Hemingway Hunt

Frank Kermode

  • Along with Youth: Hemingway, the Early Years by Peter Griffin
    Oxford, 258 pp, £12.95, March 1986, ISBN 0 19 503680 8
  • The Young Hemingway by Michael Reynolds
    Blackwell, 291 pp, £14.95, February 1986, ISBN 0 631 14786 1
  • Hemingway: A Biography by Jeffrey Meyers
    Macmillan, 646 pp, £16.95, March 1986, ISBN 0 333 42126 4

A few months ago I went one Sunday evening to a Broadway theatre, not to see a play but to enjoy what was meant to be a thrilling contest between Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal. The place was packed; except for those sponsored by some publisher, the audience had bought very expensive tickets, and they displayed a keenness more appropriate to a prizefight. Indeed a prizefight was what they expected, Mailer and Vidal having been rough with each other in the past. In the event nothing much happened – a few not very good jokes and a good view of two heavy gentlemen whose rough-housing days lie very properly in the past. Still, it was interesting to reflect that this large and fashionable crowd had turned out on a Sunday night to watch the two men doing something they would both have regarded as work of the left hand. Writers are supposed to do best the essentially private work of writing, and they would hardly wish to be exposed to public view when engaged in it, nor would anybody but a singular pervert want to watch. All they could do in the circumstances was to collaborate as fully as possible with their public images, which are in any case of much greater interest to most people than their books.

American writers have long had appalling difficulties with the media – passionately concerned as the media are with everything about famous writers except their writing. Formerly it was possible to be both in and out of the game, as Whitman put it – to have a private as well as a public self. Mark Twain went to great lengths to impose himself on the crowd, and he was a more successful performer than Messrs Vidal and Mailer, but he was also able to hold a self in reserve. For Hemingway it was all much more difficult. His private life was extraordinary to begin with, and he enlarged its extraordinariness for the benefit of all. The image of it was projected onto the mist of the media like a Brocken spectre, a ghost upon which the original proceeded to model himself. What happened when this act of possession was perfected is still best understood from Lillian Ross’s notorious New Yorker profile; a portrait less of a man than of a demoniac, his talk partly in a sham Indian dialect and partly filtered through the sports pages. The trade of the novelist, he wants to argue, is very taxing: ‘They can’t yank a novelist like they can a pitcher. Novelist has to go the full nine.’ Or: ‘Nobody’s going to get me in any ring with Mr Tolstoy unless I’m crazy or I keep getting better.’ He will go the distance with most other writers. The artists from whom he is willing to learn and whom he presumably doesn’t wish to fight are not writers. ‘I can make a landscape like Mr Paul Cézanne, I learned how to make a landscape from Mr Paul Cézanne by walking through the Luxembourg Museum a thousand times with an empty gut, and I am pretty sure that if Mr Paul were around he would like the way I make them.’ Mr Hemingway will never say anything quite the way it was, and there is no reason to suppose he ever walked through the Luxembourg Museum with an empty gut, since his wife in those Paris days had an adequate income. All he’s saying is that he learned something from Cézanne, which could well be true. He also says he learned how to do counterpoint from Mr J.S. Bach, which is slightly less persuasive.

Critics have been trying for a half a century to distinguish the writer from the talking ghost, and some – Edmund Wilson, for instance – found it easier to do the trick than Hemingway himself. When he was young, he worked very hard at never saying anything the way anybody else would say it, and his success was remarkable. Later he often managed to do it again, when the ghost didn’t seize the pen and make him sound like one of his own imitators. Part of the trouble was that he was no better than anybody else at finding good ways of talking about his writing: like everybody else, he had to speak of it as almost anything but writing – baseball, boxing, game-fishing, lion-hunting, bullfighting or war. In a way, he was as ungenerous to himself as he was to most other writers, including some he certainly did learn from, like Ford Madox Ford, Gertrude Stein and Sherwood Anderson. Yet very good writers, including Ford and Pound and Joyce, recognised Hemingway’s gifts, the serious gifts about which he never bragged. And it might be said that the author of In Our Time could go quite a few rounds with the author of Dubliners, or even that the author of ‘The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber’ could have mixed it for a while with Mr Tolstoy.

