How Hemingway gradually – and then suddenly – defined the Zeitgeist

Hemingway’s phrase has always had broad appeal. He anticipated some aspects of complex systems theory, popularized as a turning point. Remember when we once thought that MySpace, which used the network effect in the middle of the night, seemed unassailable? It lost ground to Facebook, gradually and then suddenly. (Perhaps Mark Zuckerberg should think twice before deprioritizing Facebook’s personal connections 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 is a stronger reason for the term’s current ubiquity, and that is the ambient dread that accompanies the sense of a civilization falling apart at the seams. Check out some recent quotes:

  • Financial Review, in an article about a possible US civil war: “American democratic decline is like Ernest Hemingway’s famous observation about bankruptcy…”
  • Bloomberg Opinion, describing the post-Roe landscape: “Democracy is a lot like Ernest Hemingway’s description of bankruptcy.”
  • Statesmanon the decline of global democracy: “What Ernest Hemingway said about financial bankruptcy is equally true of political bankruptcy.”

Mike Campbell’s encouraging remark also applies to the climate crisis, another arena where years of warning signs have finally metastasized into real danger. It’s almost hard to find a climate report no start with a hapless Mike describing his decline in 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 suddenly collapsing, the throwaway line in a 96-year-old book has become our emblem, tattooed on the tips of our tongues. At first gradually, now suddenly.

Time travel

In June 1983 I wrote about some early attempts at writing online fiction in my Telecomputing column, for which I wrote Popular computing. (Yes, I covered that beat during Reagan’s first term.) Naturally, I dug up Hemingway as an example, parodying the master in my introduction to a column that now reads like archaeology.

Ernesto signed up for the service. Waiting for the call, he sipped deep wine. The wine was from Valdepenjas, and it was good. The condition was now on the video display. Ernesto started writing. He knew the way men should write: log on to the IT service, stand at the keyboard, have a bottle of wine next to you, and run your modem at 1,200 bits per second. It went smoothly for a while, and then it didn’t go smoothly. Ernesto knew he shouldn’t come when he wasn’t going to come. He decided to see what the others were up to. He accessed Scotty’s new novel. He then approached the rough draft of the story that Dos had put online, letting them know that their writing was good, but not as good as Ernesto’s. Then this came up on the screen: “PAPA-540—DO YOU WANT TO SNAP?” Ernesto cursed quietly to himself. And he checked out.

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