Even before he shot the top of his own head off, Americans had begun to wonder whether they had come to love Hemingway not wisely but too well. This suspicion had little to do with his stories and novels: it was the fiction that Hemingway and others had made of his life that held the attention – the text of the man, not of his art. As the writer and war correspondent William Walton said to Denis Brian, ‘a man who has spent all his life inventing fiction keeps on inventing it in his private life.’
The reaction started with the publication of Death in the Afternoon in 1932, the hero of which, as Kenneth Lynn cogently expresses it, is not ‘a haunted Nick Adams, or a crippled Jake Barnes, or a hollowed-out Frederic Henry, but an overbearing know-it-all named Ernest Hemingway’. Max Eastman said Hemingway had false hair on his chest. Gertrude Stein, in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, called his courage into question. Of course, there was a lot to debunk – and much, much more would come in the shape of adulatory stories in newspapers and popular magazines about Hemingway as the decorated war hero of World War One (the first American to be wounded in Italy, as the inaccurate claim went); as the supreme exponent of grace under pressure, and purity of line, in all physical performance from boxing to sexual intercourse; above all, as the great aficionado of matadors, wine, women and nice places to swim on the Riviera.
‘Don’t get mad; get even,’ as the current macho line in business and bureaucratic behaviour has it. Hemingway got both. He responded to Eastman by punching him out – as he would other male authors, including the mild-mannered Wallace Stevens, who had called him a ‘sap’, though not to his face. He would save his revenge on Stein for the printed page and a much later date, in the deftly poisonous account of a lesbian tiff between her and Toklas in A Moveable Feast. His parents especially made him mad: his mother, who had rejected The sun also rises for failing to embody ‘loyalty, nobility, honour and fineness of life’; his father, who couldn’t stand up to his mother and who finally shot himself.
He got mad at his literary parents too. Hemingway hated to read that his style owed something to another writer’s. He quarrelled with almost all who had helped him practically or by example. He got even, in his fiction, through unpleasant, barely disguised transpositions of his literary father figures. He would parody them. The Torrents of Spring is a mockery of the style of Sherwood Anderson, his earliest and most crucial patron. Of those who contributed to Hemingway’s career and writing practice, only Ezra Pound emerged unwounded. It is not clear why, though Pound’s imagism (deal with the thing itself, avoid abstract values, cut down on adjectives) was both the single most identifiable ‘influence’ on Hemingway’s prose and the most generously acknowledged by its author.
He had many other faults. Women he either marginalised as satellite ‘daughters’ or melo-dramatised as ‘bitching’ his work, and hence his manhood. We have probably had most of the bad news by now – more than we want. Hemingway’s life, stripped of its mythical outer garments, now lies naked in archive holdings at the University of Texas and the Kennedy Library in Boston, not to mention the still-available personal reminiscences of discarded wives, old adversaries and the hundred or so of the novelist’s friends and acquaintances interviewed by Denis Brian. Fortunately the archival raw materials of his biography have recently encouraged some considerable biographical studies. Among these are three books by Michael Reynolds on aspects of Hemingway’s life and reading, and the comprehensive Hemingway (1985) by the indefatigable English biographer Jeffrey Meyers.
Reynolds and Meyers stepped outside the ring where the mythographers and debunkers had slugged it out. Between them, and not without respect for the subject of their analysis, they coolly dismantled most of the fictions erected around the life. Reynolds shows that while Hemingway was bringing sweets and cigarettes to the Italian troops, he was indeed wounded by an Austrian mortar shell, but did not, as the story went, then carry another wounded soldier back to the first-aid station, receiving additional hits from a machine-gun on the way. He certainly did not go on to fight, after his convalescence, with the crack Italian assault force, the Arditi, as he allowed the legend to suggest, and as he seems to have come to believe. While accepting the business about carrying the wounded soldier to safety, Meyers is otherwise sceptical about the number of wounds supposedly received in his legs. The consensus is now that Hemingway was resourceful and brave under fire – indeed, sometimes foolhardy – but remained essentially an observer or tourist: someone who ‘went to’ wars rather than stayed in them, or (less harshly) a good war correspondent.
