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Disparaging Hemingway


ISSUE:  Winter 2001

In introducing his less than admiring review of Ernest Hemingway’s Across the River and Into the Trees, in The New York Times Book Review, John O’Hara referred to him as the greatest writer since Shakespeare. O’Hara wasn’t simply being contrarian; I’m sure he could have reasonably justified the hyperbole. As a fellow professional writer, he understood that if Hemingway had not written much that was indifferent or inferior, like the book under scrutiny, as Shakespeare and O’Hara himself had done, Hemingway might not have written so much that was great.

O’Hara’s intent was certainly not to set Hemingway up so as to level him in the rest of the review, in what seems to have become a Western tradition. Someone at some point thought it necessary to observe that even Homer nodded. Ben Jonson sniffed that Shakespeare had small Latin and less Greek; John Milton condescendingly spoke of him “warbl[ing] his native wood-notes wild” (my emphasis). The devaluation of Shakespeare reached lunatic proportions in later efforts to deny his authorship altogether.

We now have a library of books and articles, some speculative and dubious; some accurate or at least plausible; some disreputable; some casually, irresponsibly, and pointlessly libellous (the object of the calumny being dead); many distasteful and ill-advised; all in some measure intended to downgrade the writer: on Shakespeare’s, Kipling’s, and Hemingway’s homosexuality; Milton’s sexual naivety (one recent fiction depicted him also as a genocidal maniac); Carroll’s and Barrie’s pedophilia; James’s impotence and asexuality; Shelley’s domestic messiness; Byron’s incest and bisexuality; Dickinson’s abortions; Shaw’s and Beerbohm’s sexless marriages; Cather’s lesbianism; Woolf s early rape and later mistreatment of her husband; Eliot’s callousness toward his first wife; Trilling’s Attention Deficit Disorder. The straining to pull down famed writers may well be a measure of the esteem in which society holds them.

Few of these debunking works illuminate the texts that established our interest in the writers in the first place. They find, exaggerate, even invent warts and other blemishes, which, while they should ideally contribute particularity, shading, and depth to a portrait, simply obscures it. They can be as hideous as Francis Bacon’s paintings although he defines as he disfigures.

Modern instances remain especially vivid. The so-called “dirty letters” of Nora and James Joyce added little to what one may learn from Ulysses about them through the Blooms’ marriage or from Richard Ellmann’s biography. John Cheever’s journals, which revealed his bisexual encounters, provided flashes of wry insight into his fiction. Their essential irrelevance became starkly clear in the farcical Seinfeld episode in which imagined love letters from Cheever to the father of one of the characters survived a fire. We didn’t require Mencken’s diaries, with their bits of vomitous hatred, to remind us of his quirkiness.

Does tabloid prurience become valid after a subject’s death? Should we ever allow any important craftsman’s personal idiosyncrasies and shortcomings, however ugly, bizarre, or “uncharacteristic,” however irrefutably documented, however disguised and hidden during a lifetime, diminish or alter our estimate of the work? Wagner? Dostoyevsky? Tolstoy? Wilde? Shakespeare himself (who may have been no better a husband and father than Hemingway)? Picasso? Mencken? Joyce? Yeats? Pound? Larkin? Salinger? Et al.

For all of the high-minded academic emphasis on the importance of the message over the messenger, on the song rather than the singer, literary study keeps descending to profitless, sensational biographical exposure. We leer at great writers the way groupies do at rock and media stars, coveting their refuse and records of their most ordinary activity. Hemingway once submitted shopping and laundry lists as part of his monthly contribution to Esquire magazine, almost contemptuously catering to this appetite. Like medieval peasants enthralled by saints, we are titillated by fetishistic bits of association, however spurious. But with our modern worship also come doubt and repudiation.

O’Hara aside, who did quite solemnly respect him, Hemingway has been the target of critical and academic discounting as perhaps no other writer in the English world since Shakespeare while simultaneously becoming a revered icon. My impression is that in the majority popular view Hemingway is more an object of ridicule than of regard. The centennial of his birth, 1999, loosed a torrent of disparagement plunging from grudging, carping concession of his merit to venomous insult and debasement. He was “accused” of having had too many marriages, divorces, and affairs; satyriasis; committing suicide; chronic alcoholism; anti-Semitism; being bisexual and antifeminist; machismo; careless writing; loving guns and war; killing animals for sport; hating his mother and father; abusing his wives and sons; etc, etc.

