Home News How Hemingway Gradually—Then Suddenly—Defined the Zeitgeist

How Hemingway Gradually—Then Suddenly—Defined the Zeitgeist


This quote from Hemingway has always had broad appeal. It predicts certain aspects of complex systems theory, known as tipping points. Remember when we thought MySpace was a medium-term beneficiary of network effects, seemingly invulnerable? It gradually and then suddenly lost to Facebook. (Mark Zuckerberg should probably think twice before prioritizing personal connections on Facebook in his pursuit of TikTok, creating opportunities for competitors to address the company’s initial focus on friends and family.)

But I believe there is a stronger reason for the word’s ubiquity now, and that is the environmental fear that accompanies the feeling that civilization is falling apart at the seams. Check out some recent quotes:

  • financial review, In an article about a possible civil war in the United States: “America’s democratic regression is like Ernest Hemingway’s famous observation about bankruptcy…”
  • Bloomberg Opinion, describing the postroe Landscape: “Democracy is much like Ernest Hemingway’s description of bankruptcy.”
  • politicianon the decline of global democracy: “What Ernest Hemingway said about financial bankruptcy applies equally to political bankruptcy.”

Mike Campbell’s cheery remarks also apply to the climate crisis, another area where years of warning signs are finally turning into actual danger.It’s almost hard to find a report on climate No Start with the hapless Mike describing his declining solvency.

Yes, pundits and social critics have always had access to Hemingway’s famous quote. But as our glaciers and our democracy, after years of gradual decline, seem to crumble at once, one-off lines from a 96-year-old book have become our hallmarks, tattooed on the tip of our tongues. It was gradual at first, now suddenly.

time travel

In June 1983, I wrote about some early attempts at online novel writing in my column Telecomputing, which I wrote for popular computing(Yes, I covered that beat during Reagan’s first term.) Of course, I used Hemingway as an example, imitating the master in the introduction to a column I now read as archaeology.

Ernesto logs into the service. Waiting for the prompt, he took a swig of wine. The wine was from Valdepeñas and was very good. The prompt now appears on the video display. Ernesto starts writing. He knows the way a man should write: You log into an information service, you stand at a keyboard, you have a bottle of wine by your side, your modem is running at 1200 bits per second. It went well for a while, then it didn’t go well. Ernesto knows not to let it come when it doesn’t. He decided to see what the others were doing. He visits Scotty’s new novel. He then visited a draft of a story Dos had posted online and let them know that their work was good, but not as good as Ernesto’s. Then came on the screen: “PAPA-540 – do you want to chat?” Ernesto cursed softly to himself. He quit.

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