Tales from 'The Big Outside World': Ann Beattie's Hemingway

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Author: Robert Beuka
Editor: Jelena O. Krstovic
From: Short Story Criticism(Vol. 130)
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 3,473 words

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[(essay date fall 2002) In the following essay, Beuka compares Beattie's narrative approach in "The Big Outside World" to that of Ernest Hemingway in "Cat in the Rain," emphasizing the two authors' reliance on contrasting references, omission of details, and evocative physical descriptions.]

Assessing Ann Beattie's literary influences can prove a bit difficult, for a number of reasons. For one thing, there is the matter of Beattie's own literary reputation; on the one hand, her style seems to have been pinned down rather specifically by reviewers and critics, as evidenced by the variety of interchangeable appellations affixed to her work: Beattie has been described as a "minimalist," a "K-Mart realist," a writer of "New Yorker fiction," and--in a phrase that is one of my personal favorites--a practitioner of the "'Frank went to stand by the window'" school of fiction writing (Birkerts 317). Still, Beattie has nonetheless amassed a body of work varied enough to resist such simplistic categorization, as is evidenced by the marked stylistic and tonal differences between her earliest work in Distortions (1976) and Chilly Scenes of Winter (1976) and her more emotionally complex recent fiction. Complicating the assessment of Beattie's literary influences is the author's own hesitance to discuss her relationship to literary forebears. But despite this general resistance to discussing influences, Beattie has affirmed the frequent comparisons between her work and Hemingway's, noting the distinct impact Hemingway's writing has had on her own. In an unpublished 1996 interview, Beattie mentioned the specific connection she feels to Hemingway:

Surely I learned things from Hemingway. ... [On first reading him] it was unusual to me ... that someone would put together what looked like a very oblique story that really made its demands between the lines. ... I learned that from Hemingway, and it had a really strong impact. I'm sure that my ability to have things transpire off the page, and the innuendo that I have in a story and so forth, really is rooted in Hemingway.1

It is worth exploring the relationship between Beattie's and Hemingway's fiction, I will argue, because doing so might offer a window into assessing Hemingway's ongoing influence in contemporary fiction; at the same time, the nature of Beattie's borrowings from Hemingway might also tell us something more about the successful yet often maligned school of minimalist fiction to which Beattie, however unwillingly, has been assigned. Certainly, Beattie's most pointed, specific acknowledgment of Hemingway's influence can be found in the story "The Big Outside World," from her 1986 collection, Where You'll Find Me. Beattie describes this story as a "deliberate variation" on her favorite Hemingway story, "Cat in the Rain" (Centola 419). Much like her cohort Raymond Carver, whose story "The Train" stands as an homage to John Cheever, Beattie here uses the fictional medium to pay tribute to a primary literary influence. But while Carver fashioned his story as an extension of Cheever's "The Five-Forty-Eight," Beattie instead offers in "The Big Outside World" an entirely independent story, yet one with...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420097359