Bearer of the Flame
Ernest Hemingway: A Biography, Mary V Dearborn, Knopf, 738 pp., $35;
Ernest Hemingway: A New Life, James M Hutchisson, Pennsylvania State University Press, 292 pp., $37.95. Reviewed by STODDARD MARTIN
1961 saw two great events in the cultural history of the American male: the inauguration of John F Kennedy and the suicide of Ernest Hemingway. Precisely between this pair of events, my family moved from suburban Philadelphia to a California beach town. I was twelve. The popular song of the day was ‘The New Frontier’, by the Kingston Trio. From back East to out West was a transit from books and the indoors to the sea and a cult of the body. My beach town was in thrall to surfers, sailors, sports-fishermen and aficionados of bull-fights across the Mexican border 30 miles away. It was populated by transplants from Texas, Kansas City and the Upper Midwest whose forbears had made fortunes as oilmen, bankers and industrialists. The wives were heiresses, the husbands veterans of World War II, mostly naval or marine officers who had seen duty in the Pacific. All had grown up in an era shadowed by Prohibition; all were hard drinkers, many adulterers. The ones not clipping coupons had cushy jobs in what President Eisenhower in his farewell address had branded ‘the military-industrial establishment’.
Kennedy was frowned on by this set – Catholic, Democrat, scion of ‘gangsters’, too young, elite educated, married to that French-ified wife. Hemingway was theirs: a product of WASP Middle America, contemporary to fathers or grandfathers or something between, a role model in service, marriage, parenthood, toughness and types of socialising. The fact that he had lived out of the country for most of his adult life was hardly suspect: the earthy Spain he lauded seemed ‘western’; the Africa of safaris and the Caribbean of smugglers were for rugged individualists; the Paris he depicted in The Sun Also Rises and shortly-to-be-published A Moveable Feast had mannish scents of cheap red wine and black tobacco. Hemingway’s Europe revised Henry James’s in the direction of post-Beat trekkers on $5 a day. It was a new frontier too: Kennedy went to the Wall to proclaim ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’; kids came back from summer vacations wearing lederhosen, drinking out of bota bags and toting flamenco guitars. The hip ones had bought Volkswagens with hashish hidden in the tires; the richest had picked out their Porsches in person in Stuttgart.
It is hard to overemphasise the effect that Hemingway had. Suicide seemed just one more element in a myth of ‘the right stuff’ created by and around him. If contemporary teen males in my town read any book, it would be one of his. Romantic dreams gravitated towards the Brett Ashleys, Catherine Barkleys, Marias and Pilars. Not a word was spoken of the wife-abuse and gender-bending that became currency of later revaluations. Decades away from Brokeback Mountain, western men affected the Hemingway inflected swagger of Gary Cooper or John Wayne; Clint Eastwood was beginning his long lope into the light via Rawhide and, fittingly enough – as Italy was where Hemingway first began to preen his quasi-carbonaro ‘code’ – spaghetti westerns. My closest friend of those days, from an Upper Midwestern background and with father a war hero, mapped out his life on a Hemingway ethos. No teenager could worry about where this might lead; by the time omens flashed, identity had been set. Rotten marriage and his failure at being biggest and best man-among-men, along with alcoholism, self-pity and plummeting into depression, almost irresistibly led him to self-inflicted death around the Hemingway age of sixty.
In earlier decades following the war, a stoical falling-on-one’s-sword may have seemed noble. Later studies of Hemingway began to reveal an end hastened by erroneous medication and electro-shock, as much as by conscious acknowledgement of failure. His treatment at the famed Mayo Clinic turns out to have been no better than bleeding by leeches was for Byron – a precursor in cultivation of a male code. All this is rehearsed in James Hutchisson’s New Life. Hutchisson also reminds us that Hemingway converted to Catholicism to marry his second wife and from time to time after would depict himself as Catholic, despite ire at the church’s support for Franco during the Spanish Civil War. Hemingway’s fourth wife initially portrayed his death as ‘accidental’, enabling him to be buried with Catholic rites – fitting perhaps given his love of Latin cultures, apparent in his best work, A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls. But Hemingway’s truest spiritual trajectory, as Hutchisson makes clear, was towards Nature and man’s ability to live in awareness of and rough sympathy with it. This too may be part of what made him so attractive to a post-religious, pre-environmentally hyperconscious era slouching towards a 1960s’ ‘New Age’ mysticism. You could say that his tendency was ‘holistic’.
