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Desperate Character

How It Was

by Mary Welsh Hemingway
Knopf, 537 pp., $12.50

Papa: A Personal Memoir

by Gregory H. Hemingway MD, with a preface by Norman Mailer
Pocket Books, 119 pp., $1.75 (paper)

The collapse of Hemingway’s reputation was in the wind well before he died. His serious admirers had retreated by then to defending the early short stories and parts of The Sun Also Rises and snippets of A Farewell to Arms, and retreat usually leads to rout in these matters: the short stories could not hold out by themselves forever.

Hemingway must have sensed it. His nose for how he was doing was as delicate as a basset hound’s. And of course he tipped his hand grossly by blustering at his critics and at the opposition, while simultaneously feigning gargantuan indifference. His son Gregory’s kind pharmaceutical explanations of his later paranoia may be true, but not necessary: Ernest knew the score. The vultures were waiting for him to die.

At least he managed to leave it in his will, or wish, that we still discuss him that way. The trail of carcasses left behind by him and his set has been duly noted; but at least he left his own among them, Goya-esque undoubtedly, and smelling of the museums, as Gertrude Stein put it, but the only place his talent could go. It deserves a better memorial than his wife and son have given us so far.

At least there’s this: in his own sardonic way, which was not as dumb as it looked—but then, not as bright as a second look promised—he beat them to it. In Across the River and Into the Trees he made a complete ass of himself. Everything since has been a clumsy gloss on that. Mary Hemingway’s How It Was can only be described, in the lingua finca and from the title on down, as bullshit once removed. The tinny tones of Papa are duplicated by a writer who lacks grip. “Noisy, badly ventilated U.S. Army food”; “self-packed suitcases” (where, oh where, does one find those?)—the simple Hemingway sentence, which is at best the height of artifice, becomes a brute necessity for such a writer as this.

There is one blood-curdling and encapsulating sequence in the book in which Mary spells it out to Ernest that no amount of humiliation will make her quit. And she proves it. His Italian mistress could sit in the front of the car while she took the back; she would play Tonto forever to his Lone Ranger on hunting trips; name it. She liked being Mrs. Hemingway, with all its perquisites, and presumably still does. But whether someone who seems to try periodically to get rid of you is the ideal subject for a memoir is a vexed question; although Mary looks on the bright side at regular intervals, the overwhelming impression of Hemingway is of sodden, peevish ruin, worthy of one of Papa’s own hatchet jobs.

Words fail when it comes to the perquisites themselves—the finca, the baby talk, the jolly ship Pilar. What Mary Hemingway understandably elides is that she married an artistically desperate man. Her account of their first meeting in 1944 suggests that he came as a darkling surprise to her and swept her off her reluctant feet à la mode de King Kong; yet as a star reporter for Time, she had the book on him if anyone did. He was already the world’s most obtrusive author, a querulous boozer, and a Catholic convert ready to divorce his third wife at the speed of Gable—in short, a handful, and she undoubtedly paid a murderous price for him. But who can tell what value someone else might place on a curio like Hemingway?

Unreality is, of course, the essence of Hemingway memoirs, his own and others’; but the quality of the myths had deteriorated so badly by then that the truth hardly seems worth finding. For instance, it may be true that Mary knew that Across the River was bad all along, and that she persuaded Ernest to give The Old Man and the Sea an upbeat ending. But even if she was the wise old owl that Hemingway painted her, it doesn’t matter: the Old Man’s fate could have been settled by the toss of a coin. The author of A Farewell to Arms had refused advice from Scott Fitzgerald. But by 1951, the question of whether the Old Man was a triumph of the human spirit or of piscine persistence could safely be left to Miss Mary.

In contrast, the book by Hemingway’s son Gregory is a useful addition, because it does give flashes, as in a child’s dreams, of an earlier more dazzling Hemingway. But for the most part he is left wrestling with the same hulk as Mary: proving alternately that Papa was capable of kindness, like several million others, and of cruelty, at which he was a little special. Hemingway may have been more alive to his sons than to his women, out of a sheer sense of duty, and he gave them a marginally better book in Islands in the Stream; but how thin it all finally seems, sealed off with his fish and his Gary Cooper, with the world of speech abandoned for good.

