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…
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