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Race in Ernest Hemingway’s “The Killers”

[1]2,696 words

The relation of white to nonwhite is a pervasive and often obsessive theme of our national literature, running from our earliest writers through Cooper, Melville, Twain, and Faulkner down to the racial mea culpas of contemporary American literature.–“The Sense and Nonsense of Jung,” Instauration [2] (Sept. 1976), 15.

American novelist Ernest Hemingway (1899–1961), noted for his spare, innovative prose style, won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction in 1952 for his novelette The Old Man and the Sea, and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954.

Hemingway was born into a prosperous Congregationalist family in Oak Park, Illinois. Of English descent on both sides, he is an example of Wilmot Robertson’s “Majority member” [3]–what other authors have called an “old stock American.”

An avid outdoorsman, hunter, sailor, fisherman, and bullfight enthusiast, Hemingway became a Communist fellow traveler in the 1930s. His money-making novel For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940) was informed by his involvement with the Communists in the Spanish Civil War [4].

Hemingway was married four times. He had three sons by his first two (white) wives. His fourth wife was also white. But his third wife, writer Martha Gellhorn, was a rabid fellow traveler, Zionist, feminist, and (anti-white) racist, both of whose parents were half-Jews. Hemingway had no children by Gellhorn or by his last wife, Mary Welsh Hemingway.

Hemingway’s youngest son, Gregory Hancock Hemingway [5], became a transvestite who suffered from bipolar disorder, alcoholism, and drug abuse. Gregory fathered eight children before finally undergoing sex surgery to become a woman, thereafter calling himself “Gloria Hemingway.” The author of Papa: A Personal Memoir (1976), he died in 2001 at Miami-Dade Women’s Detention Center on the day he was due to appear in court on a charge of indecent exposure. Gregory’s son John Hemingway subsequently wrote a book entitled Strange Tribe: A Family Memoir (2007).

Ernest Hemingway’s grandchildren include sisters Margaux and Mariel Hemingway, both notable models and actresses. Margaux, like Ernest and three other Hemingways across four generations, eventually committed suicide. Great-granddaughter Dree Hemingway [6] is a model.

Ernest Hemingway killed himself with a shotgun blast to the head [7] in Ketchum, Idaho in 1961.

Politically Incorrect

Despite his “good” Stalinism and dalliances with Jewesses, when it comes to the fictional portrayal of race, Hemingway–a writer peculiarly “devoted to the visible, concrete world,” as George Packer put it in a New Yorker essay–depicted what he saw, thereby necessitating ongoing excuse-making and racial/ideological re-evaluation by academics and opinion molders.

For example, The Sun Also Rises (1926), the novel that established Hemingway’s reputation and is often considered his best, has long disturbed Jews for its unflattering portrayal of Robert Cohn, based on the real-life Harold Loeb (Peggy Guggenheim’s cousin), whom Hemingway referred to as “that kike Loeb.” To quote William Grimstad, Cohn is depicted “not exactly as a villain but as an absurd and unattractive figure working to infiltrate social circles that do not want him.”

Also, Hemingway’s personal correspondence was peppered with politically incorrect racial and ethnic observations. (See Carlos Baker, ed., Ernest Hemingway: Selected Letters, 1917–1961 [1981].)

Carlos Baker exonerates Hemingway, claiming that he ”was born into a time when such [racial] epithets were regrettably commonplace on most levels of American society.” Similarly, Hemingway’s anti-Semitism ”was no more than skin deep; it was mainly a verbal habit rather than a persistent theme like that of Pound.” Well, of course it was. The only other option is down the reputational memory hole!

”It is awkward for those of us sympathetic to Hemingway to read a not-very-veiled anti-Semitism that arises from time to time,” English professor James Nagel said.

George Monteiro, professor of English at Brown University, argued, ”People talked that way at that time. Hemingway is enough of a historical figure for people to grant him that, the same way Mark Twain talked about Nigger Jim.” (The raw truth is that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn routinely ranks near the top of the American Library Association’s Top Banned/Challenged Books list.) Monteiro added, “If he were writing today they wouldn’t allow it.”

“They” wouldn’t allow it. No indeed.

For the literary establishment, the ideological explication of Hemingway thus remains an ongoing task, judgments shifting continuously with the fluctuating needs of political correctness.

Race in “The Killers”

“The Killers” (1927) is probably Hemingway’s most famous and frequently anthologized short story, a brief but memorable work of art that describes the impending murder of a heavyweight prize fighter by two big city gangsters. The reason the killers want to murder the fighter is not stated. The fighter cryptically explains to one character: “I got in wrong.” Two witnesses guess that “He must have got mixed up in something in Chicago” and that he “double-crossed somebody.” Possibly he threw a fight or, more likely, refused to throw a fight. But, ultimately we do not know.