To look at, leaf through and hold in the hand, Kenneth Lynn’s new biography is virtually interchangeable with Meyers’s life study: same subject, same title, same length, same close attention to (nearly) the same details. Yet appearing only two years after Meyers’s Hemingway was published, Lynn’s has almost completely displaced the earlier work in American critical fashion. What has Lynn got that Meyers hasn’t? They both write well, holding the reader’s attention for six hundred pages. Lynn’s narrative sweep is the wider and more forceful, and he pauses, necessarily briefly, for critical snapshots of the work that are usually convincing and always acute. But his real advantage is having been allowed some sort of access (it is not clear what) to a resource denied Meyers: the sprawling manuscript of over a thousand pages of Hemingway’s unfinished The Garden of Eden. In addition, Scribner’s were well enough advanced on their drastic redaction of the work to show him an early copy of the book they published under that title in 1986.
The Garden of Eden gave Lynn his theme, or at least the explicit articulation of hints he had picked up at stages throughout his subject’s life and work. The published version concerns a writer persuaded by his young bride on their Riviera honeymoon, first to exchange gender roles, then to take another woman as his lover. In turn alarmed and bored by the experiment, increasingly resentful of the time her husband spends on the other woman and his work, the wife burns the ‘cahiers’ containing drafts of the writer’s stories. The novel is crammed with references to haircuts – the woman is for ever having hers fashioned as a boy’s and persuading her reluctant husband to have his done the same – and the author’s interest in twinning and androgyny is thus made manifest, for the first time, in this clearly unauthorised work.
With the secret out, Lynn was able to construct a chain of events stretching right back to Hemingway’s babyhood that reads as a detective story. What is significant is not that his mother dressed the infant Hemingway in skirts – lots of Late Victorian American parents did that to their male children – but that she insisted on ‘twinning’ him with his older sister Marcelline in male or female clothing, even holding the girl back a year so that the two could enter the same class in school. It isn’t that Jake Barnes has been rendered impotent by his war wound in The sun also rises, but that he is ‘passionately in love with a sexually aggressive woman with an androgynous first name and a mannish haircut, a man whose dilemma is that, like a lesbian, he cannot penetrate his loved one’s body with his own’. A psychic impotence? Jake’s name, says Lynn, comes from two celebrated American lesbians in Paris, Natalie Barney and Djuna Barnes, who lived, respectively, in the Rue Jacob and the Hotel Jacob.
There is a good deal more of this: Hemingway’s attraction to women who looked like boys, or whom he enjoined to; the surnames of the lovers (‘an androgynous whole’) in A Farewell to Arms, which were derived from Hemingway’s friend, Barklie Henry; even Lady Emerald Cunard remarking to Cyril Connolly that Hemingway struck her ‘as androgynous’. ‘You may think it bizarre of me.’ she added, ‘It is not the mot juste perhaps. But that is how he struck me.’
Bizarre no more. For if Lynn occasionally pushes the envelope (as they are supposed to say in test-flying circles) his thesis convinces. Why is it important? First, the argument challenges the hostile view of Hemingway which claims that, as Lynn puts it, ‘he has no perspective on the behaviour of the men in his stories because he can’t identify with the women.’ Second, it calls into question the whole critical-historical construct of the ‘lost generation’ of idealistic young Americans in Europe, for whom the trauma of the First War put an end to fine ideas about morals and politics. (Hemingway got a kick and several good stories out of his war injury; his real wound came much earlier.) Finally, it explains the life-long insistence on Hemingway’s maleness and the frequently harsh or dismissive treatment of women in his fiction and the fiction of his life in which he collaborated, with the pose seen as compensation for a competing female sensibility, suspected and repressed at another level of consciousness.
