Hemingway, Berryman

John Berryman, 1914-1972

I recently read a piece by John Berryman on Ernest Hemingway’s short story ‘A Clean Well-Lighted Place’ which appears in the poet’s collected criticism, The Freedom of the Poet. It led me to re-read the story. It’s beautiful. I’d admit it moved me to tears, but then we mustn’t show emotion in this line of work. Berryman reads the story of the neat old drunk drinking on his own in a café, as two waiters look on waiting to shut up for the night, ruminating on the concept of ‘nada’, ‘nothing’, ‘nothingness’ and how dignity is our only resource in facing such terms, as ‘something very beautiful’, with masterful deftness of perception, matching the story’s beauty with his own.

“Last week he tried to commit suicide,” one waiter said.


“He was in despair.”

“What about?”


Berryman points out the subtle way in which Hemingway creates such intensity of feeling through a story where not much, if anything, occurs. On re-reading the story, I agree. As I’ve said elsewhere, I find much of Hemingway unreadable now. Berryman has shown me that it need not be so. The story of the old man full of dignity coping with despair, written by an old man full of dignity coping with despair, analysed by an old man full of dignity coping with despair, was enough to move this old man full of DDT coping with his hair. I shouldn’t joke of course. I trust you’ll forgive me. Reading both Berryman and Hemingway brings it front and centre: this is life and death, how what I write must strive for the same effect.

“I am of those who like to stay late at the café,” the older waiter said.

“With all those who do not want to go to bed. With all those who need a light for the night.”

Is it crass to say I know who those people are? That I am one? That you may be? The final line is a Hemingway classic. My classmate Emilio Bonome Ares mentioned Hemingway’s “Iceberg Theory” in his Textualities 2016 conference paper. I myself have criticized it in a previous post. My point of contention with both Iceberg Theory, and Hemingway, is that the more interesting story often takes place after the full stop of the final line; that the stories themselves often do not support the gnomic construction of their resolutions. Such may be the case elsewhere, but not here. To quote briefly Berryman’s other great treatment of Hemingway, “Dream Song 235”,

‘God to him no worse luck send.’

‘Many must have it.’

Many must have it.

Work Cited:

Berryman, John. The Dream Songs. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969. Print.

Berryman, John. The Freedom of the Poet. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1976. Print.