There was also the famous fatalism, so in tune with existentialism de jour. Flat acceptance of death in an individual otherwise apparently so driven by will seemed to radiate a fundamental honesty; and this is what appeared to be at the heart of his aesthetics. Love of Spain maybe, but none of the baroque or the Gothic, let alone wit or decor redolent of metropoles such as London or New York. Hemingway’s milieu was one of culture before civilisation – aesthetic milieu, at least. Socially he was inclined, and more often as he aged, to mix with people of wealth or title, the ones he decries as spoiling it all at the end of A Moveable Feast. He made such disparagements often – in Death in the Afternoon, Green Hills of Africa and To Have and Have Not, works of the most productive phase of his career. As Hutchisson notes, it is sometimes overlooked that he could only engage in these literary experiments and the ventures that produced them via subsidy from the rich relations of his second wife. Glancing back from that epoch, one might reflect that a itinerant reporter would never have achieved celebrity as a creative writer were it not for dilettantish Anglo-American rich kids in Paris of the ’20s playing at being small press publishers.
Hutchisson’s book at first provokes the question: what new can be added about a figure of whom so much has been written? A look at the notes reveals that he has indeed partly just rounded up what has gone before – ‘as quoted in…’ is a frequent formula. The phenomenon of a writer setting out to relive Hemingway’s career vicariously and reinterpret it according to a changing Zeitgeist is familiar enough; the danger is that the oeuvre, like Virginia Woolf’s, be eclipsed by this hunger to relive the life. One can hear a ghost cry, ‘Study the work, not the man!’ On the other hand, as one reads, new perceptions arise: for example, how inclined Hemingway was to homily, how unbending in opinion, how competitive, how ‘techie’, how strangely non-fluent in language – as if he were writing so that a non-native speaker might get it, or in a tongue that he was just starting to master himself. Was this the case for many Americans in a language that seemed only half natural as it was taught, even if like Hemingway they were wholly Anglo by descent? Might this have been even more the case in the Upper Midwest, an area of the country settled first by French trappers and filling up in Hemingway’s youth with immigrants of German or Scandinavian stock?
The origin of Hemingway’s language and style is a study in itself. The impact of Italy on a nineteen-year-old ambulance driver is an aspect I took up some years ago (see ‘Hemingway & D’Annunzio’, QR, Summer 2011). During the years in Paris, French surely helped shape his early, fine prose. Then came the ubiquity of Spanish, whether in Spain for fiesta and civil war or in Cuba where he established his sole long-lived-in home. Even in the America he inhabited as a youth and sporadically as an adult, language had remarkable peculiarities: the patois of the Indians of northern Michigan, the twang of Kansas City, the drawl of Arkansas, the lingo of Key West, the western idiolect of Idaho. Hemingway was rarely in centres of sophisticated English-speaking and didn’t like it when he was. New York was a stopover for seeing his publisher. London – the Dorchester – a pass-through for the war correspondent on his way to D-Day. Once there, it was down and dirty with the troops, or champagne-ing with Marlene Dietrich at the Ritz. Hemingway disliked critics, university professors and literary smoothies such as Somerset Maugham. His language was a confection of myriad accents from the periphery.
That is not to say that it remained constant. Progress into interior monologue through the ’30s rendered his longest book, For Whom the Bell Tolls, convoluted in comparison to A Farewell to Arms. Henry James nudged Gertrude Stein to the side and hid Mark Twain and Sherwood Anderson behind periphrasis. A return to simplicity in The Old Man in the Sea is what Hemingway intended and the critics saw it to be: one of the great comebacks of literary history, leading to the Nobel Prize. But this renaissance was short-lived. Marlin fishing was not just a metaphor for a man’s life struggle, it was compensation for growing writer’s block. In the early ’40s it had enabled Hemingway to spy on U-boats for the OSS, but the arrival of Marxist refugee pals from Spain roused the suspicion of J. Edgar Hoover, and by the McCarthy era Hemingway was paranoid about FBI surveillance. His support for Castro’s revolution could not assuage this, nor dispel his fear of losing his comfortable Cuban retreat. Hutchisson is acute on how these anxieties conspired with road accidents, plane crashes, marital strife, impotence and misadventures of sons to drive a prematurely old man towards the abyss. The shotgun-to-the-mouth finis taken by his father grew into a compulsive option.