Two of these biographies are concerned only with the youthful Hemingway as the sort of person who could become the sort of person he later became; they stop at pretty well the same point, when Hemingway is about to take off for Europe with his bride Hadley Richardson. He is 22 and she close to thirty. He has done a good deal of journalism and written some stories, none published. I suppose one justifies the writing of quite long books about a writer before he truly became a writer by arguing that nothing about so great a figure can be wholly irrelevant, but it seems to me that both Mr Reynolds and Mr Griffin have pushed this argument a bit far. When you’ve read these books you will be exempted from ever attending to another word about Hemingway’s home town Oak Park, a posh suburb of Chicago; and although it may seem a little ungracious to say so, for she was an interesting woman, you may feel some regret that a thousand letters from Hadley to Ernest have survived.

Although Reynolds and Griffin (who has two further volumes in store) here cover much the same ground, they have different emphases. Reynolds says little about the early journalistic career in Kansas City and Toronto because others have covered it adequately, but he is not short of material, having had access to the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library (where Hadley’s letters, alas without Ernest’s thousandfold replies, are stored) and many other major collections; indeed all the biographers appear to have been received with unusual generosity by the Hemingway family and the custodians of all this precious material.

Reynolds is particularly interested in Oak Park in the days of Ernest’s youth. An uncle of the writer’s, regretting the lack of squirrels, which he regarded as essential to an upper-class suburb, introduced them from Arkansas. The squirrels turned out not to be sufficiently genteel, but by the time that was clear the Great War had started, so nobody blamed Uncle George. ‘Today there are no Hemingways left in Oak Park, but there are plenty of squirrels.’ So, in summary, runs the ominously leisurely opening paragraph, and it is followed by much more significant detail about crime-free Oak Park, the nobs’ refuge from wicked metropolitan Chicago. The first automobile arrived at the same time as Ernest, and by the time he was 14 decadence had set in, as the local newspaper, Oak Leaves, reports: ‘The music of the bagnio finds its way to every piano, and our young people sing songs, words and music provided by degenerates,’ and demi-mondaine Paris fashions aggravate ‘tendencies which civilisation demands to be held in sure control’. Before long, the young were doing ‘brothel dances’ like the Fox Trot and the Tango, and suburban commuter trains were bringing into Oak Park burglars, muggers, gamblers and other villains from Chicago.

Meanwhile young Ernest was collecting knives and fishing a lot. By the time America entered the war in 1917 many of his contemporaries were almost old enough to volunteer. Ernest had a weak eye and wouldn’t have been accepted anyway, but he went to Kansas City and worked on a local newspaper. He learned a lot, among other things that the Kansas City whores thought semen a specific against tuberculosis, that city politicians were corrupt, that military uniforms attract girls, and that much might be done with brief sentences. Then he joined the Red Cross as a non-combatant, went to Italy, got wounded, and came back, before he was twenty, wearing a uniform to which he was not entitled and working up fantasticated stories about his military experience. In fact, he had over two hundred shrapnel wounds and a genuine limp: but that wasn’t enough, and he claimed that after sustaining these wounds he carried another wounded man a hundred and fifty yards to safety, or alternatively that he was buried by the explosion three days before he rose again. Though for very good reasons he wore a uniform to suggest that he had, Hemingway did not serve in the Italian Army. It was about this time, we are told, that William Faulkner wore a Royal Canadian Air Force officer’s uniform with wings, and cultivated a limp, to none of which he was entitled.

All this may sound very silly, but war is a great breeder of lies and the young Hemingway was behaving like a lot of other people. Still, the progressive adornment and transformation of the story of his wounding is very like the treatment he gave other episodes in his life, whether in his everyday boasting or in his writing. The need to be extraordinary, to excel not only in war but also in competitive sports and displays of physical strength, may, as Reynolds suggests, have something to do with the influence of Theodore Roosevelt, who was always urging youth, in a time when there seemed to be no more wars in prospect, to do the next best thing and fight one another or kill animals. If this is so, and it seems probable, the influence of Teddy is not yet dead: reinforced by the example of Hemingway himself, the American version of pastoral is still very evident, and middle-aged town-dwellers take off at weekends for their log cabins, wearing their L.L. Bean lumberjack gear, to pit their wits against the birds, as one of them expressed himself to me.

