What did Roald Dahl learn from Hemingway?

Apart from clearly doing some character research for The Twits, it’s not clear how Roald Dahl and Ernest Hemingway came to be together here in London, 1944.

Here, Roald is 28 and Hemingway an aged, Karl Marxian 45. Dahl had only published one children’s book called The Gremlins to mixed success in the US while Hemingway had already got The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, and For Whom the Bell Tolls under his literary belt.

We can assume that Dahl sought Hemingway out while serving his post as a spy in Washington DC for the British government.
Spy is actually a generous term for what Roald was doing during WW2. His job was to attend the parties, balls, luncheons, breakfasts, hunts, and banquets of the American upper classes whilst trying to gauge when USA might be lending us a hand against NAZI Germany. He ate, wrote, gambled, and played the ‘tall and British’ card with rich American women.
Less of a Daniel Craig James Bond and more like a Bond written by Woody Allen, played by Hugh Grant.

In any case, they met, talked, boxed, and became good enough friends for Dahl to be called upon to help and distract Hemingway out of his alcoholism by Hemingway’s wife, Martha Gelhorn.

So what impact did the terse, American, at no point humorous, Hemingway have on our beloved British creator of the Roly-Poly Bird?


Hemingway’s writing style is probably best know for its simplicity. He famously told people to ‘distrust adjectives’ like you should ‘distrust certain people’. While he wrote this down at some point, before doing so he had shared this with Dahl, who took it to heart in his own writing.

It’s a hard thing to put your finger on what makes Roald Dahl quite so good, and while it’s tempting to put it down to the crazy characters and ideas, a big part of it is not wasting words on unnecessary adjectives.

I don’t know who planted the lie into the world that adjectives make writing interesting, but they should be found and hung by a long, thick, rough, old, yellow, smelly, chafing rope.

Nouns are interesting. Things. Too many descriptive words are what makes writing sound fabricated and kind of teenage. Once you have described the basics of how something looks, you should leave it alone.

It’s like if Da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa, then felt the need to call it The beautiful, intriguing, ambiguous, piercing, inspiring look of Mona Lisa.
It’s unnecessary. Just let the image do the work itself.


Unlike Hemingway, Dahl doesn’t limit himself to the adjective list of good, bad, clear, big, brown, and brave, but reading his adult and children’s books alike, there’s a similar sense of not wasting words.

Just in case your not convinced, here’s some other people who aren’t huge adjective fans:

When you catch an adjective, kill it – Mark Twain

The road to hell is paved with adjectives – Stephen King

Most adjectives are unnecessary – William Zissner

Adjectives are the greatest enemy of substance – Voltaire

Struggle against vagueness, against obscurity, against the lure of the decorative adjective– George Orwell

Use no superfluous word, no adjective, which does not reveal something – Ezra Pound



For both Hem and Roald, the tendency towards uncluttered writing goes hand in hand with a more general appreciation of simple pleasures: namely food.

I wrote my uni dissertation on Hemingway and food. While this was mainly an excuse to read lots of his books and to fantasise about eating gazpacho, I at least discovered that he really did like food and gave time in his books and his life to enjoying it.

He even wrote a couple of cooking articles including a critique on bad camping food and how to do a fine bacon wrapped trout with corn cakes.


Hemingway could indulge his love for food whilst alone; camping, fishing, or sitting in a well-lit Spanish cafe. Instead, Roald Dahl’s food culture is based on sharing and family  (it’s hard to imagine a grown man preparing an ‘enormous crocodile spinach baguette‘ alone on the morning of a hunt).


Sure, there’s some cross-over with these men; big into short stories, into travel, both survived African plane crashes, but actually Dahl’s similarities with Hemingway are only as important as the differences.

Dahl, being British, was not so serious, not such an idealist, and could see the comedy in our flaws. Even having such an esteemed bearded friend in Hemingway, he still ended up writing this:

Mr Twit felt that his hairiness made him look terrifically wise and grand, but in truth he was neither of these things. Mr Twit was a twit. He was born a twit. And now at the age of sixty, he was a bigger twit than ever.           Roald Dahl, The Twits

Dahl’s humour, his sense of eccentricity, and family.

Hemingway’s clarity, passion, and simplicity.

Both writers offer to enrich life in different ways. And for me, each is improved by having read the other.

Before reading To Have and Have Not, why not read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Before reading Fiesta, read Dirty Beasts.

What children read, have read to them, or never have a chance to read shapes the experience and expectations of life thereafter. So pick well.

Read –

Roald Dahl – The Twits

Ernest Hemingway – In Another Country (short story)

Roald Dahl – Kiss Kiss

image      image
Cook –

enormous crocodile baguette (Roald Dahl’s Revolting Recipes)

bacon wrapped trout with corn cakes

image       image

Enter –

Hemingway lookalike competition.


Comment –

The childhood book that formed you most.

Article written by Joshua Morgan


3 thoughts on “What did Roald Dahl learn from Hemingway?

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