The story has been filmed twice. The most famous version is The Killers (1946), starring Burt Lancaster in his film debut. Reportedly, this was the only film of his work that Hemingway liked. Another loose adaptation (the story is far too lean to support a feature-length movie), The Killers (1964), originally shot for television, was released theatrically after being judged too violent for home viewing. It featured Ronald Reagan in his last movie as a brutal crime boss.

It has been pointed out that literally thousands of pages of literary criticism have been written about this single, 3,000-word story. It exemplifies, in microcosm, Hemingway’s racial awareness.

The story opens with two hit men, Al and Max, entering the door of Henry’s lunch room in Summit, Illinois, a village or suburb twelve miles southwest of Chicago, on a cold day in the 1920s, during the height of the Prohibition era.

“Their faces were different, but they were dressed like twins.” Both are described as little men.

The two order a meal while verbally bullying the counterman, whose name is George. The gangsters wear gloves that stay on their hands throughout the story, even when they’re eating. Clearly they do not intend to leave fingerprints.

The men order Nick Adams, a young customer, to go behind the lunch counter. Nick Adams [8], the protagonist of twenty-four Hemingway stories written in the 1920s and 30s, is Ernest Hemingway’s literary alter ego.

The killers ask George, the counterman, who is in the kitchen.

George replies: “The nigger.”

Al (one of the gangsters): “What do you mean, the nigger?”

George: “The nigger who cooks.”

Al: “Tell the nigger to come out here.”

George opens the slit in the wall and calls for the black cook to come out.

Hemingway writes: “The door to the kitchen opened and the nigger came in.”

“All right, nigger, you stand right there,” Al tells the black man.

Hemingway writes: “Sam, the nigger, standing in his apron, looked at the two men sitting at the counter, ‘Yes, sir,’ he said.”

Al, described as “the little man,” gets down from his stool. “I’m going back to the kitchen with the nigger and bright boy,” he tells Max. Then he says to Sam and Nick: “Go on back to the kitchen, nigger. You go with him, bright boy.”

While Al is out back tying up Nick and Sam, Max remains seated at the counter keeping an eye on George, whom he engages in conversation in his bullying manner. During the course of the conversation he asks George what he thinks is going to happen.

When George says he doesn’t know, Max says, “I’ll tell you. We’re going to kill a Swede. Do you know a big Swede named Ole Andreson?”

Hemingway’s choice of a Scandinavian victim is a curious one. Scandinavians appear only rarely in American fiction. We know that George and Nick, like Ole Andreson, are white, but we do not know their ethnicity as we do Andreson’s. Of course, today we know, both from Nick’s name and from our external knowledge that he is the literary counterpart of Ernest Hemingway, that Nick is an old stock American.

The murderers are aware that Andreson comes to the restaurant for dinner every night at six o’clock. They are going to murder him when he arrives.

George asks Max why they’re going to kill Andreson: “What did he ever do to you?”

Max says that Andreson never did anything to them; he’s never even seen them. They’re going to kill him to oblige a friend.

Al, from the kitchen, tells Max to shut up. He says that he has “the nigger and my bright boy” tied up “like a couple of girl friends in a convent.”

This interracial homosexual insult is the second homosexual allusion in the story. Earlier, Max ordered Nick to “go around on the other side of the counter with your boy friend” (i.e., the counterman George). Later, Max tells George that he’d make some girl “a nice wife.”

Max calls to Al, “I suppose that you were in a convent?” Then he adds, “You were in a kosher convent, that’s where you were.”

Now Hemingway has revealed the ethnicity of a second character: the assassin Al is Jewish. Recall that the author, who depicted both gangsters as “little” earlier in the story, wrote that “Their faces were different.”

The men wait for over an hour, Max in front with George, Al in the kitchen “on a stool beside the wicket with the muzzle of a sawed-off shotgun resting on the ledge,” and Nick and the cook tied up in a corner with towels tied in their mouths.

After finally deciding that Andreson isn’t going to show, the killers prepare to leave. Al, who’d earlier threatened to blow the counterman’s head off, asks, “What about the two bright boys and the nigger?” Max tells him, “They’re all right.”

Al wants to kill the three men anyway: “I don’t like it. It’s sloppy. You talk too much.” But Max vetoes the proposed triple homicide.

As we move through the story, Al, the Jewish gangster, is revealed to be the more vicious of the two killers. He ties up Nick and Sam, holds the shotgun, threatens to blow George’s head off, and waits, concealed, to kill the Swede. After the failed ambush, he wants to murder the three witnesses. He also employs the word “nigger” more than anyone else in the story.