Hemingway seems not to have been very good at most of these manly activities, and Griffin in particular likes to point out, fondly enough, that his bad eyesight prevented him from being a good shot, that he was careless with fire-arms, that he lost at tennis, that his reflexes at boxing were slow. But he threw his body into every sort of violent activity with gruesome gusto. Meyers has a frightful appendix listing Hemingway’s accidents and illnesses, over thirty of the former and some of them almost fatal. The cost was great. In For whom the bell tolls, which he wrote when he was about forty, he represents the 52-year-old El Sordo as an old man wondering why the prospect of death is unattractive even at his great age. At the time Hemingway still had his most remarkable antics to come, during the Second World War, but by the time he reached El Sordo’s age his battered, diseased and drink-soaked body really was old, and ten years later there can have seemed no real alternative to disposing of it. Like some of his kindred and associates, he had a tendency towards suicide. His father, a brother and a lover killed themselves, one wife was the daughter of a suicide, and at least two wives threatened suicide. Add to this the inexorable demands of the public image and there was no other way to go.

His mother gets some of the blame, for she liked the idea of him as a man, not as a writer. She insisted on treating him as a hero – ‘my boy is every inch a man ... It’s great to be the mother of a hero’ – but she was ashamed of his books and thought them dirty. He came to detest her and apparently not without cause, but she contributed to his personal myth and probably to his choice of women. It appears that he had very few love affairs, for, as Faulkner remarked, he thought he had to marry them all. The nurse Agnes von Kurowsky is the model for Catherine in A Farewell to Arms, but he seems not to have slept with her, nor with Adriana Ivancich, the dreamgirl of Across the River and into the Trees. Griffin is the best source for information about Agnes; for Adriana, of course, one needs Meyers.

Although Reynolds leaves quite a lot out, he still has too much to say and goes in for fine writing:

The cars went on up the road out of sight, around the point at the edge of the town. Ernest sat down on the porch with his luggage. He was happy. He had not been unhappy all winter or spring. This was different though. There had been things to prove to himself. Now they were done. He had done the job.

Here style indirect libre is indistinguishable from parody. What with one thing and another he doesn’t even get Hadley into the book till page 143, and much of the second half comes from her fluent pen.

Griffin, with two more volumes in hand, is equally leisured. He will let you know what Jack Hemingway had to drink when they met at the Boston Airport Hilton, Jack having come east for what is rather oddly called the internment of his mother’s ashes. If it is remarked that Hemingway’s father said grace, Griffin will spell out the grace. He will tell you what brand of cigarettes Hemingway smoked in the Italian hospital. But there are compensations: rooting through all those archives, he comes up with a letter written by Ernest at the age of six, in which he describes how he whacked a porcupine with an axe. Later when he was caught redhanded by a game warden with an illegally killed heron, he fibbed. He fibbed again, more astonishingly, when he told his horrified parents that he was engaged to the film star Mae Marsh, and again when he said he was set on becoming a wartime pilot, knowing all the while that no combatant service would have him. But one feels that Griffin is really telling us all this to make his hero more rather than less remarkable. Probably his greatest disservice to Hemingway is his reprinting of some really terrible early stories. It is a lot easier to understand their prompt rejection by editors than the miracle by which this author came to write In Our Time before he was 26.

Griffin has access to the ‘Memory Books’ of Ernest’s mother, a treasure trove of information about the infant Hemingway, and of course there is Hadley. ‘For walking in the country Hadley had bought herself a scotch plaid cape. It was not lined but very pretty’ etc, etc. Not all the minute detail is quite credible. Italian soldiers are unlikely to have called Hemingway giovanni Americano, and when Johnny Miller missed his stroke while rowing he was not catching crabs.