It will take more than any late memoir to salvage Hemingway and make him seem worth the fuss. Roger Sale has proposed a simple way out; that America in the Twenties wanted great writers, so it invented them. There may be something to this: we invented pretty much everything else. But if Hemingway’s early patrons, such as Ezra Pound, Ford Madox Ford, and Gertrude Stein, wanted great American writers, the search could not have been simple-minded. The real question is whether what excited them so much was a writer or merely a method.

Hemingway’s method, smacking as it did of the teletype and the cryptic newspaper cable, may well have taken less streamlined literati off stride. In fact his first stories, collected in In Our Time, are like news reports gone strangely wrong: by means of omission and artificial selection masquerading as objectivity, Hemingway produced a disquieting, apparently extraneous effect, for which the young Edmund Wilson used words like “poison,” “sinister,” “moral falsity and tragedy”—though none of these words might be justified by the story as such. All this was accomplished in a style which Ford compared to spying white pebbles on the bed of a clear stream. So many bad writers have since muddied up this style that it’s hard to remember how fresh it once seemed. But is that all it was—just fresh?

Hemingway did not help much by falling on his face almost immediately. Our Middle Western geniuses (Lardner, Fitzgerald, Thurber) tended to be instantly paralyzed by fame, presumably because they had no culture to retreat to, no tradition to tell them what to do next. In each case, the solution was to resort to Method; whatever had made them famous must reside in that. Even as early as A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway began to look like a confabulation of tricks, which would be laid on double with each subsequent failure.

Yet dismissing Hemingway’s decline as a simple loss of nerve does not quite satisfy. His attempts to regain his touch in the Thirties were gutty and occasionally sly: The Snows of Kilimanjaro in particular is an ingenious blend of his old style with more sophisticated material. So if he failed in the end it may be that the task he set himself was simply too much for anyone. In which case, it might be more useful to speculate where even the strongest of men could have gone with that particular talent. And this is where Scott Donaldson’s book comes in extremely handy. Although it adds little to Hemingway criticism proper (it’s hard to know what could be added to that mighty body of palaver), it is the first fresh news we’ve had in years about the play between the actual man and his work.

There is, as one might expect, an almost salacious feast for revisionists. Gregory has confirmed that Hemingway couldn’t box worth his hat but Donaldson adds that he could barely stumble through football, and that he threw baseballs “like a hen,” although he later claimed to have been a mighty pitcher. In fact, until he grew big and noticeable in his senior year, he preferred reading to any outdoor sport.

The point is that Hemingway did not take to lying in later life: the young Hemingway was almost as phony as the old. This is good news about a writer. At least it explodes the notion that he wrote entirely from experience, and that when that gave out, he was through. It seems he had precious little experience to begin with.

He came from the abnormally stuffy suburb of Oak Park, Illinois, and his legendary summers in Michigan were no more than the camping trips a city kid might take today. He did know an Indian girl, with the sobering name of Prudy Boulton; but his picture of himself as a young sexual vagabond was punctured pretty thoroughly one night in Paris when a whore approached him and he blushed helplessly.

If this last gives the impression that Donaldson is enjoying himself just a bit too much at Ernie’s expense, he probably is. Although Hemingway does seem to ask for it, there is no good reason why he can’t have his Indian girl. Nevertheless, the general picture is correct and even sympathetic: a man who did all those things would be all the boor that Hemingway seemed; but someone who made them up—and then believed them—might just possibly be a great writer.

Similarly, Donaldson is a bit stingy with Hemingway’s war experience. True, there was comically little of it for the Voice of World War I disillusionment; but one feels that Donaldson would get him out of the Italian campaign altogether if he could. Yet again the mistake is in the right direction, and is neatly corroborated by Michael Reynolds’s fine small study1 of Hemingway’s war. It seems that though the famous retreat from Caparetto in A Farewell to Arms is accepted as gospel even by Italians, Hemingway knew practically nothing about the real thing. Which raises the question of why someone with such an imagination could not have gone on writing forever. But the problem was never one of material, but of inserting the appropriate moral poison, the malaise that, as Wilson says, undermines “the sunlight and the green summer landscapes of The Sun Also Rises.” And for this, less material (as in “Big Two-Hearted River” or “Soldier’s Home”) would have been more. The clutter of expertise in, for example, The Old Man and the Sea, smothers one’s imagination in a pile of fishing equipment. It is as if the author hoped to find his magic in the very names of objects.

