Hemingway, the Sensualist

It’s difficult for people who weren’t around at the time to grasp the scale of the Hemingway cult in twentieth-century America. As late as 1965, the editor of The Atlantic could write reverently of scenes from a kind of Ernest Hemingway Advent calendar: “Wine-stained moods in the sidewalk cafés and roistering nights in Left Bank boîtes. Walking home alone in the rain. Talk of death, and scenes of it, in the Spanish sun. Treks and trophies in Tanganyika’s green hills. Duck-shooting in the Venetian marshes. . . . Loving and drinking and fishing out of Key West and Havana.” It was real fame, too, not the thirty-minutes-with-Terry Gross kind that writers have to content themselves with now. To get close to the tone of it today, you would have to imagine the literary reputation of Raymond Carver joined with the popularity and political piety of Bruce Springsteen. “Papa” Hemingway was not just a much admired artist; he was seen as a representative American public man. He represented the authority of writing even for people who didn’t read.

The debunking, when it came, came hard. As the bitter memoirs poured out, we got alcoholism, male chauvinism, fabulation, malice toward those who had made the mistake of being kind to him—all that. Eventually there came, from his avid estate, the lucrative but not reputation-enhancing publication of posthumous novels. The brand continues: his estate licenses the “Ernest Hemingway Collection,” which includes an artisanal rum, Papa’s preferred eyewear, and heavy Cuban-style furniture featuring “leather-like vinyl with a warm patina.” (What would Papa have said of that!) But few would now give the old man the heavyweight championship of literature for which he fought so hard, not least because thinking of literature as an elimination bout is no longer our style. We think of it more as a quilting bee, with everyone having a chance to add a patch, and the finest patches often arising from the least privileged quilters. In recent decades, Hemingway has represented the authority of writing only for people who never read.

Suddenly, though, there has been an academic revival in Hemingway studies in which, with an irony no satirist could have imagined, Hemingway, who in his day exemplified American macho, has, through our taste for “queering the text,” become Hemingway the gender bender. The Hemingway Review can now contain admiring articles with subtitles like “Sodomy and Transvestic Hallucination in Hemingway.” It is newly possible to deduce that Papa was far weirder, in a positive sense, than he liked to pretend, and that his texts contain, just below their rigidly tumescent surface, deep glimmering pools of sexual ambiguity and gender liquidity.

Mary V. Dearborn’s new biography, “Hemingway” (Knopf), is hardly full of revelations. With the witnesses almost all dead, and the archives combed through as if by addicts looking for remnants of crack, how could it be? But it is up to date in attitude. The queer-theory patches are all in place, as are the feminist ones. Dearborn has an oddly puritanical attitude toward the storytelling of a storyteller, becoming quite prim as she points out that Hem exaggerated here, confabulated there, made less of this than was quite truthful, and more of that. Hemingway, she writes, told “enormous whoppers” about, for instance, trapping pigeons in the Luxembourg Gardens for dinner in his early years in Paris. In fact, he and his first wife, Hadley, had plenty of money. But he was writing fables about the aspirations of expatriates, not textbooks on accounting. Hungry people—and no one is hungrier than a young writer trying to make a reputation—feel hungry even when they’re not actually starving.

In general, Dearborn seems not to have met many writers along her scholarly path, and appears astounded that the good ones tell tall tales about their own formation, which is like being astounded that fishermen exaggerate the size of their catch. (Of course, Hemingway did that, too.) Most of Hemingway’s fabulations are transparent in style and purpose: he told an interviewer once that, when he walked with Joyce in Paris in the nineteen-twenties, Joyce would “fall into an argument or a fight. He couldn’t even see the man so he’d say, ‘Deal with him, Hemingway! Deal with him!’ ” This surely never happened, but you can see why he wished it had, and can’t hate him for wishing it. He wanted to be Joyce’s Luca Brasi. In Dearborn’s better moments, she shows how intelligently Hemingway managed to apportion the amount of empirical accuracy for each occasion. Although he inflated his heroism in the Great War—at one point giving credence to the report that he had carried a wounded Italian soldier over a distance twice the length of a football field—he was direct and understated in his published stories. Dearborn thinks that Hemingway was asking whether “there was any more authenticity, or truth.” No, he wasn’t. He was allocating authenticity and truth according to the needs of his art. The original of Catherine in “A Farewell to Arms” was an American nurse named Agnes von Kurowsky, whom he loved passionately, only to have her reject him with a chilly Dear John letter, in which she told him that she was “still very fond” of him but “more as a mother than a sweetheart.” He fixed the facts in the novel by having her die for love bearing his child. Revenge on reality like that is what literature is for.

