Hemingway by now is like some old man who’s been sitting at the end of the bar for years. A fellow comes in and says, “Hey, that guy seems awfully tough; do you think he’s just showing off?” Yes, both. “I mean people who brag that much often turn out to be sissies, right?” To which one can only say, “You must be a stranger around here.”
We know Hemingway by now all right, if we’ve been paying the least attention. And as with old friends in general, any further analysis of him is likely to tell us less about him than we already know. All that biography can do in such a case is either introduce the man once again for newcomers, as Mr. Burgess has done, or add some fresh details and corroborations as have the Messrs. Meyers, Griffin, and Reynolds, or simply make up stories about him, as Hemingway did very nicely for himself.
Of these Hemingway stories, one of the tallest, even after being reputedly cut down to size by Scribner’s, may be his latest posthumous novel, The Garden of Eden. Up to now, it has been generally assumed that this book wasn’t published in the Fifties because it was so bad. This is possible—although the book isn’t so much plain bad as what the kids would call “weird.” But there are at least a couple of other perfectly good reasons for Hemingway’s reticence in the matter.
The first might be simple decency, or caution. The story is, superficially at least, a heavily mythologized version of the breakup of his first marriage, and both women involved, Hadley and Pauline, were not only still alive, but attempting to mother his children. In A Moveable Feast, Ernest inadvertently summarizes the plot thus: “An unmarried woman becomes the temporary best friend of another young woman who is married, goes to live with the husband and wife and then unknowingly, innocently and unrelentingly sets out to marry the husband.” And there, if you throw in Martha Gellhorn, Lady Brett, Jane Mason, and the rest of the menagerie, you have it.
In The Garden of Eden, the husband’s seduction is entirely artificial, and way beyond libel: it is turned into a sort of erotic charade, until nothing remains but a bitter taste, the essence of the affair. Even by the late Forties, Hemingway was long past doing this as well as he wanted to, and at times the dialogue is so remorselessly kittenish that one imagines a person at the next table sorely tempted to empty a pitcher of ice water over all three (fortunately there is no person at the next table—this being the Garden of Eden), but the book does do something, and becomes more intense and disquieting than anything in the novels Hemingway didn’t consider too bad to publish after the war.
In fact, Eden has haunting links with his prewar work, links which he snapped smartly, and perhaps intentionally, with his decision not to publish. He had just finished liberating the Ritz and all that, and the feel of prewar Europe still comes fresh off the page, as it never would again (the watery graveyard of Venice in Across the River and into the Trees marks the end of all that). The principals are all young again, and what is even better, Papa, the bore’s bore of the Fifties, seems to be nowhere in sight, or even any dauntless old men in fishing boats. The hero, David Bourne, is actually closer to Jake Barnes: to wit, he is passive, rueful, flawed, and much more dominated than dominating.
Or so it seems at first. In fact, Papa is absent only in the sense in which Adam tries to make himself scarce from the original Garden of Eden legend. “The woman tempted me and I did eat.” All his life, Hemingway had a diabolical trick of coercing his women to act out his dreams for him (or imagining they had if they hadn’t) and then treating the result as acts of the eternal feminine. Nobody ever really talked like that, the reader thinks—but Pauline Pfeiffer did, almost on contact with him; Martha Gellhorn wrote stories just like his; and poor Mary Welsh saw him through his last days babbling the lingua finca, or Indian baby talk, that he’d spun around them. Tout ensemble his wives must have sounded like Buffalo Bill’s roadshow featuring Sitting Bull.
Meanwhile, the author having thus created these women truly and well in his own image, could safely withdraw and leave them to it or, as in this case, simply go passive all over, and let it look as if they were corrupting him.
The Garden of Eden opens upon a young couple, David and Catherine Bourne, who are living a life of carnal innocence (nice work if you can get it) on and around the French and Spanish Rivieras. Hemingway could still make the sensual life mesmerically appealing for a few pages, but ultimately nerve-racking. (The Garden of Eden is a bore. It needs a good snake.) His paradise here seems to consist of a lot of eating and drinking—as a novelist, Hemingway could never pass a bar without doing something about it—along with swimming for distance (the booze does no harm if you get enough exercise, explains David) and what sounds like highly calisthenic lovemaking. And then sleep, really good sleep. The latter may seem like an odd item in a honeymoon couple’s agenda, but it may also be one clue among several that our hero is not quite as young as advertized.
