Paving the Way

words by Ted Fraser

art by hana nikcevic

Exploring the first steps and the lasting effects of path-makers

There are roughly 20 trails at Wentworth Valley; a picturesque ski-hill in the Nova Scotian hinterland. Feffie-Weffie, Chickadee, White Nitro, Rosebowl, The Garden Path—the trail names are as diverse as the talent that trips, tears, and tumbles down them.

The clean, maintained trails usually open up in December—late November if you’re lucky. But the off-road trail-runs are where it’s at. Straying from the main path, you can dive into the trees and carve through the rolling, sinusoidal bumps; pumping through heavy branch and skimpy snow.

Those shadowy early-season trail-runs are some of the most terrifying things you’ll ever subject yourself to. The trails are wet, loose, and undefined. You get clipped, you trip, you fall.

But by late February, those off-road routes have been packed down. The snow’s tight and the grooves are well-defined. Other people have sailed through—risking life, limb, and dignity. The path gets safer, more reliable, more comfortable. Tangential trails are sewn through as more skiers knit and cut their way through the original trails, creating a network of interconnected paths.

This path-making is a collective effort, but it’s started by the brave first steps of a single, daring individual. And those first steps are crucial. Success is not guaranteed, but heartache and stress almost certainly are.

Ernest Hemingway took a brave first step—a literary lunge into the unknown—on October 22nd, With the publication of The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway veered off the epoch’s well-trodden trail of exhaustively detailed grandiosity. Instead, he opted for clear, tight, and terse descriptions.

path-making is a collective effort, but it’s started by the brave first steps of a single, daring individual. And those first steps are crucial.

The work, and all works thereafter, focused on dialogue and nouns, and avoided adjectives like the plague.

Authors like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Edith Wharton were wildly popular in the years leading up to The Sun Also Rises, and had an advanced style that valued exquisite detail and flowery prose, a doctrine diametrically-opposed to Hemingway’s.

In this sense, publishing The Sun Also Rises was a leap of faith, a daring departure from long-winded texts commonly published by the era’s ink-loving writers.

Fitzgerald published his debut novel This Side of Paradise in 1920. It was billed as “the greatest American novel of late” by H.L. Mencken, and “a true work of genius,” by The Chicago Tribune. The protagonist, Amory Blaine, a bullish Princeton undergraduate, narrates the novel with dizzying detail:

We want to believe. […] Too many voices, too much scattered, illogical, ill-considered criticism. It’s worse in the case of newspapers. Any rich, unprogressive old party with that particularly grasping, acquisitive form of mentality known as financial genius can own a paper that is the intellectual meat and drink of thousands of tired, hurried men, men too involved in the business of modern living to swallow anything but predigested food.

And in 1921, Edith Wharton won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for Age of Innocence. Wading through the work, you can find dense, descriptive prose as early as chapter one:

In the middle distance symmetrical mounds of woolly green moss bounded by croquet hoops formed the base of shrubs shaped like orange-trees but studded with large pink and red roses.”

Adjectives pour out of the paragraph—it’s beautiful writing.

But Hemingway could not stand it. In The Sun Also Rises, for comparison, nature sounds like:

After a while we came out of the mountains, and there were trees along both sides of the road and a stream and ripe fields of grain and the road went on, very white and straight ahead.”

After Scribner and Sons published The Sun Also Rises, the wait began; what would the reviewers think of it? Was it too sparse, too different, too provocative? It was all of that, but the reviewers loved it.

They called Hemingway’s prose, “lean, hard, and athletic.” The Atlantic praised the book as featuring “the best dialogue being written today.” It was a full-blown stylistic overhaul, a paradigmatic shift; Hemingway had created a new path.

Since then, other writers have dipped in and out of a “mean, hard, and athletic” prose, tracing in Hemingway’s tracks. Victoria College alumnus, Kevin Hardcastle, now a prominent Canadian author, has been compared to Cormac McCarthy, but admits that at the beginning of his writing career, “he was just copying Hemingway—which was a good place to start.”

Mordecai Richler, another Canadian author, has said that early on, “he just wanted to write like Hemingway.” Hunter S. Thompson rewrote, word for word, The Sun Also Rises before he wrote his book The Rum Diary, because he wanted to “feel what it was like to write a masterpiece.”

And short story writer, Raymond Carver, the winner of the Ambassador Book Award—received by the likes of Tom Wolfe, Gore Vidal, and Phillip Roth—has a thrifty style that is eerily reminiscent of Hemingway’s.

The Sun Also Rises was a bold trip into uncharted territory. With each marooned noun and omitted adjective, the path became smoother and safer for writers and readers to slide down, honouring Hemingway in the process.

Around the same time as that minimalist, anti-adjective revolution, a monumental political revolution was coming into sharp-er societal focus. As Hemingway forged his path, Alice Paul was in Washington, taking the first steps on a path that would, in time, lead to the beginning of a revolution.

Since the 1848 Seneca Falls Conference, activists had rallied for women’s voting rights, largely in vain. Even fifty years later, at the turn of the nineteenth century, cultural heavyweights like the U.S, Britain, France, and Russia were ignoring the suffragists’ calls for equality.

Despite well-organized marches, picketing, and the establishment of the International Women’s Suffrage Alliance in 1904, no major country had introduced women’s suffrage by the time World War I rolled around.

There were a few anachronistic outliers. New Zealand, in an awe-inspiring fit of progressivism, granted women the right to vote as early as 1893. Tracing their neighbour’s steps, Australia gave women the right to vote in the spring of 1902. As well, Denmark, Norway, and Finland all established suffrage before 1908.

Then the movement kicked into high gear:

The American suffragists, led by Alice Paul, adopted a new strategy. The National Women’s Party, an organization co-founded by Paul, highlighted the hypocrisy of the ; contrasting his support of democracy and self-determination across the pond and his contradicting, oppressive politics at home. One sign read, “Kaiser Wilson, have you forgotten your sympathy with the poor Germans because they were not self-governed? 20,000,000 American women are not self-governed. Take the beam out of your own eye.”

Paths are a communal effort, the result of continual and repetitive treading.

The National Women’s Party picketed the White House in 1917, and over 200 women were promptly imprisoned for “obstructing sidewalk traffic.” At the prison facility, dozens were abused and threatened. Paul went on a hunger strike in protest. As punishment, she was handcuffed to the ceiling of her cell and forced to hang there.

This Night of Terror, as it was labelled, was picked up by the press and sparked outrage; the National Women’s Party grew and popular opinion shifted, so finally Kaiser Wilson caved. American women were granted federal voting rights in 1920. Then, the revolution spread and the path widened.

In 1921, a select subset of Canadian women was granted the right to vote federally. This was the tipping point of the women’s suffrage movement. From 1848 to 1920, only a handful of countries had legalized women’s suffrage. However, between 1930 and 1950, forty-eight counties ushered it in—the path was getting smoother, safer, and busier.

Once again, the brave first steps of one led to the empowerment of others—al-though the path to women’s liberation was far from being finished.

Paths are a communal effort, the result of continual and repetitive treading. As more people walk over the path, the loose gravel is packed tight, the sharp pebbles are kicked away, and the divots filled in. Gliding over these trails, it’s easy to forget about the people who took the very first step. They’re the pioneers who confronted the uncertainty and stress, even danger, of forging a new path.

Skiing, book reading, ballot-casting; if you distil it all down, life’s a series of paths. They’re not always as smooth as Feffie-Weffie or White Nitro, but they are spectacular, crisscrossing manifestations of courage, kindness, and human connection.