Reynolds and Donaldson also document the tell-tale fact that, in real life, the model for the nurse in A Farewell to Arms jilts the captain, because he’s too young. The bathos is unspeakable: Frederic Henry at nineteen being told to shove off by a twenty-six-year-old nurse. Fortunately, fiction can always straighten these things out, and in the novel, Catherine dies bearing his child: but there is something unpleasant about this distortion. Certainly there’s no call for the exact truth, but this is such a mean victory. A premature canonization is a capital way to settle scores with a woman.

Which brings us to the core of his lying and his fiction, which were the same thing to begin with: the compulsion not just to settle scores but to change them after the game was over. Everyone knows the famous examples: how it turns out that he helped Fitzgerald and not the other way about; how he did his best for poor Gertrude, etc., etc. Donaldson also elaborates on how much Harold Loeb had assisted Ernest before the big fellow flattened him out good in The Sun Also Rises; and he throws in a gem of mischievous research (new to me anyway): to wit, that the joke “the very rich are not like you and me…no, they have more money” was first used at Ernest’s own expense. He, of course, palmed it off on “poor Scott.” In other words, the sportsman was a cheat.

It went against the grain. But the code of honor Hemingway celebrated so vehemently was violated almost every time he entered the ring. Even in literal ones, he was notorious for hitting people who weren’t looking and otherwise acting up (luckily he was so slow it didn’t matter), and in personal rings, he was murder. But what could he do? Much as he must have reproached himself—he didn’t become a Catholic for nothing—it was the wellspring of his talent. When he begins a story with that “poor Scott” crack, we know he will be in top form; and when A Moveable Feast rises like Lazarus from the Cuban mausoleum, we can guess that malice will be its Holy Spirit, the life-force behind it (unless, as I suspect, it was written earlier: even so, the principle holds).

In all this, he reminds one bizarrely of his great admirer, Evelyn Waugh. Waugh was also at his best when he was at his most contemptible. And although he hated himself for it, it’s too much to ask an artist to give up his Ace, so he joined the Catholic Church instead, the Church of perpetual forgiveness, and hoped for the best; and so did Hemingway. Donaldson sticks a toe into all this, as Anglo-Americans are prone to do with writers’ religions, and pulls it out fast; but at least he does that. In fact, Hemingway’s latinate taste for Catholic liturgy and bullfights might tell us quite a lot about his art—both forms being sacrificial, self-contained, ominously decorous: universal but not really “about anything”2 but themselves.

But where did the meanness, the cheating come from? Money is probably the best symbol we have in these matters, and Donaldson’s research is at its liveliest at this level, among the pots and pans. Hemingway’s father was infuriatingly stingy, allowing the children a penny a week multiplied by their ages, thin pickings even in the 1910s. And when Ernest got to Paris, he turned out to be quite the scrounger himself—preying off the likes of Harold Loeb, and never picking up a tab anywhere. Donaldson records the number of cash exchanges in The Sun Also Rises (thirty) and this tells as much as backstairs criticism can of what Hemingway saw when he walked into a café. Later he became prodigally generous, but in such a man, generosity is always a calculated statement. It goes into a ledger and will be paid back one way or another.

But theories of Hemingway’s nastiness need not be multiplied indefinitely. People who have never tried it have no idea how pleasant being nasty can be. And being good at it is the only motive required. Hemingway may have added to this the hysterical competitiveness of a Midwesterner with a Thurber mother (it helps to think of him as a Thurber character sometimes) who had routed his Thurber father and would eventually get him too in some form or other—as wife, critic, or make-believe friend. And who knows, he might even wind up babbling baby talk to her someday.

But there has been altogether too much of this bootless psychologizing about Hemingway (his bad luck to have lived through the Freudian epidemic) and it adds up in sum to an insult to the autonomy of literature. Writing problems usually have writing causes, most outstandingly so in Hemingway’s case. His manic frenzies weren’t what brought him low, if anything they kept him going; what they couldn’t do was tell him what to write next.