One might think our society had never come to the minimal enlightenment that holds some of these frailties and failings to be forms of sickness and inadequacy, their victims more to be pitied, treated, or forgiven than crudely condemned. We openly relish details of what we turn into case histories. “Such a sad, silly and troubled bastard,” one critic remarked of Hemingway, “is a biographer’s dream.” Hemingway was also blamed during this celebratory stoning for somehow encouraging the cults and enterprises that have sprung up about his name, like the extremes Elvis Presley inspired, from bars in Paris and Key West advertising his alleged association with them to pens, furniture, clothing he supposedly favored, gatherings of look-alikes, big game hunting and fishing expeditions, periodic conventions of worshippers, many of whom hardly know his texts.

Putting down Hemingway, of course, had become a sport well before 1999. Lillian Ross’s Profile in The New Yorker, in 1950, while Hemingway was still alive, early provided material for attacking him. In 1961, the year of his death, that Profile was republished as a book, Portrait of Hemingway. It depicted Hemingway in performance on a trip to New York, all in Ross’s presence, most memorably for me, shopping for an elephant gun at Abercrombie and Fitch, aiming an imaginary one at the sky while walking on Madison Avenue, and meeting and talking with Marlene Dietrich, whom he called the “kraut” and who called him “Papa.” Hemingway came through to me in the Profile as extraordinarily, minutely alert to the figure he was cutting.

In 1999, The New Yorker ran in its May 24th issue Ross’s reminiscence “Hemingway Told Me Things: Notes on a decade’s correspondence” and a new, never published, “reconstructed” story by him, “Miss Mary’s Sorrow.” The reminiscence appeared in good part as the Afterword to a new edition of her Portrait of Hemingway issued in that year. She wrote in the reminiscence that in her Profile she: “wanted to give a picture of this special man as he was, how he looked and sounded, with his vitality, his unique and fun-loaded conversation, and his enmormous spirit of truthfulness intact. He had the nerve to be like nobody else on earth, stripping himself—like his writing—of all camouflage and ornament. To my surprise the piece was extremely controversial, Some readers objected strongly to Hemingway’s personality and admired the piece for the wrong reasons. The Profile was called “devastating” by some reviewers.”

Hemingway wrote to Lillian Ross that people told him she had with her Profile “made an effort to destroy me and nearly did.” Her report could only “destroy” him in that it did not satisfy the stereotype of a mythical Hemingway. Hemingway shrugged off the negative responses to him prompted by the Profile, implicitly acknowledging its accuracy. This episode illustrates the widespread common resentment and rejection of the man’s blunt instinctual honesty, his compulsion and capacity to pose, the impress of his massive ego, qualities which emerge in the seeming offhand ease of his writing, its clean inevitability. As Ross indicated, the man and his work are one. Both demand respect when not distorted by expectation and both rouse similar conflicting reaction.

Hemingway too readily summons up the piquant mixture of envy and disapproval, contempt and adulation, provoked by strong, flamboyant, and, above all, successful creative personalities in our culture, those who display a consummate and easy control of their talent fused with a perhaps too comfortable sense of self: Mailer, Picasso, Ali, Sinatra, Piaf, Hitchcock, Colette, Dietrich, Gertrude Stein, Bacall, John Lennon, Mick Jagger, and before our immediate time: Byron, Wilde, Shaw, Jefferson, Lincoln, Disraeli, Pirandello, Freud, Einstein. All are “larger than life,” larger than the rest of us, that is, and, consequently, reminders of our limits. The original styles of powerful writers (Shakespeare, Milton, Faulkner, T.S. Eliot) have always inspired parody, a genre mixing admiration and derision. Burlesques of Hemingway’s writing have become a ritual.

Culture heroes attract glib labels. Perhaps most outrageously, that of anti-Semitism has been applied casually and certainly superficially to Hemingway, as he himself light heartedly enough acknowledged. Robert Cohn, in The Sun Also Rises, has been the main basis for the charge. But Cohn is an unpleasant person, as anyone of any ethnic identity has a right to be, in fiction or out. He is a whiner and bully, a hanger on. Hemingway had no reason to apologize for his depiction of Cohn.

