In his lifetime, Ernest Hemingway’s early and enormous fame became confused with his writing, and in his own mind as well as in the minds of his critics his fame somehow seemed to make his writing go bad. At the time of his death, in 1961, he was probably the best-known writer in the world, and one of the most popular. But his writing no longer exerted an influence on literature, and serious critics usually disposed of his work as being of minor interest compared to that of writers like Fitzgerald and Faulkner, whom he had once completely overshadowed.
Such questions as may arise about his writing today are only manifestations of the slow and uneven filtering-down of accepted opinion, or of the uneven rates at which the glamor of his settings evaporates in different minds. Nearly everyone agrees now on the order of quality in the canon of his work. The Sun Also Rises and many of his short stories are absolutely first rate, surpassed in scope by other novelists of his time, but unsurpassed by anyone in their perfection. A Farewell to Arms is badly weakened by the sentimental unreality of the love story; To Have and Have Not is coarse in feeling and fragmentary; For Whom the Bell Tolls, with all the careful solidity of its large structure, is embarrasing in its sexual passages, condescending in its presentation of the Spanish, and its cave full of partisans is operatic. Across the River and into the Trees is his worst book, a self-parody, ridiculing both his literary genius and his life. Death in the Afternoon and The Green Hills of Africa have many marvels of exposition and action, but to read them with any assent to their experience one must be able to accept the legend of Hemingway at his own valuation. Some people take The Old Man and the Sea seriously, but it is generally regarded as a kind of Hemingway imitation, a mannered over-refinement of his style and a too-simple repetition of his one basic theme, the search for and inevitable loss of some token of masculine display. In this decline of interest in his writing, his own fears of the result of fame have come true. His public actions and reports of his private life exposed him to ridicule and weakened the attractions of his work. At the same time, critics drawn by his fame learned to expose the themes of his work in psychological terms, and thereby let a lot of air out of his stories. Thus, while he is still recognized clearly enough as an artist of occasional success, his work no longer seems to contain promises for others, and his books are not much regarded by writers any more.
AS A LEGENDARY FIGURE, he might obsess a novelist like Norman Mailer, but this seemed to be because Mailer accepted Hemingway’s own presentation of himself as king of the hill rather than for any intrinsic concern with the man’s work. Whether or not Hemingway’s death has brought an end to that kind of rivalry I cannot say. But public interest in the legend seems only to have been increased by his death, probably because its circumstances were dramatic and unexplained: The legend remained incomplete. His post-humous volume, A Moveable Feast, was a popular success; it is autobiography, part of the legend. The book was also a defensive measure by Hemingway against other people’s memoirs, against his fame and his biographers. It is a minor work, but one by a master of minor works. In it he attempts, successfully I believe, to cast off the bullying and bragging manner that his own public actions had presented, and which so many memoirs have lately described. He claims his right as an artist to create his own legend, to go back to the beginning and see for himself what went wrong. He was surely correct in believing that he could write better than anyone who would write about him, that his own versions would be more vivid and dramatic and better-ordered and more clearly expressed than those of anyone else. Perhaps he was even right in believing nobody else would understand it so well. Certainly no writing about him is so shocking and sad as A Moveable Feast. But the meaning of its long view backward from the year of his death to the year of his beginning in Paris is only implicit, as is the meaning in all his best stories; and here it was not quite dramatized. Its final interest is that of a book about a famous man.
Now there seems to be some popular excitement, and some curiosity among the literary, about A.E. Hotchner’s book Papa Hemingway, no doubt promoted by the reports of Mrs. Hemingway’s attempts to have the book suppressed. The bait of gossip can alert even the most satiated, and while every remark ever made by Hemingway must have been recorded at least once, and although there are scores of memoirs and interviews; portraits and snapshots of the man, even the most trivial anecdote about him can still make the rounds. Once these served for clues as to how to imitate or emulate him, or to how to put him down; now if the interest in him has any serious purpose at all, it lies in the obscure hope that if the legend about him is only completed it will somehow complete the promise of the work. Writers often outlive their work, in quiet obscurity like Melville or in an expanding empty fame like Hemingway; but we like to see it all make sense. Melville’s silence at the end maybe was “extraordinary,” but it is not likely he cared whether anyone would ever write about it or not.
