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A Clean Well-Lighted Place

This is part of a speech made at a dinner on July 18, 1980, to commemorate the opening of the Hemingway Room in the Kennedy Library on Columbia Point, Boston. In attendance at the dinner—which was held in the great glass-fronted foyer of the I.M. Pei building and at which were served dishes and drinks described in his books (Hemingway’s own Papa Doble rum concoction among them)—were members of the Hemingway family (though not Hemingway’s widow, Miss Mary, who was indisposed), Mrs. Aristotle Onassis, representing the Library, and more than one hundred Hemingway scholars.

Ladies and gentlemen, Hemingway scholars, Mrs. Onassis…since we have just concluded a meal here, and a number of Papa Dobles (somewhat pinker and weaker than the drink Papa invented, thank goodness), I thought I’d start by telling you of two occasions, both meals, at which I had personal encounters with these two extraordinary men whose names are associated tonight as we celebrate the opening of the Hemingway Room at the Kennedy Library.

First, President Kennedy. Some years ago I went to a large dinner at the White House, a social evening, and after dinner a few of us were taken on an informal tour by the president. At one point, I believe in the Oval Office, President Kennedy motioned to me and said, “George, I’d like to talk to you about your grandmother.”

I was, as you can imagine, somewhat startled by this request. It turned out the problem had to do with my grandmother’s father—a Civil War “boy” general named Adelbert Ames…winner of two Medals of Honor, the Commander of the 20th Maine, wounded at the Battle of Bull Run, veteran of Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Cold Harbor—just the sort of man whom President Kennedy and Ernest Hemingway would have thought the highest of. The trouble came when, at the age of thirty-three, Adelbert Ames was appointed governor-general of Mississippi by President Lincoln. There he ran afoul of Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar, the Mississippian who went to Congress and gave the famous eulogy of Charles Sumner, the Radical Republican, earning him a place in the history of reconciliation and a chapter in John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage. In that chapter Mississippi is described as follows: “No state suffered more from carpet-bag rule than Mississippi. Adelbert Ames, first senator and then governor, was a native of Maine, a son-in-law of the notorious ‘Butcher of New Orleans,’ Benjamin F. Butler. His administration was sustained and nourished by Federal bayonets.” On and on.

When my grandmother ran across this affront, not only to her father but to her grandfather, she began writing letters to the then-Senator Kennedy explaining that during the Reconstruction there were obviously men of integrity and distinction and honor who had served the government in the South and that Adelbert Ames was one of such men. She wished that Senator Kennedy would change the offending chapter about her father (she was willing to forgo Benjamin F. Butler) and put his portrait in a more proper perspective. She wrote a lot of these letters. The senator wrote her back that there was a revisionist swing in consideration of the Reconstruction and it was likely there was a lot to be said for her views—but he was stuck with his position and that was that. Besides, he went on to say, it was very unlikely that there would be subsequent editions of Profiles in Courage. The deed had been done, right or wrong.

Then, of course, the senator went on to become the president of the United States and there were a number of subsequent editions of his book, and in a lot of languages, too, including Urdu, and in each of these editions were those offending passages about Ames’s administration being “nourished by Federal bayonets.” This induced, of course, further letters to the White House from my grandmother. It was this that the president wished to speak to me about.

He took me aside and asked if there were any way this steady flow of letters could be stopped…could I persuade my grandmother to cease and desist…it was cutting into the work of the government.

I said that the only way was to remove or change the paragraphs in Profiles in Courage—that, after all, my grandmother was a Massachusetts woman, and as the president well knew, being a Massachusetts man himself, that was a species especially resilient and uncompromising.

I didn’t say that, but I wanted to.

What I said, of course, was that I quite understood the president’s position and that I would see what I could do.

The president nodded, and then he did the most remarkable thing. He asked me, “How much do you know about your great-grandfather Ames?”