How Griffin is going to get Hemingway’s extraordinarily eventful last forty years into only two more volumes if he goes on at this rate is a question only time will answer. Jeffrey Meyers, in his full biography, has to despatch the period dealt with by Reynolds and Griffin in 62 pages, one-tenth of the whole. He, too, has had access to all those collections; he is less expansive but manages to add a few points on the early life – for example, on the Kansas City period and Mae Marsh. He can even adorn the tale of the hero’s wound: Hemingway claimed he was shot twice through the scrotum and had to rest his testicles on a pillow. Hemingway was in hospital with a lot of men who had wounded genitals. Apparently he thought of Jake in The sun also rises as having had his penis shot off while his testicles remained intact, though in the book the hurt remains more obscure. Obviously a lot of fantasising on such subjects intervened between Hemingway’s wound and Jake’s. He also claimed to have felt his soul, or at any rate something, being pulled out of his body like a silk handkerchief from a pocket, and this was remembered for the bullfighter’s death in In Our Time; and, as Meyers rather oddly remarks, it ‘recurs in a sensory passage’ in A Farewell to Arms. Without minimising Hemingway’s trauma, Meyers nevertheless points out that Proust spent more time in the army than Papa.

All the same, Hemingway, in one capacity or another, saw a great deal of war. He covered the Greco-Turkish conflict of 1922, the Spanish Civil War, and the Second World War. It was the biggest game of all, the one to which all the others aspired, as all sexual relations aspired to marriage; and it was the saddest also, again like marriage. One prepared for the next marriage by having a serious liaison, and for the next war by killing animals and studying the grace of bullfighters under pressure.

Meyers is not a lively writer, but he is certainly informative and, compared with some, succinct. His account of the Paris years is a useful supplement to A Moveable Feast, qualifying the nasty portraits therein of Ford and Wyndham Lewis and explaining how it was that Hemingway acquired quite a reputation as a writer without actually publishing anything. Here, too, began his career as a bully. If it’s true that perfect strangers occasionally went up to him and hit him it can only be because they wanted to please him. He liked to beat up weaker and older men. I had heard of without really believing in the fight he had with the poet Wallace Stevens at a drunken party in Key West. It does seem to have happened, when the novelist was about forty and the poet about sixty and as usual overweight. Hemingway despised Stevens for asking him to hush the matter up, as likely to damage his reputation as an insurance lawyer. It’s all the more touching to recall that some years later, when Stevens, having turned down the job himself, was asked to suggest a name for a new Chair of Poetry at Harvard, he proposed Hemingway. This wasn’t as daft a suggestion as it may sound, for Stevens felt at the time that reality was being particularly oppressive, and saw the main duty of the poet as finding a style to resist it. Perhaps he was right. In any case, it would have been an interesting appointment.

Meyers provides much information about the four marriages. Gertrude Stein said of her ex-friend that anybody who marries three girls from St Louis hasn’t learned much, but the truly remarkable thing is that any of the wives lasted as long as they did with a husband who made himself extremely dependent yet demanded absolute freedom. Hemingway must have seen himself as rather like the writers about whom Henry James liked to expand, men who recognised marriage as fatal to art but who couldn’t always manage without it. There is just a touch of updated Yellow Book about Hemingway’s marital history. He even turned against men friends when he thought the relationship was getting too intimate. But women were the major problem. He felt guilty about Hadley, and tried to make it up to her in A Moveable Feast; he turned Catholic for Pauline, but that only led to rows about birth control; he came to detest Martha. The record of wives and mistresses is largely a record of failure. It seems Hemingway believed that by expending semen you were giving up juices necessary to good writing, a view that puts wives in a difficult position. He wanted perfection of the life as well as of the work but accepted the Romantic myth that you can’t have both (the truth being that you can’t have either). His work is more interesting than his life, but they were connected, and people are right to think that on the whole the work got worse as the life became more absurd or tragic.

Living life to the full and never being a coward like his father took its toll in all those accidents and fights. The legend spoilt things for him. When he went back to Pamplona for the bullfights he found the place ruined by tourists, sent there by his books. He himself was the main tourist attraction of Key West. He spent his time with drinking and fishing cronies, flatterers of the man, not readers of the books. He could still be very good, as in the African stories, but he needed another war to recharge his batteries, and the Spanish conflict provided it. He lived life to the full, enjoyed his fame, made many new friends – including Martha Gellhorn, whose ‘legs begin at her shoulders’ – and got out of it a book that is certainly very good in parts.

