When Borges wrote that the novelists of the United States had made a literary virtue of brutality, he no doubt had Hemingway in mind. Not only because there is so much violence in Hemingway’s novels but because in perhaps no other modern writer do physical prowess, courage, brute force, and the spirit of destruction achieve the same dignity. In Hemingway, to suffer or to cause suffering is not an unfortunate fatality of the human condition: It is the test through which man transcends his miserable circumstances and wins moral greatness.
He was, unquestionably, a great writer. The proof is that he is still alive as a novelist even though his values have been discredited. There is an instructive paradox in this. How can we explain the fervor of today’s readers — ecological revolutionaries, worshippers of conservation, devotees of chemically inspired spiritualism, pacifists, and militants of disarmament — for the bard of hunting, bullfighting, boxing, and all other manifestations of machismo? Simply by pointing out that the cultivator of those anachronisms was a great writer, that is, an artist who totally controlled his means of expression and who had a power to communicate that compels even those readers who oppose the dominant values of his era to accept the world of his writing. It’s not Hemingway’s “ideas” that convince us today. His concept of man and life seems superficial, schematic, and naive. Despite that, the power of his images, the stoic magic of his words, the perfect elegance with which the rites of combat, love, or murder are performed in his stories continue to seduce today’s benign young people, neither more nor less than they seduced the angry young people of 30 years ago.
That’s why publishers compete for his unpublished manuscripts, constantly reprint his novels and stories, and seek out biographies or reminiscences by his friends. I have read that in 1985 no other writer, living or dead, was the subject of as many critical studies or doctoral theses as Hemingway. And, to judge by the three I just read, the quantity is matched by quality. All three books, no matter what reservations or disagreements we might have about them from a critical point of view, are the result of rigorous research.
Jeffrey Meyers’s is the most ambitious. It covers Hemingway’s entire life and adds to as well as corrects Carlos Baker’s 1969 biography, until now the standard work. Professor Meyers has corresponded copiously with Hemingway’s friends and relatives, has interviewed many of them, and discovered a great deal of hitherto unknown information (for example, the FBI tried to ruin Hemingway’s reputation as a writer because they thought he was a communist). Meyers also moves knowledgeably through Hemingway’s works and relates them t0 episodes of his life, although his efforts to identify the sources for Hemingway’s characters are not always persuasive. Meyers’s book is the most complete biography written on the author he calls (forgetting about Faulkner’s existence) “the most important American author of the twentieth century.”
Despite this hyperbole and the massive amount of work he’s’ dedicated to Hemingway, I have to wonder after reading his book if the hard-working Meyers really likes his hero. His Hemingway is pitiful. A man who, contrary to his public image — the good-natured, gigantic adventurer, heroic even in his weaknesses — was a lifelong braggart, a drunk, a man who took unfair advantage of his strength, who was possessed by a murderous obsession with the animal world he devastated with every kind of weapon he could lay his hands on, a man who betrayed his friends, who was a despot with his wives, and who cultivated his public image with as much ability as imposture.
I’m not accusing Meyers of calumniating Hemingway. I’m willing to believe his statistics — the accidents, sicknesses, the moves, almost every ejaculation and fiasco perpetrated by Hemingway. But why is it that this biography has an air about it of being off target, of being a caricature?
It may be a problem of point of view. A magnifying glass does not reveal the details of a beautiful body: It makes the body monstrous by isolating and enlarging one detail that possesses harmony and grace only within the totality. Meyers’s biography is an autopsy in which the subject has been dismembered. All we have are fragments — most of them horrible — and no way of knowing how the body was as a living whole.
What gives unity and life to a writer after death, when journalistic gossip, the myths and horror stories that surround him no longer matter, are his poems or prose, the world of words which survives him and which should be the only reason for our taking an interest in his life.
This idea has only a tenuous role, in Jeffrey Meyers’s biography and, what is worse, when the biographer alludes to it hedges so in a most debatable way. For him, literary archeology consists of a detective-like investigation that assumes the author’s literary creations correspond to extraliterary models — persons or events — which the critic must identify. Once he’s done it, voila! the creative act is explained. Meyers states flatly that so-and-so is such-and-such a character and that episode x or anecdote y, retouched in one detail or another, is the theme of this story or that novel. It’s because of this, perhaps, that a reader of Hemingway who reads this biography has the impression something’s being put over on him. No literary work, and even less so one by a great writer, reproduces lived reality or is a mere summary of observations and experiences translated into words, seasoned by the author with a pinch of fantasy.
