as saying “You are all a lost generation.” Hemingway and his peers were soon dubbed “The Lost Generation,” giving a name to a style and an era that was uniquely modern. And The Sun Also Rises, while epitomizing all that was glamorous and rotten about the 1920s, became an instant classic of the Lost Generation and American literature.

To get the dope on Hemingway and The Sun Also Rises, click here.

[1] Carpenter, Humphrey. Geniuses Together: American Writers in Paris in the 1920’s. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1988, 182.

[2] Hemingway, Ernest. The Sun Also Rises. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1954, 22.

[3] Ibid, 20.

[4] Ibid, 247.

[5] Ibid, 247.

[6] Mellow, James R. Hemingway: A Life Without Consequences. New York: Addison Wesley, 1992, 335.

[7] Ibid, 334.