Hemingway dreaded and loathed other people’s writing about him, even when he had been led to cooperate fully in the undertakings. “Malcolm Cowley’s thing in Life and Lillian’s in The New Yorker. They made me sick. Not the phrase. Truly sick! Lillian’s thing was my fault. I should never have allowed her to do it. Shouldn’t have let Cowley either….” Leicester Hemingway’s book, My Brother, Ernest Hemingway, was suppressed at Hemingway’s insistence, and published after his death. He blocked publication of Philip Young’s book on him for years, and then was haunted by it, as Young relates in the current Kenyon Review, although in the end he had come around and generously aided Young, as he had certainly aided those others he calls “Professor Carlos Back-up” and “Professor Charles Fender.” So A. E. Hotchner reports, as he also reports the remarks on Cowley and Lillian Ross. Hemingway, of course, cannot comment on this book, nor can it do him any harm now. There is not much in Papa Hemingway, either, to add to that fame that looms above the stories he wrote, only the black side of the fame, the legends of bragging, drinking, picking fights, and then finally, the bad last years. The book is not an attempt at a “Life”; it is a series of conversations which Hotchner says he put down in notes or took in a tape recorder over a period of fourteen years. There are no letters because letters remain the property of the letterwriter and Hemingway carefully stipulated that none of his were to be published. (Though doubtless they will become public, in one way or another. They will be re-written by other people, or get out somehow. Fame is omniverous.)
THROUGH THE YEARS, Hotchner acted as a sort of agent for Hemingway with television and movie rights, adapted Hemingway stories for TV plays, and at last signed on as a traveling companion when Hemingway needed one. In 1954, after the plane crashes in Africa that nearly killed him, Hemingway asked Hotchner to take down things he would tell him so if he died before he himself could write them, “then someone would know.” Probably in all of Hemingway’s life-long confusion about publicity this was his biggest mistake.
These remarks, jokes, anecdotes, are presented verbatim, in quotation marks, at random apparently as they came, with little comment and less checking. Hotchner did figure out that one fancy yarn Hemingway told him could not be true: Hemingway described a night with Mata Hari, and Hotchner had been “very impressed with this cool appraisal of the talents of Mile. Hari, until it dawned on me that the lady in question had been executed by the French in 1917, and Ernest had first gone abroad in 1918.” Hotchner also had some doubts about a story of marrying an eighteen-year-old Wakamba girl—and her sister—in Africa, but he never determined if this were true or not.
Much of the material has been published before in other forms, in interviews, in Leicester Hemingway’s book, in Charles Fenton’s, and notably in A Moveable Feast. Hemingway was not as accurate in speaking to Hotchner as he was in writing A Moveable Feast. A quotation from Hemingway puts the famous Notre-Dame-des-Champs apartment, the one over the sawmill, in Montmartre, and Hotchner’s Paris geography is impressionistic at best, quite unlike Hemingway’s own vol d’oiseau writing about it.
Improprieties? Yes, some, but it seems to make little difference now. It may as well all come out, spilled and untidy. Hemingway said he was impotent for a while when he first married Pauline Pfeiffer. He talks about girls some, but most of these stories sound like the one about Mata Hari. Dozens of gratuitous insults to innocent bystanders are recorded, none of them much to the injured parties’ discredit, but doubtless able to produce some unnecessary stabs of pain or resentment. The Hemingway quoted here had a big bad mouth. The only muffler put on it is that sometimes the name of the maligned person is suppressed, on no discernible principle.
