Hedges and Hemingway

Chris Hedges: Pulitzer winner. Lefty hero. Plagiarist,” proclaims a headline. It’s always the pulpit-pounders who get caught in the act—some act or other.

But the Hemingway example—Hedges’s first transgression, apparently, his initiation into a life of text-crime—puzzles me. I think I read most of War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning years ago (when I was preparing this syllabus) and thought it was a bit solemn and overwrought.[1]

Had I encountered the Hemingway-derived sentences in War, though, I might have taken it as an allusion, not a theft. The passage Hedges lifted isn’t just any passage: it is probably the most commented-upon and famous passage in the novel, the argument that metafictionally explains and justifies the entire concrete-and-simple Hemingway style by contrasting it with the windy abstractions of warmongering politicians. I’m sure many, many readers recognized the source of Hedges’s observation.

Hedges’s redeployment of Hemingway’s famous words would have been a folding of Hemingway’s whole moral universe between the lines of Hedges’s own text—the logic of the hyperlink is deep in this use of allusion.[2] Think of Harold Bloom, for instance, cataloguing the “crowd-of-people-compared-to-drifiting-leaves” trope from the Bible to Homer to Virgil to Dante to Milton to Shelley.

I practice this potentially risky art of allusion myself in creative work and never intend it as plagiarism: I don’t want the reader to think someone else’s words are my own, but to recognize that they are not and to be able to construct for themselves the meaning of the reference. (And, Bloom would no doubt say, to position myself as the inheritor and fulfillment of tradition.)[3]

If the Hemingway transgression were Hedges’s only one, I would defend him. But he handled it very poorly, and his later acts do seem to violate the ethics of journalism and scholarship, which are—and for good reason—very different from those of imaginative writing, even if the boundaries can be flimsy from time to time.

P.S. I wrote my eleventh-grade research paper on A Farewell to Arms, so I associate it with my introduction to worry over citational scrupulousness!

[1] Anis Shivani is good on the limitations of Hedges’s miserablism here, especially when it comes to the arts—though I think Shivani goes too far in the other direction to become excessively “poptimistic,” and not only about art. But Shivani’s robust defense of modernism against Hedges’s dull Popular Frontism is refreshing. Let me recommend in lieu of Hedges’s work Thomas de Zengotita’s Mediated, which I just finished, a superbly nuanced example of social and media criticism that never settles for easy answers or cheap moralizing. It is ever-so-slightly dated—published in 2005, it predates the financial crisis, Obama, YouTube, and Twitter, and is overly invested in a 9/11-changed-everything paradigm—but this only gives it more critical distance on the present, which invites the reader’s own corrective thoughts.

[2] For the plagiarism cops, let me say that I am perfectly sure someone thought of that before I did, but no examples occur to me right now to cite, except for a paper on The Waste Land my wife wrote in college which now exists nowhere but in a box in our closet. 

[3] Do I sound defensive? When an accusation is made, everyone always becomes defensive. The guilty should be charged, of course, but who among us is ever wholly innocent?