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Pressure Under Grace

Hemingway

by Kenneth S. Lynn
Simon and Schuster, 702 pp., $24.95

1.

Kenneth S. Lynn’s Hemingway is hardly a book that its subject would have enjoyed reading. If the touchy and pugnacious bruiser were still among us, Lynn would surely want to keep a bodyguard at his side for the next several years. Nevertheless, he has written not only one of the most brilliant and provocative literary biographies in recent memory, but also the study that Hemingway most urgently needs at this point in his critical fortunes.

Though superficial appearances indicate otherwise, Hemingway’s literary stature continues to be subject to the downward revision that began on the day in 1961 when, depressed, paranoid, and stupefied by heavy doses of electroshock therapy, he blew out his brains with a shotgun blast. Throughout the Sixties and Seventies, feminists and others took their own shots at the tottering idol, whose cult of macho sporting values and stoic mannerisms began to seem hollow and foolish. So much insistence on correctness of attitude in the face of a melodramatically hostile fate; so much self-flattery in the creation of one autobiographical hero after another, always a god to his adoring woman; so much scorn for the weakling, the pervert, the aesthete, the castrating bitch! Wasn’t the whole thing—and Hemingway’s famous tight-lipped style along with it—a contemptible sham?

Today, when remoteness in time has begun to confer indulgence toward the writer’s personal failings, we hear less of such talk. Instead, we find ourselves in the midst of what looks like a Hemingway boom. The Eighties have witnessed an enormous outpouring of biographies, specalized studies, dissertations, conferences, television specials, and mass-market reissues, along with further posthumous volumes of Hemingway’s uncollected or abandoned work, sometimes forced into print with little regard for its quality or even its authenticity.

One may wonder, however, whether this flurry signifies a true reversal of the critical deflation or merely a scholarly and commercial feeding frenzy over the newly accessible Hemingwayana in collections at the John F. Kennedy Library, the University of Texas, and elsewhere. In large measure, what has been restored to us is Hemingway the celebrity—the figure that he himself, the supreme self-publicist of modern letters, created in the Thirties and shrewdly marketed through articles and interviews depicting a life of action, courage, and connoisseurship. It says something about our own shallow decade that so many of us are happy to revert to that trivial conception of our most influential novelist. In the long run, however, the resuscitation of the Hemingway legend will be seen to have merely postponed an inevitable reckoning. Quite simply, the legend is false, and its certain demise will leave Hemingway once again exposed to his most adamant detractors.

What Hemingway requires is an ideal reader who can discard everything that is meretricious in our image of him but then do justice to the literary art that remains. Put this way, the task sounds straightforward enough. The trouble is, however, that the reality behind the legend is so unpleasant in several respects that biographical debunkers have had no stomach for the work of critical reconstruction. From the former idolator Carlos Baker’s reluctantly revelatory Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story to Bernice Kert’s The Hemingway Women and Jeffrey Meyers’s Hemingway: A Biography, those who have had the most eye-opening things to say about Hemingway the man have not cared even to attempt critical reformulations.1

After Kenneth Lynn’s contribution, however, nothing will be the same in any branch of Hemingway studies. Though his ambitious inquiry builds (with acknowledgment) on the work of other biographers, Lynn carries the process of demythification even farther than did Jeffrey Meyers, whose coolly objective and well-researched book has been treated in some quarters as a breach of decorum. We will see that no aspect of Hemingway’s conduct, however intimate or embarrassing, escapes Lynn’s clinical eye. Yet his intelligence is fully balanced by his humanity. Instead of merely refuting Hemingway’s boasts, Lynn offers us our first cogent and sustained explanation of the psychological, familial, and environmental pressures that helped to make the willful yet deeply cautious author what he was. The result is an admirable combination of justice and compassion—but that is not all. In showing that Hemingway secretly entertained broader sympathies than his manly code implied, Lynn is able to return to the fiction with fresh appreciation.

To be sure, the Hemingway who emerges is a troubled and diminished figure in comparison with the mythic presence that once dominated our literary scene. But he is not the exposed fraud we have grown accustomed to meeting in ideological diatribes of recent decades. Rather, he is the Hemingway who once wrote to Scott Fitzgerald, “We are all bitched from the start and you especially have to be hurt like hell before you can write seriously. But when you get the damned hurt use it—don’t cheat with it. Be as faithful to it as a scientist.”

2.

To arrive at that vulnerable and exacting artist, we must first learn to forgo the Hemingway legend. But the task is not as easy as it looks. The legend, it is important to grasp, comes in two versions—in effect, one for the credulous mass public and one for relatively wary critics. If the simple version is clearly doomed, its more sophisticated counterpart still has plenty of eloquent defenders.

At the primary level, the legend says that Hemingway was a great sportsman, aficionado, and stoic, religiously devoted to maintaining poise in the face of mortal danger. This is the image cultivated by the surviving Hemingway clan for the sake of its business ventures, including Hemingway Ltd., a corporation formed to market the label “Hemingway” for use on tastefully chosen fishing rods, safari clothes, and (surely the ultimate triumph of greed over taste) shotguns.2 In contrast, the critics’ version of the legend is a limited exercise in damage control. It allows that the hero may have been morbid and fear-ridden but asserts that even his debilities were acquired in a noble, portentous manner—namely, in the traumatizing experience of being hit by shrapnel in World War I. Thanks to the wounding, Hemingway is awarded a red badge of tragic historical consciousness.