ANY INSIGHT INTO THE MAN, the legend, or the artist? No. Sometimes, not always by any means, there is the flavor of a man talking, and there are splashes of Hemingway lingo: Depressed, he is “Black Ass”; an untruth is “ballroom bananas”; and so on; but most of this was in Leicester Hemingway’s book first. Hemingway speaks about the origins of his stories, or sometimes explains them, proving once more that we must trust the tale not the teller. He even forgot what The Sun Also Rises was like, supposing it to be an affirmation of the earth. Hotchner has sometimes “a curious and exciting revelation—laying bare,” etc. Hemingway had combined in Catherine Henry features of Hadley and of Pauline and of Agnes von Kurowsky! (Agnes is not named for some reason.) “Poor Julian” was really Scott! Once again we hear how Ernest writes standing up. He gets up early, and counts the words. He stops when he knows what’s going to happen next, so he doesn’t have to crank up every day. “There are only two absolutes I know about writing: one is that if you make love while you are jamming on a novel, you are in danger of leaving the best parts of it in the bed; the other is that integrity in a writer is like virginity in a woman—once lost, it is never recovered.” He talks like this, and then complains about the professors and their automatic Symbol Searching machines.
In 1954, Ernest drinks a great deal. He keeps Hotchner up while he gets drunk and tells him the same stories over and over again. They are not very interesting stories. Also, in 1954, public quarrels with friends and strangers over obscure grievances. Then the Nobel prize, Hemingway disturbed by all the “yammer, yammer, yack, yack,” and at great length mixed up about some interview for a magazine called True. His nerves are shot with pain and exhaustion. In 1955, at Key West, Ernest looks old, fat, lined, flat-footed. In 1956, in Spain, more heavy drinking. But in 1958, in Ketchum, he is back in shape. He is writing the sketches of Paris life in the Twenties, using the notebooks that had turned up in a trunk at the Ritz after all those years. In 1959, a book to be called The Dangerous Summer, in Spain: fun and games.
Then, 1960, Havana. The Dangerous Summer finished, Hemingway is unable to cut it for Life. Hotchner goes to help: Ernest is incoherent. Parts of the notes which he strangely uses to communicate with Hotchner don’t make sense. Ernest insists Hotchner sell ten stories to Hollywood for nine hundred thousand dollars. In Madrid, the same year, Ernest is shouting at a terrified waiter in his favorite restaurant, no one knows why. He is afraid to fly home. He is afraid to go to Abercrombie and Fitch because he thinks his lawyer failed to pay last month’s bill. From then on it is downhill all the way, and fast.
The symptoms are the usual ones of paranoia, he thinks they are after him, bugging his house and car. It is the Feds. He thinks he is going broke.
EVERYONE KNOWS Hemingway is breaking apart, no one dares talk about it, no one knows what to do. One of the most famous men in the world, with powerful friends and practically unlimited financial resources, is going mad in Ketchum, Idaho, and there seems to be nothing to do about it. The usual complications with doctors and hospitals ensue. He is lured to the Mayo Clinic, given a course of electric shock therapy, released to Ketchum, and on the phone he says, “Hotch, I can’t finish the book. [It is still A Moveable Feast.] I can’t. I’ve been at this goddamn worktable all day, standing here all day, all I’ve got to get is this one thing, maybe only a sentence, maybe more, I don’t know, and I can’t get it…” Nobody can arrange to take him back to the hospital. Hotchner gets “Dr. Renown,” a famous psychiatrist, to try to convince Mayo to admit him. Nobody seems able to commit him, although he is now obviously suicidal. He stands by the window with his shotgun. Finally they get him in a plane for Rochester, he tries to jump out, then when they land he tries to run into the propeller.
At Mayo’s, he conceals his delusions from the doctors, gets another short course of shock. Mayo refuses to transfer him to another hospital as “Dr. Renown” urges. To his wife’s horror, he is released at the end of June, 1961, is driven to Ketchum, and there as soon as he can get to his gun he shoots himself.
