Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story
Carlos Baker’s biography of Ernest Hemingway is bad news. The friendliness with which it has been received would seem to give sanction to this unfortunate development in the practice of biography. Baker’s work is an enterprise of a special kind, not the first of its sort, and, one supposes, not the last. It is a form of book-making that rests upon only one major claim of the author: his access to the raw materials. The genre rises out of a vast collection of papers, letters, interviews, and junk, and is itself, in the end, still an accumulation, sorted, labeled, and dated, but only an accumulation, a heap. In a hoarding spirit it has an awesome regard for the penny as well as the dollar. (Like poor Silas Marner, who “loved the guineas best, but would not change the silver…he loved them all.”) The original accumulation—the “facts,” the private papers, the authorized commission—is thought of as predetermining not only in content but in form. Condensation would seem to be insulting to the beseechments of the papers, one and all. The book is written by “the material” and nothing is weighed or judged or pondered. A catalogue does not gossip about its entries.
Whatever narrative must be constructed as a scaffolding for the events is not distinguished. The infant “cries lustily,” early on, and a hat is worn “rakishly.” Bad weather is “abhorred.” Dawns are bright and nights are dark. When the monotony must sometimes be broken by hints of an inner life, the rhetoric is rather of that inspirational, metaphorical kind journalists write in their sleep. “At the time when he wrote the story of the dying writer on the plains of Africa, he knew very well that he had climbed no further than the lower slopes of his personal Kilimanjaro.”
Baker’s biography is both official and academic. Neither of these moods is denied by the fact that the Hemingway he presents is quite unattractive. What one finds tiresome and displeasing is just this fleshing out of the old Hemingway public persona. After all, so much of this role was determined by the natural inclination of publicity to be repetitious and to see again only what it saw before. In A Moveable Feast, Hemingway revealed some of his mean-spirited thoughts about other writers, but he did so with a great deal of beauty and style. And that mattered. Just as most official biographies hesitate to dramatize the discreditable, Baker hesitates to look beyond the coarseness of the “legendary” Hemingway. In this life, the sources of the refinement of the imagination are all that remain hidden. The bland, insistent recording of the insignificant, respectful, worshipful as it is, cannot honor a human being and it is particularly useless in the case of a writer—outstandingly inappropriate.
Full-length biographies are a natural occupation for professors, for only they have the inclination to look at a life as a sort of dig. Strange disproportions occur. Matthew Arnold in his essay on Shelley (itself a brilliant, brief, “critical” life) reminds us that Shelley’s life was very short, but Professor Dowden’s life of Shelley was very long. Professor Frederick Pottle tells us in his introduction to James Boswell: The Earlier Years that his book had taken him three times as long in the writing as Boswell took for his life of Johnson—and Pottle has thus far reached only half a life. A rather uninteresting work on Byron presents itself lengthily as a corrective to the briefer pleasures of Stendhal and Trelawny. “The concern of memoirists to portray themselves in relation to Byron rather than to portray Byron causes a large amount of literature to yield a very small proportion of reliable information.” This, then, is an occupation of a special nature. The temptation to length is irresistible. Little corrections and emendations act upon the biographing mind like revelations and visions utterly absorbing to him who has received them but rather less striking to the rest of us.
Most academic biographies are justified on the grounds of fresh research: that is the claim at least. But fresh research, itself so much rarer than researchers believe, might better present itself in papers and articles. A biography is, after all, an extended form of literary composition and asks first of all for literary and intellectual talent. The “inaccurate and incomplete” memoirs so many scholars spend a lifetime irritably, nervously correcting are among the treasures of our culture, and the spirit of many a great man has been better served by interesting “misconceptions” than by these tedious, researched lives.
And how odd it is that persons, while they are living, so often turn away from the best picture of themselves. Hemingway very sadly rejected Philip Young’s interesting, distinguished book on him. Mrs. Thrale, who might be lost in the dust without Boswell, kept writing in the margin when her name appeared, “Spiteful again!” Mary Todd Lincoln thought Herndon made up the story of Ann Rutledge just to spite her. Edgar Lee Masters’s biography of Vachel Lindsay is an extraordinary American document even though it is full of the author’s rancor and prejudice. Still it has Lindsay, a strangely affecting figure, caught in his success and tragedy.
Is a life truly the same as A Life of….? Upon this question so much of the problem of the biographer seems to turn. This is particularly acute in the case of Hemingway whose life and personality are still close to us. Professor Pottle obviously cannot get Boswell up in the morning or put him to bed at night. The distance in time would not allow a serious scholar to attempt such a feat of impersonation—and Boswell’s comings and goings were of such an unbuttoned kind that discretion forbids too great a closeness. (Actually Pottle’s biography is a rare one in its intellectual and critical power.) But Professor Baker has written his book under the impression that a life and A Life of may come near to being the same thing. He has, as he tells us, tried to create Hemingway out of a thousand pictures, a thousand scenes, a thousand instances. It is the flow of actual existence he has tried to give us and on that ground he avoids all ideas and judgments, all analysis and opinion.
