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Pressure Under Grace’: An Exchange

In response to:

Pressure Under Grace from the August 13, 1987 issue

To the Editors:

In Frederick Crews’s review of Kenneth Lynn’s Hemingway [NYR, August 13], I found an odd footnote. In it the author of the review takes a backhanded slap at me and my book and my friend, Jack Hemingway. He calls Along With Youth: Hemingway, the Early Years the most “superficial” of the recent biographies—in part, I guess, because it is not sufficiently hostile toward its subject.

Although I am reluctant to comment on “the competition” or the opinions of the friends thereof, the arrogance and blatant stupidity of Mr. Crews wrings this response from me.

Had Mr. Crews been an intelligent and careful reader, he would have noticed, as have a number of reviewers here and abroad, that while my book is a narrative biography, there is a solid structure of interpretation to the story I tell. Ironically, as far as Mr. Crews’s review is concerned, one of the themes that informs my book is the intense and ambiguous relationship between Grace Hemingway and her son, Ernest. True, I did not make much of the idea that Grace dressed Ernest, in his first year, as a girl. I thought that Aaron Latham’s article in The New York Times in 1978 had given such a silly notion all the play it deserved. Instead, I implied that Grace Hemingway, a stunningly insensitive and foolish woman, though not a particularly cruel one, idolized her father, Ernest Hall (for whom she named her first son), and measured both her husband, Clarence, and her son, Ernest, against her image of him. Why, indeed, didn’t Mr. Crews notice that I began and ended my book with Grace’s effect on Ernest? Why didn’t he understand the reason for my including in my epilogue a paraphrase of an unpublished story Hemingway wrote just before he started on For Whom the Bell Tolls?

In this story a wounded soldier makes his way back, in a dream, to his mother’s home. At first he insists that he loves to fight—loves all the adventure. But eventually Orpen, as the soldier is called, admits to his mother that he finds battle hateful and that he longs to be back home, peacefully at work on his music. She, “like the mother of all wisdom,” caresses his head on her knee and tells him that he will not have to fight anymore.

Because Mr. Lynn makes this piece one of the keys to his interpretation of Hemingway’s relationship with his mother, there is a double irony here. Mr. Lynn, after reading my book and recognizing the importance of the story, asked me for assistance in locating the story of “Orpen.” Apparently, despite my response, he never found it. I assume this because, in his paraphrase, he leaves out the reference to the father—a tiny, black-clothed figure in a closet—and attributes the paternal role instead to the grandfather figure. All this is done to make his Freudian reading make sense.

The point is that had Mr. Crews been an attentive reader, he would have seen that my “superficial” book rendered Mr. Lynn’s thesis two years ago, and made it a part, but not the whole, of Hemingway’s story.

I think it is significant that my book is appreciated by some very fine literary artists—Raymond Carver, James Dickey, Ward Just, Mario Vargas Llosa. That it is beyond the range of the likes of Frederick Crews is understandable, but painful nevertheless.

Peter Griffin

Fall River, Massachusetts

To the Editors:

Kenneth Lynn, Malcolm Cowley, and I have been through this in The Georgia Review (Fall 1984), but in his long, enthusiastic essay on Lynn’s Hemingway Frederick Crews is unaware of that. I protest one last time that what Crews calls “Cowley’s thesis” about Hemingway’s wounding—that “the traumatizing experience of being hit by shrapnel in World War I” was the start of many things, especially “psychic problems”—was not originally Cowley’s at all. The crucial fiction in this argument is “Big Two-Hearted River.” “Since Malcolm Cowley’s influential introduction to the Portable Hemingway in 1944,” Crews writes, “this story…has been thought to depict its hero’s struggle against an underlying panic stemming from the shell shock” that resulted from the wound. What Lynn seems to have learned, but not Crews, is that Cowley’s introduction to the Portable makes no mention of any wound, or shell shock, or related psychic problem. The thesis was first argued in my 1952 Ernest Hemingway, which in 1951 Mr. Cowley read in typescript for the publisher and reported on in detail. He first published his own thoughts on the wound and its effects in 1984 (Georgia Review, Summer). Miraculously I still have both his 1951 report and the generous letter he also wrote me. For the publisher he summarizes what I wrote about the wound and comments, “Young gets that part.” About the shell shock he wrote me, “You are right.” He didn’t add anything.

It may seem curious to claim credit for a theory that is being dismissed as “the critic’s version of [a] legend.” But it is not a legend when applied, as I first applied it, to Nick Adams, Hemingway’s first and seminal persona. (It does need qualification, which Lynn supplies copiously and Crews underlines.) Both Lynn and Crews are insensitive to the intense discipline of the style in “Big Two-Hearted River.” This is what eloquently conveys the panic, barely under control.

Philip Young

The Pennsylvania State University

University Park, Pennsylvania

Frederick Crews replies:

In calling Peter Griffin’s book superficial, I scarcely went beyond his own account of it as quoted in The New York Times Book Review of November 17, 1985: “Mr. Griffin is prepared for some to think him romantic and uncritical. ‘They’ll call me ingenuous, but I don’t mind. You have to try and see things as your subject saw them, be the way he was at the time,’ he said.”

