Stephen Fender

  • Hemingway by Kenneth Lynn
    Simon and Schuster, 702 pp, £16.00, September 1987, ISBN 0 671 65482 9
  • The Faces of Hemingway: Intimate Portraits of Ernest Hemingway by those who knew him by Denis Brian
    Grafton, 356 pp, £14.95, May 1988, ISBN 0 246 13326 0

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.

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