But Dearborn is an encyclopedic collector of facts and, on the whole, a decent and fair-minded judge of them. One rarely objects to her verdicts about what exactly happened and why. The story here gets retold more or less on the terms we know, with judicious guesses made as to the truth of much-argued-over episodes: yes, his mother dressed him as a girl until he was old enough to notice; no, Scott Fitzgerald probably never asked him to check the size of Fitzgerald’s member in a Paris men’s room; yes, those famous wilderness outings in Michigan took place in the context of a big middle-class house and middle-class vacations, and were not nearly as primitive as the stories make them sound; and no, his first wife did not lose all of his early work on a train for good—a lot was soon recovered. Recent “discoveries” in the field are put more or less into place: the revelation from the author Nicholas Reynolds, in “Writer, Sailor, Soldier, Spy,” that Hemingway had been recruited as a spy by Stalin’s N.K.V.D. in the nineteen-thirties is noted, although it’s also noted that Hemingway seems never to have done anything for it. The truth that he was not entirely paranoid at the end of his life to think that the F.B.I. had been keeping an eye on him is noted, too, and so is the fact that the Bureau seemed to have little malice toward him. Indeed, J. Edgar Hoover himself—another tough guy with a hidden side—was an admirer. And Dearborn sees clearly what was clouded then: that a large part of Hemingway’s decline in his last years was due to an inherited bipolar disorder coupled with a penchant for self-medication through alcohol.

We pass through the usual progress of Hemingway’s life, already well charted in all those other books. Early fraught years in Oak Park, a suburb of Chicago, with a distant, manic-depressive father, who eventually committed suicide, and a cold mother, who once ordered the young Ernest out of the house and, years later, when his first novel was a hit, found a wholly negative local review to send him. Relief in the form of summers spent fishing at the family’s lake cottage. No college years—he missed that part, and paid for it by overcompensating intellectually—but war experiences. Hemingway went to the Italian front in 1918, at eighteen, as an ambulance driver, in the company of the once famous, now largely forgotten novelist John Dos Passos. As James McGrath Morris points out in his new book “The Ambulance Drivers,” Dos Passos had a keen sense of the real waste and horror of war, whereas Hemingway still saw it as an occasion for a heroic show of stoical endurance. The courage of his going at all is undeniable; after a few weeks, he got blown up by a mortar and recovered in the hospital, falling in love with that beautiful nurse. He then went to work as a journalist for the Toronto Star; there’s a nice line in “The Sun Also Rises” about the easy social graces of Canadians. But, as much as generations of newspapermen have claimed him as a student of newspaper style, nothing memorable emerges from the collected journalism. It was only after his marriage to Hadley Richardson, a St. Louis heiress, that he set off for Paris, arriving in late 1921 with a determination to become a great and modern writer that was touching in one who had received so little encouragement. Encouragement as a writer, that is; Hemingway’s charisma and good looks had made life easy for him, as they would go on doing for a long time after. (Of all the gifts that can grace a literary career, good looks are the most easily overlooked and not the least important: though we may read blind, we don’t befriend blind.) Dearborn is faintly disapproving of his literary careerism in Paris, registering the fact that he used his attractiveness to attract, while rather missing the point that the people he was courting, Ezra Pound and Sylvia Beach and Gertrude Stein and the rest, were avant-gardists with no influence in the realms of commercial publishing where he had to make a living. He was certainly ambitious and appealing, but the ambition for which he used his appeal was to write well in a new way.

His natural sound, the tone that rises when he is writing unself-consciously to friends, is nothing like the voice of his good fiction. He was naturally garrulous and jocose—indeed, by the time he was a celebrity he was so garrulous and jocose that it shocked people, though he was just being himself. (This explains the response to the notorious Profile of him by Lillian Ross that ran in this magazine in 1950: he read the galleys, thought he sounded hilarious and charming, and had no idea that he would come off as a self-absorbed blowhard.) Writing to a friend about bullfights in 1925, when his literary style was already fully formed, he said, “It ain’t a moral spectacle and if a male looks at it for a moral standpoint there isn’t any excuses. But if a male takes it as it comes. Gawk what a hell of a wonderful show.” His letters are stuffed with similar kinds of heavy-handed kidding.

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