Whiteness and the Rejected Other in The Sun Also Rises, by Daniel S. Traber, Studies in American Fiction 28 (Autumn 2000): 235-253

Reviewed by Sandy Alexandre


Daniel S. Traber's article attempts to historicize, explain, and understand the homophobic and racist aspects of Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises. He begins by reminding us of the difficulty critics have had in making sense of the ambiguous manner in which Hemingway handles otherness in the collection of short stories he published before The Sun, In Our Time. Then Traber proceeds to inform us of how Hemingway's close friendship with Harold Loeb, a Jew, has been used as evidence in his defense against the charges of anti-Semitism that have been leveled against him/Jake. In revealing this autobiographical detail, Traber reminds us that Hemingway's work is not necessarily a reflection of his life and vice versa. Ultimately Traber argues that although there are certainly expressions of prejudice against gays and Jews in the text, there is also a rejection of whiteness coupled with a sense of Jake's own inadequacies that complicate matters. Jake's anti-Semitism, for example, is actually his resentment of the elitist Anglo-Saxonism with which Robert Cohn tries so hard to associate himself. Jake despises the Jew in Cohn who accepts "legitimized hierarchical notions of racial superiority" while Cohn "discard[s] the subversive potential of his own otherness" (243). In other words, Jake wonders why Robert is trying to be something that he is not, something not even worth being. Why is Robert trying to be like the two people, Brett and Mike, whom he eventually rejects in the novel? So Jake's alleged homophobia as expressed at the bal musette, then, is not so much about the gay men as it is about his anxieties about his own status as a sexual other and about these gay men's elitist attitudes towards others -- recall the ridiculing manner in which they interact with Georgette, the prostitute. Jake's anti-whiteness manifests itself in the scene where Bill rallies a group of bootblacks to shine Mike's shoes. The bootblacks are merely employed as figures to provide entertainment, to facilitate Bill's frat-boy-like prank. In the story, Jake reveals that he "felt a little uncomfortable about all this shoe-shining" (173). Jake separates himself from such behavior.
Jews (in an attempt to approximate an acceptable and elite whiteness) assimilate; gays (in their attempt to forget their own otherness) displace it onto someone else; elitist whites (in their privileged positions) abuse the subaltern for their own pleasures. Irrespective of where this impulse to ridicule, this impulse to demonstrate "bad form" resides, Jake wants to separate himself from it; it is this personality type (not a racial, ethnic, or religious type) that Traber calls the "colonialist type of whiteness" in his article against which Jake is prejudiced. Thus, if I were to reduce Traber's argument to a mere maxim, it might read something like this: Although it might seem that Jake/Hemingway hates the messenger, he (in fact) just hates the message.
Although quite intriguing, I must confess that I thought Traber's argument a bit difficult to follow. I say this not because I find any fault in his logic or his writing style, but I say this mainly because Hemingway's ambiguity on the issue of race still seems so much stronger than Traber's claim of elucidation. I am not sure if I buy the argument yet. I think that I need more time to digest all of it. In any case, I thought Traber provided some very interesting theories on this elusive text. For example, although he mentions the scene with the black drummer but doesn't mention the section wherein he "speaks" his elliptical language, Traber does offer (albeit indirectly) a way to read those ellipses. At one point in the text, Jake, the author/narrator, confesses: "Somehow I feel I have not shown Robert Cohn clearly" (45). According to Traber, here Jake realizes that his authorial bias can enter and distort the true "(re)presentation of characters and events" (250). We can infer, then, that Jake transcribes the drummer's words as ellipses because Jake is inadequate to the task of representing the true character of a black man who he knows is wearing a mask for the white people he is meant to entertain. Jake's telling us, beforehand, that the drummer was "all teeth and lips" might be Jake's way of appropriating conventional stereotypes of his day, but it might also be Jake's way of saying that the drummer had his Dunbarian mask on -- that mask that "grins and lies". How is Jake meant to penetrate this black man's true character if Jake knows that the drummer is wearing the mask? Maybe that is one positive way to read that section. Again, I'm still not sure if I believe my theory myself.

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