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.

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