So now it is all part of the legend. The madness need not shock us, nor the suicide. Nor do they in any way diminish the life that led to them. For all his posing, there was a very great deal of genuine courage in Hemingway. Here I am not referring to those physical acts of bravery or of bravado which Philip Young, while recognizing their reality, recognizes also as compulsive repetitions of the wound of 1918. Hemingway had great courage of the imagination. The failures of his writing really are, as he claimed, due to ambition, to working with dangerous material which even his strong art could not control.
SOME MATERIAL he could perfectly control. This was precisely all material that presented fears of castration, scenes of symbolic or real castration, and examples of how a man could convalesce and manage life after it really seemed the worst had happened, that he had in a symbolic or real way actually suffered a castration. As a boy, Nick Adams sees how dangerous it would be to grow up, how it appeared that men were deprived of their manliness or driven insane by women, by women’s suffering and envy. As a soldier, Nick Adams undergoes the baptism of fire, the initiation of 1918. But something slipped in that initiation. What should have been only a sort of ritual circumcision, a warning and an introduction into the company of adult men, instead was a nightmare of violent assault; and it really seemed as if the penis had been cut off. Nick recovers, and learns to live with it. But in the last Nick Adams stories, he has begun to try adult life, with a woman, and ominous tensions move beneath the pleasant surface.
The events in these Nick Adams stories are not the results of individual psychology or of complex motives or social situations. The actions, like those in all Hemingway’s best work, are the movement of fate. Hemingway no more needed explanation and analysis than Aeschylus did. The prose must bring the scene and the voices to us as clearly as possible, to prove that the things happened. There is only one truth, and seeing is believing.
The Sun Also Rises extends this theme into a more complex situation, and here Hemingway’s imagination and art are still able to control the experience. His hero now is not living alone by a trout stream, but in a human society. He can manage this because there is a pact, formed by those who have suffered in the same way, an agreement to avoid competition, aggression, and sexual rivalry. However, this pact is fragile. An interloper, poor Robert Cohn, doesn’t understand the code, and asserts his pitiful sexuality and his pitiful, stupid male aggression. The pact is broken. The girl the men have been sharing goes off with another man. But this does not work either, for by the compulsions of this order of life, she would have to castrate this man or become herself genuinely feminine to stay with him. This is impossible. She returns to Jake Barnes, but this, plainly, will not work either. There is no pact we can make, even if we deprive ourselves of that aggressive member the penis, that can assure our comfort or safety for long. With all this, Hemingway’s style is in perfect control, representing both the careful requirements of the pact and the shock of the wound beneath it.
THAT HEMINGWAY TRIED to go beyond this should be, at least in one version of his legend, much to his credit. After their initiation, none of his heroes is secure in the possession of his manhood. But they try, even though every act of fighting or of sex is followed by a new castration. So long as this is recognized, the art works, as in one of his last and finest short stories, “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.” Here the hero seeks and finds one dramatic act of masculine assertion, and is killed for it, instantly; and Hemingway’s fictional powers were never stronger.
But when this fate is denied, the art becomes false, the heroes lie, the women are fantasies. This happens in For Whom the Bell Tolls, or most notoriously, in Across the River and Into the Trees, where Colonel Cantwell rampages and brags in a most unconvincing attempt to show that he can be at once a he-man and an admirable fellow. When the heroes refuse to give up their aggressions, and refuse to accept the penalty for this, then no story can truly contain them, as A Moveable Feast does not quite complete its story, after the hero, at the end of the book, decides that he helplessly is a big prick, and must be one. These heroes are out to do harm, and there is no way to do harm, for real and not just in ritual, in the imagination of today’s world. In the world, of course, there has never been so much harm done as in this century, exactly in the years of Hemingway’s lifetime. But this century cannot admit into its imagination heroes, that is, entire men. Given our history, how can we imagine anything but heroes who prefer to damage themselves? Hemingway tried to imagine otherwise and could not, tried to live otherwise and could not, and we try to imagine it in his legend and cannot. But neither can anyone else find this vision of human life today, and perhaps no one ever will again. We cannot really wish it otherwise. It is a long way from Homer to Hemingway, a long way down perhaps, but the course is run.