So we are back with the ‘false hair’ notion, except that this time it is part of a wider, better-informed hypothesis that allows a more comprehensive understanding of the life, and positively begs for a revaluation of the work. For this achievement alone Lynn’s book deserves its accolades. Beyond that, the androgyny argument both explains and settles an old literary-historical puzzle about how to categorise Hemingway. He never seemed to fit Philip Rahv’s division of American authors into ‘palefaces’ and ‘redskins’. Against the ‘redskin’ values – his boxing, fishing, outdoor living, love of bullfights, courage under fire – the careful critic could juxtapose the ‘paleface’ frequenter of literary coteries whose first good work appeared in little magazines, the incessant reader (even on safari), the recipient, like Henry James, of an obscure wound that kept him from the war. Were his stories full of ‘action’ or of ‘love’? Did he sympathise with men or with women? Was he more interested in plot or in character? What did he mean by ‘style’: the way a matador moved in a veronica or the way a writer put words on the page?
Yet, despite having achieved a new critical balance in his discriminations of the life and work, Lynn is surprisingly unwilling to let go of the debunker’s hammer. For example, does the old story about the lost generation still need to be hit so hard? Does anyone still take it seriously? And does its sometime proponent, Malcolm Cowley, need to be tracked down and blasted quite so ruthlessly in over a dozen hostile references? Again, when a Hemingway version of an episode is contradicted by the less flattering reminiscences of women and men with whom he fell out, should the latter always be accepted as the truth? Or when Hemingway writes (in A Moveable Feast) that Scott Fitzgerald admitted to having been a virgin before he married Zelda, and the English actress Rosalinde Fuller writes that, on the contrary, she had a passionate affair with Fitzgerald before his marriage, should her evidence be proclaimed a ‘telling rebuttal’ of Hemingway’s statement? Both accounts are hearsay, but, on balance, which is the more likely: a man’s admission of his own sexual inexperience or someone’s claim to have been intimate with a famous writer? Lynn says that Hemingway is ‘savagely destructive’ of Fitzgerald in A Moveable Feast: I think this is one of the very few places where Lynn gets Hemingway’s tone wrong.
Then there is the question of Hemingway’s anti-semitism As Lynn properly reminds his reader, anti-semitism in the Twenties was both casual and endemic, and detectable in the work of Fitzgerald and Eliot, to mention just two other American writers. But Hemingway’s antipathy to Jews was something special, apparently: ‘Hemingway, however, did not like feeling indebted to anyone, and particularly to [Harold] Loeb. Furthermore, he was secretly furious that a Jew had muscled his way into Duff [Twysden]’s Gentile affections.’ As Loeb himself remembers it, it was Duff who suffered the aggression, in the form of her transformation into Lady Brett in The sun also rises. ‘Would you call [Hemingway] anti-semitic?’ Brian asked him. ‘I don’t think so. He usually had a Jewish friend or two. I never heard him say anything against them. Kitty Cannell said he called Fleishman an kike, but I don’t know.’ But Lynn writes of Horace Liveright: ‘If marital relations in the Rue Notre Dame des Champs were rocky, it was partly because of his and Hadley’s financial worries, which that Jew publisher in New York had done nothing to alleviate ... Offering Liveright a manuscript which he knew in advance would be turned down was the only way to get out of his Semitic clutches and move on to a more honourable publisher.’ Whose words are these? If Lynn has evidence for these feelings of Hemingway’s, why doesn’t he show it?