Donaldson begins his book, quite correctly, with the problem of Hemingway and thinking, but he is too easily satisfied with the answer, already suggested, that Hemingway was brighter than he looked. Unfortunately, intelligence was never the problem.

Hemingway’s purpose (and he repeated it as often as a street corner orator) was to produce an art as pure as painting. When he called Cézanne his inspiration, he wasn’t simply high-hatting other writers as usual. He was truly after an art in which the creator could be as intelligent as he liked, but in which intelligence must be transmuted entirely into form, so that no lumps of thinking are left showing.

An admirable ambition, although hardly the way to compete with Mr. Tolstoy, and to my mind he was brilliantly successful at it; the very small daubs of light and color (always, as Reynolds Price has pointed out, much smaller than one remembers) establish a psychological landscape in which the thought is merged perfectly: clearly there, but indistinguishable and unextractable.

The problem was always to find a consciousness that actually sees things this way and embody it in a plausible person. Hemingway’s bifocal theory of fiction demanded such a presence for the close-ups at least, with a language to match, whether pidgin Spanish or cigar-store Indian. He proved most successful when he used the standard American boy Nick Adams or that masterful device, the shell-shocked soldier, forbidden virtually by doctor’s orders to think. (Philip Young claims that Hemingway was that soldier, and that his art began with that. If so, it might explain his extraordinary predilection for head injuries thereafter.) Later, he would try the boy again in The Old Man and the Sea, and the old soldier in Across the River and Into the Trees, but even drunk and reeling from his latest bang on the head, the author himself had changed too much to get the primitive impersonations right. In these late books the boy is a cipher, the soldier is a dummy stuffed like a turkey with Hemingway’s opinions, trying not to think and to lay down the law at the same time.

In between, Hemingway had tried to accommodate his own inevitable growth and change in such halfway houses as Jake Barnes, Frederic Henry, and Robert Jordan, and the declining graph of their quality speaks for itself. Donaldson reminds us that each of these heroes is in some sense a literate person, but this is a technicality: giving them college degrees no more makes them intellectuals than a mail-order degree from Bob Jones University would. They are still trying not to think, which more and more meant trying to keep Hemingway out: and he was getting brutally insistent.

Heaven knows, he tried not to think himself. His sojourn on Cuba reminds one of Peter Pan’s magic island, with Papa straining excruciatingly, almost Teutonically and by the numbers, to stay young, to stay simple, forever. And he rehearsed his goofy private language as conscientiously as Waugh rehearsed his Super-Cad. Alternately Hemingway courted large doses of primary experience, too fast and shocking to be assimilated by intelligence. If he couldn’t re-enact the primitive consciousness, he could at least re-create the direct experience, which just might jar the consciousness alive again.

Thus, all the hunting, fishing, and war-sniffing were not altogether fatuous, but gallant attempts to keep his prodigious sense of vocation in business. As a parent of the existential novel, he believed, with the early Camus, that sheer quantity of experience had value, perhaps the only value left to us. And he laid it on, like a good American, with a trowel.

Ironically, the best Hemingway novel was finally written by Camus anyway, namely L’Etranger, just as the best old Hollywood movies were made by the French New Wave. But Camus also had the wisdom to realize that this was a young man’s game, that for a middle-aged man to go gulping down sensation without thinking can be dangerously like a Shriner on a spree; so he allowed something like thinking to enter his subsequent fiction.

Hemingway, alas, clung to his method, partly out of pride, and partly perhaps because it was all he had. It would be nice to be sure of this latter: but as early as The Sun Also Rises there are signs of potential freedom, of an exit into adulthood, that he never availed himself of. This was his last book before fame settled in to stay and clamped his style into place, where it grew warped and gnarled like a tree in a cave: but that it was a splendid style, and that his pursuit of it was honorable, if muddle-headed, to the end, I have no doubt.

  1. 1

    Hemingway’s First War: The Making of A Farewell to Arms (Princeton, 1976).

  2. 2

    Catholic readers may respond that the Mass is about Calvary, about the Last Supper. Just so: all art is about something in that sense. But I believe the attempt to make the Mass purely representational, instead of a discrete event, has done more to demystify it than all the common-sense reforms put together.

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