In Mr. Griffin’s hands, this already dubious method degenerates into an eagerness to believe everything that the precocious fabricator Hemingway reported to his gullible friends and family. Thus Griffin passes along Hemingway’s martial and sexual boasts as if they were established facts. He even alleges that Hemingway actually became involved, at age eighteen, with a Hollywood film star—and this despite his reproduction, two pages later, of a telegram from Hemingway to his parents admitting that the “engagement” was a hoax! Mr. Griffin makes an even better straight man than the elder Hemingways did.

Another problem with “seeing things as your subject saw them” is that those things, not the subject’s character, fill the horizon of discourse. Griffin tells us next to nothing about the sensitive, gifted, and troubled figure who was to write such taut and memorable fiction. Instead, he serves up huge, unanalyzed quotations and circumstantial details, whipped into a semblance of portentousness by kitschy chapter titles (“A Boy’s Will,” “His Fair Lady”) and elliptical mannerisms. (Thus one chapter ends, “Before Ernest left for the train station, he danced with his sister Ursula in the music room. The song on her victrola was ‘A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody.”’ So what?) Griffin’s belatedly disclosed “solid structure of interpretation” is nowhere to be found in the book itself.

But how could my judgment of Along with Youth diverge so sharply from that of the “very fine literary artists” who have praised it? The answer, I suspect, is that many excellent writers feel indebted to Hemingway, suspicious of prying scholarship, and friendly toward biographers who will take a fellow author at face value.

Other reviewers, while acknowledging that Griffin’s book draws on previously unpublished material, saw it for the clumsy and unreflective work that it is. “Griffin’s Hemingway,” wrote Townsend Ludington in American Literature, “is too full of ‘gosh’ and ‘golly’ to help us comprehend all that we know him to have been.” “The narrative in this case,” said R.W.B. Lewis, “rarely seems to know what is going to happen next…. Even paragraphs tend to stray from their starting points.” David Montrose found Griffin’s meager insights expanded by “liberal infusions of hot air.” And Jeffrey Meyers justly complained of Griffin’s “laundered Hemingway,” found the book “amateurishly padded,” and substantiated a claim that Griffin “cannot distinguish between petty and significant detail, or, when presenting evidence, between fact, fiction, and fantasy.” The contention that Kenneth Lynn’s consistently analytical Hemingway is a mere spinoff of such a book is stunning, but commensurate after all with Griffin’s other lapses of judgment.

To hear Philip Young tell it, Malcolm Cowley and everyone else who advocates the “wound” approach to Hemingway got the idea from him. But I will show that Cowley did write about a wound and a trauma in 1944. Moreover, he was not the first to do so. The pioneer was Edmund Wilson in his 1939 essay, “Ernest Hemingway: Bourdon Gauge of Morale,” which specifically related “Big Two-Hearted River” to its author’s battle experience.

Nevertheless, as I stated in my own essay, “especially since Malcolm Cowley’s…Portable Hemingway in 1944, this story of a solitary trout-fishing expedition has been thought to depict its hero’s struggle against an underlying panic stemming from the shell shock that figures in other Nick Adams stories written some years later” (emphasis added to the term that Young has suppressed). It was Cowley’s introduction that set the agenda for a generation of trauma-minded critics. And Philip Young, who in 1952 freely attested to having “ported a Portable Hemingway halfway across Europe during World War II,” was at once the most influenced and the most influential of those critics.

Not so, says the Young of 1987. Now that the truth has allegedly been laid out in the Georgia Review, even Kenneth Lynn “seems to have learned” that the school of Cowley is really the school of Young. Lynn, however, maintains exactly the opposite on pages 104–108 of his new biography. And Cowley himself, in his contribution to the Georgia Review exchange, protested that “Young seems a little eager to assert his priority.”

It seems to me,” Cowley went on, “that the wound in Italy was in the background of my thinking when I wrote an introduction to the Portable Hemingway in 1944. But my notions about it weren’t clearly formulated.” They didn’t have to be. Cowley’s introduction argued, not without eloquence, that Hemingway was a “haunted and nocturnal” writer rather than a naturalistic one, and he proposed that we regard the “waking-dreamlike quality” of “Big Two-Hearted River” in the light of a later story, “Now I Lay Me.” As Cowley recounted, in “Now I Lay Me” Nick Adams, wounded in Italy, says that he has been afraid of closing his eyes in the dark “ever since I had been blown up at night.”

Since this traumatized soldier Nick calms himself with thoughts of trout fishing, Cowley argued, we are obliged to reread “Big Two-Hearted River” as depicting an escape “either from a nightmare or from realities that have become a nightmare.” To attentive and appreciative readers, surely including Young, there was no ambiguity about which “realities” were intended. When Young now asserts that Cowley’s introduction “makes no mention of any wound, or shell shock, or psychic problem,” he is indulging in a self-interested distortion.

Young would like us to choose between a “shell-shocked” Hemingway and a sunny and shallow one, but these are false alternatives. Hemingway did not need to be hit by shrapnel to acquire the morbid streak that Wilson, Cowley, and Young all emphasized, and his best stories can survive on their own terms without being reduced to echoes of the Fossalta explosion. As Young’s Ernest Hemingway illustrates all too clearly, the more emphasis a critic lays upon the unique incident of the wounding, the more susceptible he will be to naive hero worship. It is time now to put Fossalta in perspective and acknowledge the traits and preoccupations that bridged Hemingway’s admittedly pivotal year 1918.

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