Lynn’s theme of the suppressed androgyny also pushes him off balance in the matter of Hemingway’s happiness. Although he is good on moments of exhilaration in the work, recalling his powerful evocation of sensuous delight in food and (particularly) landscape, and although he cites Archibald MacLeish on the novelist’s ‘keen ... sense of life’s brimming possibilities’, Lynn presents Hemingway as almost unrelievedly depressed, anxiety-haunted, suicidal. The literary journalist A.E. Hotchner described a meeting with Hemingway in the Floridita, his favourite bar near his home in Cuba: ‘Something played off him – he was intense, electrokinetic, but in control, a race horse reined in. He stopped to talk to one of the musicians in fluent Spanish and something about him hit me – enjoyment: God, I thought, how he’s enjoying himself! I had never seen anyone with such an aura of fun and well-being.’ To this happy account Lynn delivers a bluff rebuttal: Hotchner ‘gave no sign of understanding – even in retrospect – that the aura of fun hanging about Hemingway as he entered the bar had been induced by the booze he had been tapping into in all likelihood since dawn.’ Oh, come on: he was there, even if prepared to like the novelist because he loved his work.
More puzzling is Lynn’s treatment of Hemingway’s ‘romance with left-wing politics’, as he calls it, and its consequences. Hemingway’s attraction to the Loyalist cause in Spain was, says Lynn, like that of other ‘anti-Fascist intellectuals’ thundering their support from ‘a thousand pulpits’ while ‘ignoring on the one hand the appalling disarray within the non-Communist Left and refusing on the other hand to face up to the fact that the anti-Fascist propaganda being generated by the Comintern’s cleverest liars ... was a rhetorical cover for the imperialistic designs of a system no less ruthless than Hitler’s and infinitely more so than the repressive regime that Franco would establish.’ This is just part of one of the longest sentences in Lynn’s book. It certainly gets the idea across. Hemingway’s later disillusionment with the way the Russians had manipulated the Loyalist struggle ‘was not a sign, however, of an emerging political realism on his part, but rather of a re-emerging disgust with politics in any form’. He can’t win, it seems. And while Lynn ridicules the hapless Cowley’s assertion that For whom the bell tolls had been used by the Russian armies in World War Two as a textbook of guerrilla warfare, he neglects to mention Fidel Castro’s claim, made to Kenneth Tynan and cited in Meyers, that ‘we took For whom the bell tolls to the hills with us, and it taught us about guerrilla warfare.’ Indeed, Lynn says nothing about Castro, or his relationship with the celebrated writer living in his country.
The oddest lacuna of this kind, though, comes in his discussion of Hemingway’s paranoia. Near the end of his life in Ketchum, Idaho, he was convinced he was being shadowed by FBI agents. Lynn mentions the obsession as such, but fails to add that FBI agents were indeed following him – had trailed him to the Mayo Clinic (he was being treated for paranoia!), from where they sent a report direct to J. Edgar Hoover on the progress of Hemingway’s treatment. This is all in Meyers, and in Hotchner’s Papa Hemingway. The report, which Brian cites, was filed on 13 January 1961, and is part of the large FBI file kept on the writer. Lynn might at least have mentioned it.
In other words, except for a brilliant passage in which he links the over-valuation of the boring Old Man and the Sea to the sentimentality surrounding General MacArthur’s dismissal by Truman, Lynn tends to slight Hemingway’s contexts. He is good – none better – on the individual pathology. He has cracked the crucial biographical code. He has produced a monument of resourceful and intelligent biography. But strengthened by what he has learned from this book, someone should now go on to put the life back into its historical surroundings. This is not just a matter of the FBI. Hemingway was not the only American author to be turned into a portent of his people, a sort of tragic hero embodying the values (real or false) of his society, and ultimately sacrificed to its sense of itself. It was not just Hemingway who struggled with his parents and killed them off in various fictional displacements. Mark Twain did it too. So did J.D. Salinger and Philip Roth. Popular American fiction is full of adolescent crises: of good-bad boys running away from home, escaping one form of captivity only to wind up in another as suitable cases for treatment. It is not only in Hemingway’s war fiction that Americans feel compelled to ‘light out’ for a more private struggle. Above all, the tradition of the ‘tough guy’ has been central to the sense of what made people different in America, ever since the English Captain John Smith began exploring the rivers of Virginia and got captured by the Indians. These are symptoms, not of a single life, but of a whole culture.