Well, I said that I knew some of the family stories about him, that I actually could remember, as a boy of seven or eight, looking into the pale eyes of this elderly man—he died at ninety-eight—sitting in a rocking chair with a shawl over his knees and realizing, even then, that I was looking into eyes that had seen Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg…and the president said, “Well, do you know what your great-grandfather’s favorite epithet was?” I looked surprised and said no. The president said, “Well, when your great grandfather commanded the 20th Maine he was a stickler for his men looking like soldiers. When reviewing his troops, if he saw anyone slouching in ranks, or whose posture was atrocious, he would stand in front of this miserable soul and shout out at the top of his lungs, ‘For God’s sake, draw up your bowels!’ ” The president gave this quite a “reading” as they say in the theatrical business. He drew himself up and delivered the line very much as Adelbert Ames must have delivered it out on those New England parade grounds. It caused no end of quick consternation in the Oval Office. The two or three people in there looked around with startled looks and I suppose they wondered, My God, what is Plimpton up to now? The doors flew open and the sergeants-at-arms rushed in.

But I think I must have been the most startled person there—to think that a president of the United States knew more about my great-grandfather, a relatively obscure Civil War hero, than I did…and I remember observing to myself how fortunate it was that the country was being served by an intellect to which such astonishingly obscure details could be drawn to mind with such case. As a matter of fact, I ran across verification of what President Kennedy had shouted at me. It’s in John J. Pullen’s book, The 20th Maine…with the line tucked away in there just as President Kennedy delivered it.

You may want to know what my grandmother went on to do. When it was apparent that Profiles in Courage was not going to be dismantled and put together again to suit her views, she did what any sensible Massachusetts woman would do: she sat down and wrote her own book…a biography of her father entitled Integrity, printed by the Columbia University Press. It’s much longer than Profiles in Courage—nearly 700 pages. Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar doesn’t come off all that well in it. She is very polite and understanding about the president. The book weighs four or five pounds. She worked on it for eight years and was blind and in her eighties when she finished it. President Kennedy surely would have applauded her determination.

The book, however, is not here in this Library. I know because I went in the card files and looked. But it will be arriving post-haste next week. President Kennedy would know that a Massachusetts woman will eventually have her way—even if it’s through the agency of her grandson—and thus Integrity will be here on the shelves proudly supplementing the packets of those letters of hers that doubtless are already somewhere (breathing slightly, I have the feeling) in this building.

Now, the meal with Ernest Hemingway. In 1958 I was privileged enough to be allowed to conduct an interview on the craft of writing with him for the literary magazine The Paris Review, then in its fifth year. I think he agreed to appear in the magazine, despite its terribly limited circulation, because he was first published in magazines very much like The Paris Review—the New Orleans Double Dealer, in which (as every Hemingway scholar here knows) both he and William Faulkner in one issue appeared for the first time in print; Transition; The Transatlantic Review; Ezra Pound’s Exile…but he didn’t enjoy talking about writing. He felt it was a sort of draining operation, like drawing water from a well that wasn’t replenished that easily. So whenever I asked him a question about writing it was always with a faint wince that perhaps the response would be physical rather than verbal. It was like waving a match near the fuse of a bomb.

One morning we were coming back from fishing in the Gulf Stream—coming into the little harbor at Cohima, Cuba; it had been just the best kind of day out there on the water…Papa at his very best, amusing and informative, and we might have had a true Papa Doble or two, and I remember how he showed me the Man-O-War birds dropping down to the ocean surface for the bait fish, and how that meant the big fish were below, driving them up, and I hadn’t gotten seasick, and he seemed in the best of his moods when we stepped up onto the dock from the boat. I thought it was as good a time as any to ask him something which had always puzzled me because it was so unlike anything else in his writing—namely his use of the image of the bird when he writes about sex. There are a number of examples—in the Indian stories, and perhaps the most striking: the white bird that flies out of the gondola when Colonel Cantwell and the Italian princess are making love in there in Across the River and Into the Trees.

I’m not sure that any novelist is comfortable writing about lovemaking—they so often seem gawky, like teen-agers, so often all thumbs at it (to put it awkwardly myself)—and certainly Hemingway isn’t easy with it…I mean “the earth moves” in For Whom the Bell Tolls and all that business, and so perhaps this touched some sensitive chord, because when I asked, “Papa, what is the significance of those white birds that sometimes turn up in your, ah, sex scenes?” it was as if I had jabbed him with a fork. He wheeled around, his whiskers bristling like an alarmed cat’s, and he asked me this humiliating question, considering it came from a Nobel Prize-winning author and was addressed to someone whose only book published to date was a children’s book entitled The Rabbit’s Umbrella. “Well, I suppose you think,” the great man said, “you can do any better?”

