by Sam Bluefarb (November 2014)
He was not a bad man; he was a silly man.—Anon.
On Andy Rooney’s death, I went back to a letter I wrote to him, prompted by his honest admission that he was a Democrat and, presumably, a liberal. In the process of researching his background—small town origins (Albany, New York), prep school, Colgate University, etc.—I hit upon a rather revealing You Tube* which fleshed out a view of Ernest Hemingway within a myopic vision. Not that Hem’s reputation was all that universally acclaimed—witness the largely dim view of him by feminists because of his “Doll’s House” heroines. But from the publication of The Sun Also Rises (1926), until the posthumously published The Garden of Eden (1986) and beyond, conventional wisdom was that Hemingway was a writer whose (literary) reputation was solid, pacé such bloopers as Across the River and Into the Trees (1950) and To Have and to Have Not (1937).
Needless to say, I never received a reply to my letter. That did not trouble me—it’s SOP for many of the famous, especially movie stars with millions of fans. But it wasn’t that trivial matter that made me more aware of Rooney in the context of his views of Hemingway as his feel-good liberalism–the self-complacency that not only makes one feel good, but, in his own mind, makes him good. Before dealing with my main point—Rooney vs. Hemingway—it’s only fair that I cite some passages from that letter, and what prompted it, because it is germane to what this is all about. The letter was sent November 15, 2010.
Your comment last Sunday indicated that you are still a loyal Democrat. That wouldn’t be so egregious if you were talking about Bill Clinton, or going back to Harry Truman—if not for him, after VE Day, both of us would have been shipped to the Pacific Theater for the “grand” invasion of the Japanese homeland. [Rooney and I were both World War II veterans and served in the European Theater.]
But the years have passed and in your topic—“surveys”—you complained that you had not been asked about Obama, neither had your pals at CBS been asked; all of you thought that Obama was “doing his best!” No such leeway was given George W. Bush when he was in office. The mainstream media couldn’t stop demonizing the man—GEORGE BUSH: INCOMPETENT—Newsweek. Now that Obama is in a mess, the MSM can’t find excuses enough to mitigate his serious deficiencies— foremost among them, his abysmal leadership.
The problem is that people like you and your friends at CBS live in a bubble, not close to the unwashed who still “cling to their guns and religion.”
When Nixon won the 1968 Presidential election, the late Pauline Kael, an otherwise excellent film critic, found herself side-blinded by his win. As she put it at the time, “No one I knew voted for him.” Precisely. No-one she knew. Simply because: she moved in those chummy circles that would rather be caught in Delicto Sexualis than found “guilty” of voting for an evil Republican. As Ernest Hemingway, put it in his short play, “Today is Friday,” A young Roman soldier at the crucifixion has a case of the shakes due to the agony on the cross, whereupon a tougher, older soldier, turns to the younger, and tells him, “You been out here too long.” Andy, “You been out in bubble-land [W. 57thStreet] too long.”
But it was not Rooney’s [Democratic] liberalism and folksy humor that made me see him as more than a good-at-heart curmudgeon– in the popular vernacular, “the guy you’d like to share a beer with,” but under the faux cracker-barrel persona, something else—something lined with spite and a touch of envy. But in his cavalier dismissal of Hemingway as a “Jerk,” based not so much on Hemingway’s work as on his person, Rooney revealed himself not only as a poor literary judge, but as a shallow person who was unable to distinguish a man’s work from the man himself. Yes, both he and Hemingway were newsmen, print newsmen—Rooney, later to move to TV—but there the similarity ends. This may be a cheap shot—to compare a man of lukewarm talents with a much greater literary figure and tempered newsman—but that comparison must be seen in the context of Rooney’s assault on Hem., both as a writer and as a man.
It was that few minutes of video that confirmed the substance of my letter—that Andy Rooney was a small and shallow man. When asked by an anonymous interviewer what he thought of Hemingway, his response was: “I found out what a jerk he was,” a comment based on an incident that occurred in a small hotel that Hemingway and other newsmen shared in Rambouillet, about 30 miles southwest of Paris, in 1944. It consisted of a boozy, swaggering Hemingway who’d invited another newsman out to a fist-fight when the latter had complained that Hemingway had unceremoniously taken over eight rooms for himself and a band of Maquis—Free French resistance fighters–leaving few rooms left for the other journalists. Vintage Hemingway. Silly and infantile, and perhaps worthy of the label “Jerk.” But Rooney conflated that to include the literary person. Some choice examples, below.
As I previously indicated, both Rooney and I served in World War II, but I came out of the war with my leftist—later, liberal—views crumbling, while Andy, it seems, came out of it with his intact—the No-Growth Syndrome.
In that video, Andy Rooney’s off-the-cuff comments on Hemingway shone a bright light on Rooney’s stunted views of Hemingway.
Rooney was assigned as a reporter to the army newspaper, Stars and Stripes. That gave him the chance to rub shoulders with Hemingway and fellow newsmen. And it was in that setting that Rooney sourly recalled, “I found out what a jerk he was…I met him… I read the Sun also Rises when I was growing up. I confused [Hemingway’s] artificial style with literary style. His style was so mannered, so childish…” And with a sneer, “called himself Papa! Whatta jerk! (And dismissively): I no longer care for his work.”
Rooney’s problem, perhaps his tragedy, was that he could have been a great newsman. But he found shelter within the liberal bubble of CBS News. (See Bernard Goldberg’s Bias (2002), based on Goldberg’s experience as a reporter for CBS. It’s an eye-opener, and bears out why men like Rooney became what they became, at CBS.)
Yes, Hemingway was a swaggering, bullying oaf, a functional alcoholic, smitten by depression for most of his relatively short life—all part of a very flawed man—but Rooney’s flaw was that he was unable to separate the dross from the gold. For at heart, it was envy of a man who was not just an intrepid newsman, but a writer who transcended the topical world of the news room, to distinguish himself as a supreme artist. And that was what folksy curmudgeon Andy Rooney could not see.
Sam Bluefarb is Prof. Emeritus, Los Angeles Harbor College.
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