About Jews, Hemingway did write to Ross as follows, about a friend’s wife: “There was always, with her, a lot of stuff about being Jewish and not being Jewish. This always bores the hell out of me because I would just as soon observe Yom Kippur as Easter, and I am really an Indian I guess anyway and we probably were as badly bitched as the Jews. I like Jews very much, but I always get bored with people making a career of their race, religion, or their noble families. Why can’t we take the whole damned thing for granted?” He introduced himself as “Hemingstein” to persons he knew didn’t like Jews; he liked to call himself “Huck Hemingstein.”

It is absurd, of course, to hold Hemingway responsible for the reshaping of his writing leftovers to make “new” works after his death. Much of the centennial drubbing of Hemingway had to do with the appearance of hitherto unpublished materials, some puzzlingly edited.

These baldly ballyhooed publications raised a pertinent, perhaps disturbing question. What are we to do with any writer’s scribblings, doodlings, experiments, scraps, jeux d’esprit, drafts, notes, casual jottings, sketches that never get rewritten or incorporated into finished work, released by the writer while still in full control, but remain as part of an estate? The New Yorker reworked short story “never should have seen the light of day,” wrote Michiko Kukitani in The New York Times. But I do not think we should routinely hide or destroy everything not initialled by the creator.

I think the treatment of Hemingway’s literary remains, and the response to them, argues that they should have been offered to the world in as close to their original form as possible, principally for their productive use by teachers, scholars, students, critics, editors, other specialists, and legitimate enthusiasts (a listing which would, of course, require careful sifting). We would have lost a valuable work of art and history if we did not have A Moveable Feast, which was published two years after Hemingway’s death from a manuscript he did not edit for publication.

I recall viewing a selection of Alexander Pope’s posthumous manuscripts at the New York Public Library. They consisted of dozens of pairs of rimed words running down the right side of several sheets of paper, the left sides left blank, indicating that Pope for this unfinished project composed the ending words before he did the lines preceding them. It would have been a desecration, I think, if anyone other than Pope had contributed the missing lines. I like to think that Pope did not write all his heroic verse like this, that these pages were exclusively early efforts, but it is bemusing—and informative—to wonder whether he may indeed have composed at times like this throughout his life. I was surprised, enlightened, and moderately disappointed to hear Stephen Sondheim confess that he used a riming dictionary.

Carving and trimming the short story for The New Yorker was certainly a noble exercise of some sort. If nothing else, the result suggests how much Hemingway may have admired his early masterpiece, “The Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” which it evokes in characterization, plot, and setting. Reproducing a success is human, and it is satisfying to see Hemingway indulging a simple human impulse.

The new African book, True at First Light, from which the short story was taken and was itself roundly faulted, brought one positive comment. “Despite the repressed and narrowing solipsism of True at First Light,” Brenda Wineapple wrote in The Nation, “its evocation of the insomniac’s terrified loneliness reminds us of Hemingway’s writing at its most touching, acute and beautiful best, the prose, say, of his early stories. And as if he knew this, in his mythical Africa, he sleeps with his head cradled on a pillow that, filled with balsam needles, smells of his Michigan boyhood.”

As we know too little of Shakespeare the man, we know perhaps too much of Hemingway. What we do not need for either is the kind of ranking Hemingway despised, the assignment of place in an eternal judging contest. Shakespeare needs no numbering; neither does Hemingway. I think it unfortunate, although perhaps salutary, that O’Hara felt he had to make his tote of Hemingway, who belongs in Shakespeare’s company (with or without O’Hara’s placement), along with others, none needing numbers on their backs. Nor do we need prodigies of interpretation and mediation to argue Hemingway’s achievement; at this point these approach patronizing him. O’Hara’s striking hyperbole compels serious attention even while we feel its puffery.

We might get more out of Hemingway’s posthumously gathered works, with all hemming and hawing, all false starts, all lapses from grace, left intact. We have long derived substantial reward from studying unfinished projects of important craftsmen. Works in progress of true artists are the raw materials of final beauty: diamonds in the rough, rich with the mystery of promise. Hemingway deserves no less homage than leaving the man, his life, his work less pawed over.

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