Although Lynn provides the most decisive refutation of both accounts, his conclusions about Hemingway the alleged sportsman were already implicit in other biographies. Scholars have known for some time that Hemingway—clumsy, weak-eyed, slow-footed, accident-prone, and, in the words of his third wife, Martha Gellhorn, “the biggest liar since Munchausen”—always talked a better game than he played. To hear him tell it, no subtlety of sport or combat had eluded his skills or analytic acumen. True specialists, however, were often unimpressed not only by his prowess but also by his claims to expertise.3

More important, Hemingway’s sense of fair competition was stunted by irrational needs. As a recreational boxer, he became notorious for administering low blows and knees to the groin, mercilessly pounding smaller and weaker friends, sucker-punching one man who was still lacing his gloves, and doing the same to another—indeed, smashing his newly donned glasses—while the latter was unlacing a glove. After his eye-hand coordination had been sacrificed to alcoholism, he disgusted his hunting companions by claiming some of their kills as his own. And in recalling deep-sea fishing trips with the later Hemingway—who was fond of shooting at sharks with a machine gun or pistol, and who once wounded his own legs in the process—Arnold Gingrich characterized his overbearing friend as a “meat fisherman” who “cared more about the quantity than about the quality,” disdained the true angler’s concern for proper methods, and was all in all “a very poor sport.” In his zeal to throw more punches, ski more recklessly, catch more fish, and slaughter more animals than anyone else, Hemingway was not a sportsman but a man possessed.

If the writer’s compulsive side is inescapable, however, its origins are still a theme of lively controversy. Under the influence of Malcolm Cowley, Philip Young, and Hemingway himself—who grudgingly came to find a certain utility in this line of argument—most commentators from the Forties until now have traced his psychic problems to the Austrian mortar shell which had allegedly shattered both his equanimity and his belief in public causes. As articulated in the backup legend, the famous incident at Fossalta di Piave at once attests to the hero’s preternatural valor, imparts an agreeably leftward spin to his grandest themes (the emptiness of politicians’ abstractions, the need for a separate peace), and provides a concrete external basis for the not-so-grand ones (night fears, loss of nerve, castration, impotence, nihilism).

Thanks to careful research by Lynn and, before him, Michael Reynolds, this story now stands exposed as a fiction.4 Hemingway, it seems, grossly misrepresented the immediate aftermath of his wounding, when, with over 200 shell fragments lodged in his lower body, he allegedly carried a fellow victim 150 yards through machine-gun fire to safety, absorbing several direct hits but somehow picking himself back up and completing the herculean ordeal. The truth appears to be that young Ernest received many flesh wounds from shrapnel, that he showed solicitude for others while waiting to be evacuated, but that during his recovery he embroidered the story to compel maximum awe from parents, friends, and reporters, some of whom were even left with the impression that he had been a member of the Italian equivalent of the Green Berets rather than a Red Cross volunteer dispensing cigarettes and candy from a bicycle.

The most significant distortion, however, was not Hemingway’s doing but that of critics enamored of the overworked “postwar disillusionment” or “wasteland” thesis. This banality has served to lend a darker, more mature tinge to the fiction of the Jazz Age, which at its best (The Great Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises) is thought to constitute a wise commentary on the moral collapse of the West. Since the books in question reflect scant historical analysis and are patently jejune in some respects, the critics’ job has been to catch deeper echoes between the lines. In Fitzgerald’s case this has been a losing cause; the carnage had ended before the would-be knight could sail for France in his custom-tailored Brooks Brothers uniform, much less get properly shot, and his novels of the Twenties exude an undisguisable combination of naive, wistful romanticism and sociopolitical indifference. Fossalta, in contrast, has provided the critics with copious servings of Hemingway helper.

Did Hemingway lose his boyish innocence in 1918, acquiring in short order a fissured psyche and a bitter sense of historical disillusionment? Lynn proposes that we need only consult surviving letters and photographs to see that, on the contrary, the teen-age adventurer was more elated than shattered by his brush with death. (One of the reproduced pictures, taken shortly after the explosion, discloses a buoyant, handsome youth, not quite nineteen, beaming triumphantly at the camera from his hospital bed in Milan.) “It does give you an awfully satisfactory feeling to be wounded,” he wrote home. It was, he said in another letter, “the next best thing to getting killed and reading your own obituary”—a line that could have been spoken by Tom Sawyer. Obviously, Hemingway was trying to calm his parents’ fears. Even so, the adeptness of his sprightly rhetoric sits poorly with the conventional idea of his thoroughly unnerved, shell-shocked condition.

  1. 1

    A conspicuous exception to the revisionist trend is Peter Griffin’s Along with Youth: Hemingway, the Early Years (Oxford University Press, 1985), the most superficial of recent biographies. Griffin swallows the Hemingway legend so avidly that one wonders how, in his two unwritten volumes, he will manage to account for the not-so-pretty middle and late phases of his subject’s life. Incidentally, the book comes with a glowing foreword by Hemingway’s eldest son, Jack, the chairman of Hemingway Ltd. (see below).

  2. 2

    See Lance Morrow, “A Quarter-Century Later, the Myth Endures, Time, August 25, 1986, p. 70.

  3. 3

    Did Hemingway, for example, ever acquire the afición to which he laid claim from his very earliest days as a bullfight fan? The matador Luis Miguel Dominguín, who spent much time in his company, thought otherwise: “He knew more than most Americans but less than almost all Spaniards” (Jeffrey Meyers, Hemingway: A Biography, Harper and Row, Perennial Library Edition, 1986, p. 525). One thing the bloodthirsty Hemingway knew for sure, however, was that the picadors’ horses ought to risk being disemboweled; he complained against the introduction of protective pads in 1928 (Meyers, p. 192).

  4. 4

    See Michael S. Reynolds, Hemingway’s First War (Princeton University Press, 1976). This study and Reynolds’s other scrupulous books, Hemingway’s Reading: 1910–1940 (Princeton University Press, 1981) and The Young Hemingway (Oxford University Press, 1986), have notably helped to restore the writer to human scale.

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