In 1927, the word “nigger” was politically incorrect in elite literary circles just as it is today. The way Hemingway hammers away at it is therefore conspicuous. “Nigger” is used a total of twelve times in this very brief short story: twice by George, the counterman, twice by Hemingway as narrator, and eight times by the Jewish gangster. Al’s companion, Max, refers to the Negro only once, calling him “the cook.” Nick never employs the term.

Interestingly, Sam is not given a Negro dialect by Hemingway, as was common at the time, nor is he portrayed in stereotypical fashion. He comes across as in individual with his own set of values, different from those of George and Nick and the gangsters.

As the two men prepare to leave, Al says to George, “So long, bright boy. You got a lot of luck,” to which Max adds, “That’s the truth. You ought to play the races, bright boy.” This exchange implies that the gangsters would have killed the three men together with Andreson had he shown up.

After they leave, George unties Nick and Sam.

The word “nigger” does not appear again. The narrative hereafter refers to Sam as “the cook” or “Sam, the cook,” rather than as “the nigger.” Although George and Nick are called by their first names, and Ole Andreson is called “Ole Andreson,” Sam is identified by his occupation.

George suggests that Nick should warn Andreson. Sam strongly advises Nick–three times–not to get involved. But Nick ignores him, and leaves for “Hirsch’s rooming-house,” where Andreson lives, to inform the victim of what has happened. “Hirsch” is a Jewish-sounding name.

A woman answers the door and takes Nick upstairs to a room “at the back end of a corridor.”

Andreson, who is too big for the bed, is lying on it fully clothed. Nick tells him what happened, and they engage in a brief conversation. Andreson looks at the wall rather than at Nick. He has lain in bed all day, not going out.

Young Nick offers several suggestions which Andreson, resigned to his fate, rejects. While intended to be helpful, they are not really answers to the fighter’s fatal dilemma: should Nick go to the police, is there anything Nick can do, maybe it was a bluff, couldn’t Andreson leave town or perhaps fix the matter up some way?

As he leaves, Nick takes one last look at Andreson lying on the bed staring at the wall.

It has been suggested that the dejected Swede is harshly judged in light of Hemingway’s hero’s code. According to this code, a man should face death bravely, not passively and resignedly as Andreson did.

I do not know whether this was Hemingway’s view of the character or not. However, the reader is left with the impression not of fright or cowardice, but rather of evil beyond the control of the individual. Andreson’s behavior is not suicidal; running has simply become futile.

As I see it, the story presents a set of facts. The ultimate facts are:

The reality of power (and its conjoined obverse, powerlessness).

The reality of evil.

And the reality of death.

Andreson lacked power; his killers possessed it. In response to Nick’s suggestion that Andreson leave town, he responded, “I’m through with all that running around.”

As Nick departs, he has a final encounter with the woman who runs the place, calling her “Mrs. Hirsch.” “I’m not Mrs. Hirsch,” she replies. “She owns the place. I just look after it for her. I’m Mrs. Bell.”

Thus, the landlord possesses a name that is possibly Jewish, her female employee one that is definitely Anglo. In a story so spare, written by an author who achieves his effects not by didactically instructing you how or what to think, but rather by the facts he selects and the manner in which he presents them, one necessarily puzzles over the significance (if any) of this incident.

Nick returns to the lunch counter to inform George of what has happened, which constitutes the brief final scene in the story.


Contemporary TV viewers might wonder why someone didn’t simply call the cops. (Which no one did.) The only time the issue even arises is when young Nick unconvincingly proposes doing so and Andreson truthfully tells him, “No, that wouldn’t do any good.”

In the first three decades of the twentieth century large metropolitan police forces were thoroughly corrupt, as were many politicians. Politicians, police, and gangsters were in league, just as politicians, police, and intelligence agencies are today with Jewish and Israeli spy organizations, terrorists, street thugs, and mobsters.

For example, the interrelationship of the various social elements in “The Killers” is fundamentally no different from the now-international relationships between the social elements responsible for the assassination of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh [9] in Dubai, or the 1984 bombing of the Institute for Historical Review [10] (scroll down to “Target: Institute for Historical Review”).

Indeed, on a much smaller scale, an Irish Catholic sheriff’s son whose father was killed in the line of duty told me that a mobster with a contract on his head once sought his father’s assistance in evading his killers. The mobster went out of his way to contact the sheriff, because he was the only law enforcement officer the man felt he could trust. (Which speaks volumes in itself.) The father tried to help the man by getting him into the federal witness protection program. However, the application was turned down: the man was not deemed an important enough witness. Later, the mobster’s dead body was discovered in the trunk of a car.

In “The Killers,” urban government, including law enforcement and the judiciary, is essentially a component of organized crime; it is taken for granted by the characters that the authorities cannot be relied upon or trusted. And the gangsters, who certainly do not fear them, act with an immunity the rest of us do not possess.

That is part of the story’s enduring value. Also, the stark reality of race is impossible to miss.