A fiction is always a fraudulent recomposition of reality, a lie that — if the creator has genius — is powerful enough to persuade the reader that it is true in the magic moment of reading. A fiction does not express the world: It changes it, reworks it, all in accord with the ambitions, appetites, or frustrations the creator feels in his bones. It’s on these things his fantasy works. That transmutation of personal experience into literature — into universal experience, a myth in which other people may recognize themselves — is always mysterious. Successful biographies make the process intelligible.
This doesn’t happen in Meyers’s book. It’s possible that the Hemingway of flesh and blood was a capricious, inconsiderate, ill-intentioned man, capable of flattening the careless friend who’d agreed to box with him, a conceited man who always wanted to be Number One. I suspect there are many such in the world. They abound above all in underdeveloped countries, where hard drinking and fistfighting constitute a religious cult. But only one of those drunken thugs was capable of writing The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, and a handful of outstanding stories in which a man’s life seems — falsely — like a heroic conquest of dignity, a test in which physical prowess — in sports, war, or sex — becomes metaphysical, a path to plenitude and the absolute.
Any man is a summa of weakness, pettiness, and misery, and Jeffrey Meyers has accumulated a painful number of Hemingway’s defects. But his book does not show us how Hemingway managed to metamorphose that arsenal of imperfections into a splendid fresco of human adventure during the era of world wars, revolutions, the collapse of institutions and traditional certitudes, the era of a great spiritual vacuum. In his biography, literature is a marginal activity, an afterthought in a life in which fishing, hunting, alcohol, boxing, bullfights, women, and travel were the important events.
The sympathy Meyers’s hook lacks abounds in Peter Griffin’s Along with Youth, the first volume of a biography so fervent it borders on hagiography. The character’s defects haven’t disappeared, but they are masked by his virtues: vital energy, spontaneity, personal charm, an intimate innocence which no failure or disillusion seems capable of destroying —and which the biographer documents with contagious devotion. Griffin writes in a clear, pleasant style and knows how to narrate in a subtle fashion. The result is that the reader forms his own, very vivid image of Hemingway’s early years: Oak Park, a virtuous Republican suburb of Chicago, a willful, musical, and mystical mother, a doctor father suffering from nervous disorders and a taciturn existence that would end in suicide.
The power and care with which the author follows the movements of the young Hemingway make him seem at times omniscient. The most original sections deal with Hemingway’s romance with Hadley Richardson, his first wife. Peter Griffin reconstructs their courtship day by day, using a huge number of letters which belonged to Hadley and which her son, Jack Hemingway, made available to him. But for me, the best part of the book describes Hemingway’s earlier romance, while he was convalescing in Milan, with a nurse, Agnes von Kurowsky, who dropped him for a Neapolitan duke. (There is justice in this world: The duke dropped her later on.) Their brief romance is admirably brought to life in details — the restaurants the lovers frequented and the dishes they ordered. Griffin has finally laid to rest the doubt that perturbs Hemingway’s biographers and critics: Was the relationship consummated or was it platonic? He proves that the couple shared a bed for three days and produces a letter from Agnes in which she says that she dreams of “going to sleep with your arms around me.” The point here is neither academic nor gossipy because the romance with Agnes von Kurowsky is the raw material Hemingway used to construct A Farewell to Arms, and knowing what happened in fact allows us to understand better what Hemingway added, subtracted, and enriched when he transformed it into fiction. That is, we actually get inside his narrative system.
This, by the way, is the only part of Griffin’s interesting book that the reader can use to reach a greater understanding of Hemingway’s writing. Unlike his relationship with Agnes von Kurowsky, neither his romance nor his marriage with Hadley seems to have directly affected his writing, except for the meager evocation of his first marriage in A Moveable Feast. For this reason, Griffin’s reconstruction of the months before the marriage — Hadley was in St. Louis and Ernest in Chicago — by means of their dense epistolary conversation turns out to be rather dull. The things the lovers said to each other were much more interesting for them than for posterity.
In those years minutely documented in Along with Youth (1919 and 1920), Hemingway was not yet Hemingway, only a vague project. What we see does not lead directly to the writer he would begin to be a few years later. It’s true he wrote a lot, and Griffin’s book includes five unpublished stories from that period, a mere handful from the many he wrote and sent to magazines. (They were all rejected.) Griffin seeks to disprove what Hemingway criticism takes as fact, namely that only beginning with his trip to Paris and his encounters with Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound did Hemingway define his literary orientation and find his style. Griffin declares that Hemingway defined himself before going to Paris. The definition was forged in the period between his return to Italy and his marriage to Hadley, above all during the months he lived in Chicago, where he met Sherwood Anderson, his first literary influence, as well as other writers and intellectuals.