When the next war came along he developed a megalomania of which the most extraordinary aspect is the fact that he got away with so much because he was such a great man. He personally hunted German submarines off Cuba and ran his own intelligence operation. He even got special petrol allowances for the sub hunts, and went on with his valueless counter-espionage despite the disapproval of the FBI. In 1944, at preposterous risk and entirely without military necessity, he was the first to get to Paris. This was the greatest of all the rough games. He probably killed some Germans. He felt the best he had ever felt; he was insanely brave yet always boasting about his courage. He carried arms to which he was not entitled, was admired for his tactical know-how by some experts, and behaved rather like an irresponsible version of General Patton. When his behaviour got him investigated, he was advised by two staff officers of Patton to commit perjury, which he did. He got off; Meyers remarks that he ‘was licensed to do as he pleased and famous enough to get away with anything’. His wife Martha now thought him mad as well as an intolerable liar. Staying at the Paris Ritz with Mary Welsh, later to be his fourth wife, he placed a photograph of her husband in the toilet bowl and shot it with a machine pistol. There was a flood, dealt with by the tolerant management. Most professionals would describe his military conduct as absurd and dangerous to his own side. However, Fidel Castro says he and his friends took For whom the bell tolls into the mountains and learned guerrilla tactics from it.

Catching up with one’s own lies can be a costly business, and at not much over fifty Hemingway was physically broken, a self-styled ‘defeated man’, an alcoholic with an astonishing number of diseases. He had bad eye trouble, high blood pressure, liver and kidney diseases, a fatal form of diabetes; he was severely depressed and also impotent. He had a paranoid fear of the FBI, insisting that he was being followed. (He was.) Yet he managed to write a good book, A Moveable Feast, before he began treatment at the Mayo Clinic. He suffered ECT treatment many times and lost his memory. He killed himself with a sportsman’s efficiency at 62.

This is the death of the author old-style, not post-structuralist but Americanised poète maudit; the latter is headline news but very few care about the former. Probably the moment when Hemingway’s life made most sense to him was when he was seriously wounded and in love with a woman who dropped him; A Farewell to Arms was not the only product of that happy conjunction. Swaggering strength and an altogether abnormal capacity to absorb punishment co-existed with an overdeveloped susceptibility to insult, injury, and illness real or imagined. It is true not only that paranoiacs have enemies but that hypochondriacs have illnesses. Hemingway’s daily recording of his blood pressure was abnormal but so was his blood pressure.

Also the truth about liars may be very extraordinary, and the mere facts about what happened to Hemingway would be fictions in most lives. His fantasies always had a bottom of fact, which is what gives some force to the Old Man and Colonel Cantwell in the late novels. ‘A writer’s job is to tell the truth,’ he said. ‘His standard of fidelity to the truth should be so high that his invention, out of his experience, should produce a truer account than anything factual can be.’ There is a big difference between fantasticating one’s experiences to impress fellow drunks in a bar, when they get more absurd as the drink goes down, and turning facts and attendant fantasies into truth in a book. Hemingway was a liar with a passion for the truth and an understanding that it could be had only by devising a technique of great economy and purity. It was hard to keep on doing it.

He admired technique above all, whether it had to do with guns or bulls or game-fishing or war or prose. He sometimes exaggerated his knowledge of all such matters. A Spanish bullfighter, a hostile witness to be sure, remarks that Hemingway knew nothing about bullfighting, but admitted that he knew more than any other American though less than any Spaniard. However, even Spaniards know very little about it: only the matadors do, and not many of them. On this account Hemingway should not have claimed an ability to make fine critical discriminations about the art of bullfighting. But he did know quite a lot about prose, too much perhaps, so that his own technique became excessively mannered, too much on show, too much the servant of the public image, the Brocken spectre. Of these three biographers Meyers has the best sense of the relation between the workshop and the shop window, and of the nature of the demon that possessed the man.