There are many biographies of Hemingway. When does many become too many? There is no overwhelming rationale for Hutchisson’s book; it may even make one pause to wonder how much we need this type of biography at all. Admiration is one thing, imitation another, even when somewhat pathetic; but minute investigation of someone else’s life can grow parasitic and, if it tends to judgement, moralistic – to a point of vice. Are we so decadent a civilisation that what the late publisher Colin Haycraft called ‘raking over dead men’s bones’ is preferable to launching out to discover new modes, as young Hemingway so notably did? It is perhaps an idle question at this reach of time, no more reasonable as per agreed norms than the reactions of Nietzsche a century and a third ago. But who can speak of a figure like Hemingway now without having to deal with accretions of ‘fact’ popularly put out about him? The case is nearly as bad as that of, say, Wagner, whom one can hardly mention without a prelude about what a bad man he was. You may like the music but better spin it as a guilty pleasure. Excuses are begged for Hemingway’s machismo, often attended by a nod and wink about his sexual peculiarities.
‘Study the work, not the man!’ comes an echo. Mary Dearborn’s biography, much longer than Hutchisson’s and exhaustive in detail, takes as justification the fact that it is the first by a woman. This brings up gender questions of its own, such as if men and women are ‘equal’ and ‘gender does not matter’ why should we care about which writes about which. Does Dearborn have more feeling for issues surrounding Hemingway’s mother’s dominance, his first wife’s vulnerabilities, his second’s lesbian tendencies, his third’s ambitions and so on? Maybe. Or maybe her contribution is less revelatory than that of Kenneth Lynn, who titillated literary editors 25 years ago with the detail that Hemingway was dressed as a girl until he was six. Gender and queer studies have made much of The Garden of Eden, published from the writer’s drafts in 1986. This in itself was a questionable act. Does it help T. S. Eliot’s reputation that his widow violated his wish that nothing should be published beyond the canonical works left at his death? Do we understand the Four Quartets better by being aware of smutty doggerel a pious poet wrote as a young man? In Hemingway’s case, were his publisher and family not crass in exploiting the cult of the author of The Old Man and the Sea to make money from scripts he felt he could never get right?
Dearborn takes Hemingway to task for his meanness to friends. Oft-noted is the example of Scott Fitzgerald, belittled in ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’, damned with faint praise in A Moveable Feast. Dearborn also rehearses the case of Harold Loeb, rendered as the odious Robert Cohn in The Sun Also Rises, though his sole sin seems to have been to arrange a first New York publisher for a tyro of the Left Bank. There is a ‘shard of ice in the heart of a writer’, as Graham Greene famously said. What kind of writer is meant, and what kind of product licenses the strain of ruthlessness implied? Novelists of the Greene-Hemingway era regularly used and abused whomever was to hand – Lawrence, Waugh and others up to the day-before-yesterday. But models die, like their authors, and it can hardly be fair that caricature of them is all or most of what survives, owing to someone else’s fame. What is born out of bad temper, envy or spite deserves to live on only if in service of some finer perception or philosophy. In Hemingway’s case, what might that be? The jobbing biographer may arrive at an answer less readily than a critic who invigilates not the life but the work. What would he/she find here? Reverence for craft, for the natural world, endurance, a certain stoicism, bravery, doing things properly, sheer beauty of construction, attention to the wounded… Are these virtues enough?
Hemingway is, first and foremost, ‘a writer’. It is a condition perhaps less enviable now than in his heyday. We seem in the process of unmasking greats of the trade as pretenders to godhood, arranging their universes as they like, peddling falsity under a guise of truth, honesty and objective report. Hemingway loved to emphasise what was ‘good’ and ‘true’. Biographers now swarm towards qualification, if not straight debunking. He has been taught in high schools: is it not to predictable that what has been erected as icon should be torn down? Lenin’s statues tottered, Saddam Hussein was yanked from a plinth; so too our macho great one. What is left? rubble. What should be? some of the tales surely, early ones in which that ‘good’ and ‘true’ were most nearly achieved; a few later attempts by an ageing lion wracked with trying to recall what had once been virtù. ‘What thou lovest well remains/The rest is dross…’ So Hemingway’s early mentor and friend Ezra Pound consoled himself by writing when held in a cage in Pisa. The sentiment hovered over many in the terrible mid-20th century, Hemingway not least. At his best he is shoring fragments against ruins, to paraphrase another fellow expat: hymning what is precious. At worst he is settling scores, though – as Dearborn does not tire in pointing out – many much more than deserved.
