What Makes Hemingway Hemingway?

A statistical analysis of the data behind Hemingway’s style
by Justin Rice, published on 12/13/2016 | ! (PDF)

Introduction

In 1954, Ernest Hemingway won the Nobel Prize in Literature. According to nobelprize.org, “The prize was awarded for his mastery of the art of narrative… and for the influence that he has exerted on contemporary style.”

If you’re reading this, chances are you’re pretty familiar with Hemingway. You probably have a sense of his style. You may have read authors who themselves read Hemingway, and seen in them the strength of his influence. When you look at the quote above, you may think: “Passive voice. Not very Hemingwayesque.”

Whatever you know of Hemingway’s writing, though, is limited by the fact that you’re only human: you can only read so fast; you can only keep track of so many words at a time. Your experience with Hemingway is qualitative, as is your experience with anything you read in a traditional, linear way.

What if, however, you supplement your reading with some computational heft? Instead of treating words as a linear progression, what if you think of them as atoms you can re-arrange and re-examine under different lenses looking for interesting patterns? Can you start to quantify Hemingway’s style and influence?

Our goal here is to do just that. We’ll take Hemingway’s prose and treat it as data. We’ll tally his words, calculate his choices, and try to come up with a statistical understanding of what makes Hemingway Hemingway.

Hemingway’s Style

I. Sentence Length

“Hemingway evolved his style in the herd school of journalistic reporting. In the editorial office of the Kansas City newspaper where he served his apprenticeship, there was a kind of pressman’s catechism, the first dictum of which was: ‘Use short sentences.'” — Anders Österling, Nobel Prize award speech, 1954

Is it true that Hemingway’s sentences are especially short? Let’s see what happens when we compare Hemingway’s writing to typical writing, and to some of his contemporaries’ most widely read novels (John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way, and Gertrude Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas):

Hemingway's average words per sentence overall

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Author: Justin Rice

Justin Rice graduated from Harvard with a degree in comparative literature. He is a software developer specializing in Python programming and is a writer for LitCharts.