I don’t think Griffin proves his point. To the contrary, the early stories he includes in Along with Youth actually destroy his thesis. Of the five, only one, “The Current,” about a boxing match in which the protagonist risks losing both the title and the heart of the girl he loves, has a “Hemingway-esque” theme. But this story doesn’t even remotely approach what would be the principal characteristics of Hemingway’s writing — the economy of his prose, the clarity and efficacy of his dialogues, the facts hidden from the reader to create mystery or charge the story with drama. These stories are sensationalist in tone and fail because of the pomposity of their language. They are wrong exactly where Hemingway is always right — in dialogue. One feels inclined to agree with the editors who refused to publish these immature productions because thanks to them Hemingway found his way — a way very different from the one in which he took his first hesitant steps as a writer.
Peter Griffin’s book does not really help us to understand that process. Even though it is prolix about Hemingway’s relations with family and friends, his loves, his trips, his sports, his work and pleasure, it practically overlooks his intellectual development. His education was weak and defective, and it was only after getting to Paris in 1922, and thanks to the milieu in which he had the good fortune to move, that it acquired dynamism and quality. But he must have read some books before. He must have had some idea about the métier to which he was going to dedicate himself, and he must have had some ideas about the literature of his times. On this, Peter Griffin’s book says almost nothing. The young Hemingway his pages project wanted to be a writer, yes, but there is no sign he had any interest in literature.
Michael Reynolds, in The Young Hemingway, explores this intellectual and aesthetic growth, certainly the most attractive aspect of Hemingway’s life for those interested in his books instead of his legend or myth. Curiously enough, most Hemingway biographers have overlooked it. Reynolds’s project was not easy to realize, since it entailed something like painting empty space or making music out of silence. The reason Hemingway’s critics and biographers have not spoken about his “literary education” is that, in a certain sense, he had practically none, and what little he did have seemed so poor that it was preferable to forget it. But this was not really true, and Reynolds’s essay proves it.
Hemingway cultivated an anti-intellectual public image. He avoided literary groups and often ridiculed (especially in Death in the Afternoon) bookish writers, those who preferred books to “life.” Like so many of his poses, this one concealed his discomfort, his awareness of an intellectual void which shamed him. This is why he invented the tale of not being able to go to Princeton, where he’d supposedly been accepted, because his mother had spent the tuition money on a summer house.
Until he was 20 or 21, Hemingway was very ignorant in literary matters. Not only because he read little, but because he read mediocre books. This does not mean that his family was uneducated. His mother, who had studied music and was a singing teacher, had an intense spiritual life — including mystical experiences — but her rigid puritanism must have excluded any poetry, novels, or essays that might have been heterodox or sinful. Hemingway’s father, the weak, neurotic doctor, stimulated the young man’s love for nature, travel, and sports, but apparently had no literary curiosity whatsoever. The intellectual climate of Oak Park, admirably reconstructed by Professor Reynolds from what the citizens of that conservative town read or published in the local paper, what books they bought for the library, what lectures or debates they attended, was conventional, stereotyped. There is nothing strange in the fact that the young Hemingway would grow up without knowing about the radical changes taking place in literature in the United States and the rest of the world. The Young Hemingway shows that when he was 19, he had still not read Conrad, Lawrence, Sherwood Anderson, Gertrude Stein, Eliot, or Joyce, and that his literary models were the authors who published stories in magazines like Red Book, Cosmopolitan, and The Saturday Evening Post. It’s no wonder, then, that until his trip to Paris he had never thought of someday being a “great writer,” with all that means in terms of artistic excellence. Literature for him, in his prehistory, was nothing more than a “job that produced income.”
One of the most interesting chapters of this book studies how some of the essential ingredients of what would later be Hemingway’s philosophy — the cult of courage, submitting oneself to tests to prove one’s physical and moral energy, love for sports — filled the air of the hermetically sealed world in which he spent his adolescence. It shows how important Theodore Roosevelt’s ideas about how the character of the citizen should be formed were for Hemingway. Reynolds was correct to examine the environment instead of concentrating exclusively on Hemingway himself, reconstructing by means of sound interpretive methods Hemingway’s various worlds: family, school, country, and city. He reveals the coordinates that enlighten us about the limitations the young man had to overcome to make himself into the creator he would be later on. Although the book is repetitious and some themes are not developed in proportion to their real importance, the reader will find here information that clarifies many aspects of Hemingway that until now have been badly misunderstood. It is a magnificent evocation of the difficult beginnings of Hemingway’s literary career. ■
Translated By Alfred J. MacAdam
HEMINGWAY: A Biography. By Jeffrey Meyers. Harper & Row, $27.50.
ALONG WITH YOUTH: Hemingway, the Early Years. By Peter Griffin. Oxford University Press, $17.50.
THE YOUNG HEMINGWAY. By Michael Reynolds. Basil Blackwell, $19.95.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on December 30, 2019