How Hemingway Gradually—Then Suddenly—Defined the Zeitgeist

Hemingway’s phrase always had a broad appeal. It anticipated some aspects of complex systems theory, popularized as the Tipping Point. Remember when we once thought that MySpace, beneficiary of a network effect in the mid-aughts, seemed unassailable? It lost ground to Facebook, gradually and then suddenly. (Maybe Mark Zuckerberg should think twice before he deprioritizes personal ties on Facebook in his pursuit of TikTok, creating an opportunity for a competitor to address the company’s original focus on friends and family.)

But I believe there’s a stronger reason for the term’s current omnipresence, and that’s the ambient dread that accompanies the feeling of civilization coming apart at the seams. Look at some recent citations:

  • Financial Review, in an article about a possible civil war in the US: “America’s democratic backsliding is like Ernest Hemingway’s famous observation on going bankrupt …”
  • Bloomberg Opinion, describing the post-Roe landscape: “Democracy is much like Ernest Hemingway’s description of bankruptcy.”
  • The Statesman, on the decay of global democracy: “What Ernest Hemingway said about financial bankruptcy is equally true of political bankruptcy.”

Mike Campbell’s blithe remark also applies to the climate crisis, another arena where years of warning signs have finally metastasized into actual danger. It’s almost hard to find a report on the climate that doesn’t begin with hapless Mike describing his fall from solvency.

Yes, Hemingway’s quote has always been available to pundits and social critics. But as our glaciers and our democracy, after years of gradual decline, seem to be crumbling all at once, a throwaway line in a 96-year-old book has become our emblem, tattooed at the tips of our tongues. At first gradually, and now suddenly.

Time Travel

In June 1983, I wrote about some early attempts at online fiction writing in my column, Telecomputing, that I wrote for Popular Computing. (Yep, I was covering that beat during Reagan’s first term.) Of course, I dug up Hemingway as an example, parodying the master in my introduction to a column that now reads as archaeology.

Ernesto logged on to the service. Waiting for the prompt, he took a deep draught of the wine. The wine was from the Valdepeñas, and it was good. The prompt was now on the video display. Ernesto began to write. He knew the way men should write: You log on to the information service, you stand at the keyboard, you have a bottle of wine by your side, and you run your modem at 1200 bits per second. It went smoothly for a while, then it did not go smoothly. Ernesto knew not to make it come when it will not come. He decided to see what the others were up to. He accessed Scotty’s new novel. Then he accessed a rough draft of a story that Dos had put online, letting them know that their writing was good, but not as good as Ernesto’s. Then this came on the screen: “PAPA-540—DO YOU WANT TO CHAT?” Ernesto cursed softly to himself. And he logged off.

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