Well, I said, “No, no, Papa, certainly not.”

He carried this anger up to lunch at the Finca. Three of us were there, Papa, Miss Mary, and myself, really four because Hemingway had this cat that sat next to his plate, Christobal—a sort of Roman emperor of a cat, who lay there, absolutely supine, and from time to time it would drop its head back, and Hemingway would drop a morsel of food down its throat. Fueled, I suspect, by that exchange on the dock, Hemingway got into a tiff with his wife—a kind of “Mr. & Mrs.” argument except it wasn’t about who was going to put out the garbage but about how many lions they had seen around a water hole on safari the year before. Hemingway said they had seen eight lions, and Miss Mary said eleven, something like that, and she said she could prove it was eleven because she’d written it up in her diary, and he said that didn’t prove anything because it took an experienced eye to count lions milling around a water hole, and their voices were rising, when all of a sudden Hemingway looked across the table at me.

At that time I should explain that I had not long before, in the interests of my odd career as a participatory journalist, fought—if that’s the proper word—the light-heavyweight champion of the world, Archie Moore, the “Mongoose,” they used to call him. As this fight had approached, Hemingway had become very interested in it. He kept asking me to come out to Ketcham, Idaho, to go through some serious training under his guidance. Sometimes I had the feeling he thought I was truly going after Mr. Moore’s title. He kept urging me to fight a few tune-up bouts. “The elephant hunter,” he said, “can’t begin to call himself an elephant hunter until his fiftieth elephant.”

All of this I had slipped and dodged like a very classy light-weight. As you can see, I am not properly equipped to fight anyone. I have a very thin, delicate nose, which bleeds at the slightest touch. Not only that, but I suffer from a phenomenon known as “sympathetic response,” which means that I weep at the slightest touch. I had only barely managed to survive the fight with Moore, mostly I think at his bewildered compassion at finding himself, after the opening exchanges, in the ring with a man both bleeding and weeping. He held me up for three rounds. I didn’t especially want to be held up. He kept whispering in my ear, “Breathe man, breathe!”

Hemingway was fascinated by all this. And suddenly at this luncheon, full of anger because of this little inconsequential argument he was having with his wife about the number of lions they had seen at some obscure African water hole, or perhaps because I was after him about white birds flying out of a Venetian gondola, he looked across the dining room table at me—I had the sense of a gazelle being stared at by a lion across a tuft of grass—and he said, “Let’s see just how good you are.”

I had no idea what he was talking about at first, but as he stood up and came around the table in a semi-crouch, his hands bunched at the waist, I realized he wanted to fight.

So I pushed back my chair and stood up with this enormous smile on my face, as if this were all going to be good fun. I stuck out a long, tentative jab, and no sooner had I done so when bang…Hemingway whacked me alongside of the face. No bleeding, thank goodness, but quite a lot of sympathetic response.

What was I to do? I couldn’t imagine myself leaping out the window and hot-footing it for the distant city of Havana. Christobal, still lolling on the table, was absolutely no help; neither was Miss Mary, her head down as she picked at her salad. Suddenly I had a stroke of inspiration. I dropped my hands and asked Papa a question…”How did you do that? How did you bring your hands up from that position?”…turning him into an instructor, asking him in such wonder that he was enormously flattered. A smile appeared through those white whiskers.

“Counterpunch,” he announced.

He was very pleased. He was like an inventor showing off a gadget. He showed me what he had done, and how. I was cuffed around a bit more, but it was to illustrate a point, not as a target of his frustration.

Miss Mary looked up from her salad and smiled at us. I remember hoping that she wasn’t going to butt into the nice time we were having and insist on the number of lions she’d seen on that Africa day long past.

President Kennedy and Ernest Hemingway never had a meal together. I’m not sure I would have wanted to be there if they had. Time spent with one, singly, was quite enough: heaven knows what having lunch with the pair of them would ever have done to my sense of well-being….