Her judgements of his character may be accurate, though one can hardly help wondering what gives her the right to them – a Columbia University fellowship? Her authority over facts is impressive, if marred by repetitions which Knopf’s editor might have weeded out. Her opinions on Hemingway’s work are less useful than reportage of critical comment at the time – Edmund Wilson’s, Fitzgerald’s, Dos Passos’. Diligence of labour may blind a scholar to the likelihood that the most effective historian remains invisible – an option Dearborn eschews. That said, her book may succeed as the most comprehensive on her subject, more formidable than Hutchisson’s and what has gone before, except perhaps Michael Reynolds’ five volumes. If it appears as something of a mountain to climb, the descent grows easier. The tale of the young man in Paris, ascent as a ‘writer’, friendship with F. Scott, Bimini, marlin and so on will be old hat to a reader familiar with ‘the American century’; but at this stage in history it seems useful to remind oneself of how the ‘case’ of this iconic figure met its denouement. It is, one could argue, Shakespearean in display of overreach, hubris, crisis, recognition and remorse. The hero as braggart, bully and at last pathetic fallen man may sum up what is glorious yet wrong in a pervasive ethos.
Typologically it is tricky to place Hemingway. His outspoken support for the Left during the Spanish war occludes what otherwise might seem a classic American right wing type – the big game hunter of Montana fitting in with, say, Dick Cheney’s Conquistadors. (Gertrude Stein dubbed him ‘ninety percent Rotarian’.) The Hemingway of Esquire magazine could not have cut the dash he did were it not for the money of his second wife, yet in A Moveable Feast he identifies that wealth as a cause of his downfall. The truth seems more subtle. Dearborn relates how Martha Gellhorn set out consciously to hook Hemingway; in order to land this trophy young female writer, a friend of Eleanor Roosevelt’s, he had to chuck the celebrity sportsman image in favour of roughing it for a Cause. For Whom the Bells Tolls is generally seen as the one great benefit from his third marriage, but as Dearborn suggests the novel’s flaws ‘do not bode well for [its] future… as a canonical work of literature’. In A Moveable Feast, written after he married a fourth wife, Hemingway goes on to lament that he left his first for his second, but the ‘colossal mistake’ seems that he left his second for his third, of whom he would remark ‘he had been in love with her… but did not like her very much’. For her part, having left him after gaining heft to her career, Gellhorn would state with typical self-regard: ‘For a very short time he tried to live up to the image I had made of him.’ By the time Hemingway had married for the last time, he was steadily on course to being a drunken wreck. Throughout this dispiriting story of changing partners, one motif is clear: he was always a man who needed a woman around to look after him – to put it crudely, ‘someone to change his dirty nappies’ (to quote Colin Haycraft on Jeffrey Bernard). Of his time, perhaps; hardly of ours.
Dearborn’s animus, or at least scepticism, towards Hemingway-as-man abates as his case becomes sadder. Perhaps she regrets her tone of earlier on; perhaps too it is natural that a woman should be more indulgent of a man once his most extreme pretensions to dominant maleness are fading. In any case, Dearborn pauses to remark on Hemingway’s generosity, to his sons notably but also to younger or weaker souls by whom he did not feel rivalled. Like Hutchisson she tends to view his decline via health issues, especially brain trauma from numerous concussions. This is in line with an era’s near religious faith in medical science; it should not obscure the essential fact of the man’s pursuit of a lifestyle that enabled many blows to the head in the first place. Dearborn diagnoses manic depression and suggests that had lithium treatment been available then, it might have been mitigated – i.e., nowadays we know better. Hmm. Didn’t Plato call ‘poetic mania’ the source of creation? And wasn’t Hemingway opposed to Freudian and other therapies on the grounds that they might leach out the writer’s basic material? Once again we appear to live in an era neither as likely to produce a writer of Hemingway’s kind nor to appreciate one as he was in his day. Are we better for this or just less adventurous?
In the prologue to her book, Dearborn relates how at the end of a ‘heated discussion’ about Hemingway at an event in New York in the 1990s, a man stood up and said, ‘I just want to say that Hemingway made it possible for me to be what I am.’ Dearborn assumes a trans-gender subtext for the remark; it seems to this writer more reasonable to assert that many of Hemingway’s generation and after could have said something similar and intended a variety of inferences by it. Thus as one confronts the story of this titanic figure yet again, it is almost impossible not to turn one’s gaze inward and ponder elements that have gone into the making of oneself. Dearborn has wrestled with her subject and taken some glee in noting how he was rumbled by the critics of what she dubs his ‘weakest book’ Across the River and into the Trees. About it she reports only one positive comment, from fellow writer Tennessee Williams, no stranger to poetic mania himself, even to a point of tragedy: ‘I could not go to Venice, now, without hearing the haunted cadences of Hemingway’s new novel. It is the saddest novel in the world about the saddest city, and when I say I think it is the best and most honest work that Hemingway has done, you may think me crazy… Its hauntingly tired cadences are the direct speech of a man’s heart who is speaking directly for the first time.’ Williams may be be ‘crazy’, but only in the best sense. He speaks for me.
Dr Stoddard Martin is a publisher and author