Hemingway's iceberg theory.

Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory and How it Changed Sentences Forever

Somewhere in the middle of Parisian 1923, Ernest Hemingway found himself in some cafe on the Left Bank writing a story called “Out of Season” and going about his day as normal. Just like he did everyday.

Little did he know at the time, but it’d be the story that changed everything. If not for him, everyone else. Later on in life, in the essay “The Art of the Short Story”, Hem summed up the theory in a way only he could, truly.

“A few things I have found to be true. If you leave out important things or events that you know about, the story is strengthened. If you leave or skip something because you do not know it, the story will be useless.”

“Out of Season” was the story that later become associated with Hemingway’s iceberg theory. The idea of less being more in the literary world was a stark contrast to the mainstream at the time, and British romantics of old.

But the idea stuck, and took a stranglehold over the next fifty-odd years of hyper masculine prose and boozy writers. And where would we be without boozy, enigmatic writers? Completely lost. That’s where.

Nick Adams (not really) fishing in an unknown river.
Nick Adams (not really) fishing in a river.

Evolving the theory through Nick Adams and his river

Hemingway’s iceberg theory wasn’t just an experimental technique that he dabbled in throughout  his career. No, it was a way of life. And, like the writer himself, it grew and evolved throughout his life and words.

Through his often used character Nick Adams and the short story “Big Two-Hearted River”, Hemingway offered the word a complimentary masterclass on the iceberg theory. Later on in “The Art of the Short Story”, Hem offered:

“[Big Two-Hearted River] is about a boy coming home from the war. So the war, all mention of the war, anything about the war, is omitted.”

It takes a certain something to make a writer write a war story devoid of war. Something special. “Big Two-Hearted River” and its master fits the bill more than any else.

Rollings hills somewhere in the world.
Rollings hills somewhere in the world.

“Hills Like White Elephants” and its missing word

For me, “Hills Like White Elephants” is the greatest short story ever written. But it’s also the best example of Hemingway’s iceberg theory at work.

On a surface level, the story couldn’t get anymore boring. Just a mundane conversation passing the time as a young couple waits for their train headed to Madrid.

Despite Hemingway’s refusal to ever use the word directly, it’s obvious what the story’s about. We follow the couple through a conversation that has no end (or at least not one we’re privy too), and are left without answers.

And that’s what makes it so special. t’s boring and as natural as the rolling the hills. But most of all its true.

“The test of any story is how very good the stuff that you, not your editors, omit.”

Ernest Hemingway, the man who can never die.
The man who will never die. A legend through and through.

Everlasting legacy and insurgence of literary minimalism

His masterpiece, The Old Man and the Sea, is without a doubt one of the greatest pieces of literature ever penned, and the perfect example of the iceberg theory.

But the magnum opus wasn’t the most important thing Hemingway left behind, nor was his Nobel or Pulitzer.

“I tried to make a real old man, a real boy, a real sea, a real fish, and real sharks, But if I made them good and true enough they would mean many things. The hardest thing is to make something really true and sometime truer than true.”

Through his persisting legacy and the young writers who’re carrying on the tradition today, Papa (what a fitting nickname for literary minimalism’s grandfather) will never die. He’s become immortal in a way few ever have.

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This will be a long, winding journey, but a necessary one nonetheless. And I can’t wait to share it with you.

Thank you,

Nicholas Coursel