Baker has put together an extensive, exhausting, repetitive record of the events of Hemingway’s life. There is no doubt that this is “the material.” But it is not an existence. No book can be that. When Sartre called his autobiography The Words he perhaps meant mostly to underline the intensely literary nature of his life. “I began my life as I shall no doubt end it: amidst books.” At the same time the title shows us the true nature of an autobiography. In the end it is the writing down of the words. Professor Baker tells us that he spent seven years in preparation of his book on Hemingway and so in the most literal sense his book is Professor Baker’s life, seven years of it at least.
The words? Baker has chosen the mode of journalistic informality, exceedingly relaxed and undemanding. This tone is seldom pleasing and never impressive. It has the paradoxical effect of creating by its easy intimacy a spiritual distance. For the intimacy is with “the material”—the mountain of papers under which a life and work are buried. And it is an intimacy, like journalism, that is self-obliterating. By means of this mode the author convinces himself of an illusion: in this case the illusion that Hemingway exists in the book and that Baker does not. “Tom and Lorraine Shevlin arrived early in September to be introduced to the wonders of the region. They made a fishing excursion to Granite Lake and another, after pronghorn antelope, to Nordquist’s ranch near Cody. On September 10th, Lawrence Nordquist put out baits for grizzly bear.” The names of the guests, the date, the helper who put out the bait: this is research, no doubt about it. But who is served by it, except the facts themselves? They alone live and breathe, aimlessly reproducing, wandering.
We have been told that no man is a hero to his valet. Professor Baker’s method makes valets of us all. We keep the calendar of our master’s engagements, we lay out his clothes, we order his wine, we pack the bags, we adjust to his new wives, endure his friends, accept his hangovers, his failings. We travel from here to there, serving, now the house in Cuba, then the yacht, Pilar. We are often thoroughly sick of it, feel we need time off, a vacation, a raise in pay. We get the dirty work and somebody else, somewhere, gets the real joy of the man, his charm, his uniqueness, his deeply puzzling inner life. Someone else gossips about him, turns over his traits, ponders the mystery of his talent: all we get are signed copies of his books for our grandchildren.
Was this biography necessary? Long as it is, it tells you little for the first time. One does not feel any novelty about it, nor is it even one of those corrective exercises we are accustomed to. A correction is an idea and, while Professor Baker has ideas about Hemingway, he has decided to keep them safe in his checking account. And so the lengthy spinning out is just more of what we have always known from the public picture, the interviews, the popular image. Perhaps it is too early for a book like this on Hemingway. Scribners’s eagerness was ill-advised, the widow’s cooperation not necessarily in the dead man’s ultimate interest. Much of Hemingway’s image asks to be forgotten, at least for a while. There has been too much “Papa” and “the Kraut” and “daughter” and Hotchner, too much drinking and hunting and fishing and bullfighting. If the pastimes could be removed somewhat perhaps we could be recover the dedication; if the leisure would stand aside perhaps the work could come forth more clearly.
The truth is that Hemingway’s life, lived as the life of an American writer, is deeply interesting as a matter of speculative concern. The good things that have been written about him—Philip Young’s critical biography, Edmund Wilson’s essay in The Wound and the Bow, John Thompson’s review of the Hotchner book—are all suffused with sadness. History has brought into question so many of the pleasures and principles he lived by. The great animals he liked to shoot are becoming extinct. The hunter’s gun inspires us with fear of the madman, not pride in the ancient rites. We pity him when we read that “he made no attempt to conceal his scorn for those who had not been in uniform,” and we wonder if the courage of young soldiers, “grace under pressure,” is not more useful to the North Vietnamese than to the hardware-heavy American. The whores of Havana are cutting sugar cane.
What was there in American life that Hemingway needed to get away from? His acceptance of Spanish culture must mean something about him. He said his mother was a bitch who drove his father to suicide. And his own suicide? Would it be facile to connect it with his father’s, when it came upon him so much later and accompanied so many other physical torments? Perhaps it came not from his youth but from his skull fractures, those injuries he, or the life he led, was prone to. Why did he drink so much? No one could give an answer to all this. What one wants is to feel the questions somewhere in the shadows.
Hemingway’s last year, his terrible suffering, does not bring a pause in the blank recitation, neither in Leicester Hemingway, in Hotchner, nor in Carlos Baker. It appears that if you have forsworn thought about a man’s life, you cannot then think about his death, even though it was a pitiful one. In Baker we learn that, the night before, Mary Hemingway sang “Tutti Mi Chiamano Bionda,” that the red robe was put on the next morning and “He slipped in two shells, lowered the gun butt carefully to the floor, leaned forward, pressed the twin barrels against his forehead just above the eyebrow, and tripped both triggers.” The end. It would not do for us, as valets, to go on too much. In fact, right at the end, we are busy as usual with the facts of life, remembering that “the gun was a double-barrelled Boss shotgun with a tight choke.”
And so here it is, this long, “successful” biography of Hemingway. It neither says anything new nor questions anything old. It is there like a new unfortunate skyscraper. It takes up the space, and will do so for a long time. No one of talent would wish, because of it, to plough this unhappy ground again soon.