The drinking may be another. Not only David but both his women put away enough hooch each day to make writing one’s signature a problem, let alone a great novel. But fictionally speaking, it is only stage booze, warm tea, and has no significant effect on the novel, except to fill up space. What it does for the author is another story. One imagines old Hem hunched over his famous writing board in the bone-dry dawn of Cuba, unable to imagine a Garden of Eden without a fully stocked bar.
Anyway, as noted, Hemingway tended to transfer his own wishes onto his women, and both his slender wife and his petite, snake-in-the-grass mistress are as thirsty as dockwallopers throughout; no one ever has to force a drink on these girls, not even Papa, whom they have by now absorbed entire.
They do have to force some things on David, though. Catherine, whom he calls Devil from the outset—perhaps to establish that Woman will be both Satan and the snake—decides without preamble to get her hair cut like a boy’s, and just like that asks David to be her girl for just one night. Smitten with love, and riddled with manly confusion, he complies to the fullest extent imaginable—which suggests another, possibly conclusive reason for not publishing. Hemingway might have had a hard time calling himself Papa after this fling at being the Little Woman—whose run incidentally is extended over several days and nights passim.
David having bitten into the apple decides to go on chewing helplessly, and the next thing we know Catherine has wheedled him over to the hairdresser to have his head cropped close to match hers, and dyed silver so that the two of them will even look interchangeable. Reading this can give one a strange start, because everyone knows—he scarcely bothered to hide it—that it was Hemingway himself and his fictive representatives who were forever cajoling their women to crop their hair, or grow it out, so that they can alternately be boys and girls as the spirit moves. So this goes a little beyond the usual crass displacement of responsibility, and into territory where at last the author can no longer hide. Like some medieval saint, David naturally feels that any temptation so vile must come from outside; but he has no doubt either that he has conspired fully in his own corruption, and he blames no one. It’s hard to tell what will set a man off, but David feels irredeemably damned with this second cut and dye. And as if to show how far an author will go to get his material, Mr. Meyers in his biography reports that Hemingway himself “accidentally” dyed his own hair blond in the course of writing the book.
In the midst of all this washing and rinsing enters the new girl, who significantly will not go along with the tonsorial games, although she goes along with just about everything else. After one chance meeting in a cafe, Catherine greedily foists “the girl” (as she is mostly called) on their happy home. In a spirit of pure inquiry she herself has a lesbian trial run with “the girl,” with a view it seems to a ménage à trois with herself in the middle. This is more than all right with the girl, who instantly points her cap at David, promising to be his girl and Catherine’s girl and anything else that’s doing. But David, in a burst of primness, draws the line at this.
One feels a mild shock to find David drawing the line at anything, but this apparently is it, like the word “upstart” that sets Groucho off in Duck Soup: the spirit of Papa finally rises from the woolly depths to condemn all this foulness, and out of the Garden the three scamper. David falls in love with the girl, who has after all been practically flung at his head (what’s a man to do?) but he feels rotten about it. His only consolation now is his Work (“From the sweat of thy brow wilt thou toil”).
Well, the Garden was never much of a place for work anyway. Catherine hates the stuff because it tends to break the spell. Both she and the girl break Catherine Barkley’s old indoor record for repeating how happy they are, as if the state at its fullest requires constant awareness of itself. Perhaps it does. But exhausting. In this light, David’s scribbling becomes not only damnably distracting but a sort of treachery, and a terrible risk.
Bernard Shaw’s hobbyhorse about women vs. artists gets a thorough workout every time David sneaks off to his study and it’s not always to the artist’s advantage. Early on, Catherine flies into a sarcastic rage when she sees David poring over his press clippings. “Who are you now, you or your press clippings?” she asks later in bed, and we feel she has got Hemingway dead to rights. At another point, the author allows her to make rather startling fun of him. David has just said, “The sea was very good,” and Catherine purrs back, “You use such interesting adjectives. They make everything so vivid.” David gets even with her a few pages on when she refers to the girl as his “paramour.” He goes into a fine little cadenza on the word, to wit, “I had absolutely no hope of ever hearing it in this life…to have the sheer naked courage to use it in conversation,” etc. Brittle stuff, and some distance from Sloppy Joe’s in Havana. The picture of Hemingway beating his women by outbitching them, by outwomaning them, takes us back for the last time to the world of The Sun Also Rises, the last book in which the author felt free to be himself.
Un-Papa-like exchanges like the above (and they are not infrequent) are enough to break the heart of a Hemingway admirer. It seems as if the boy wonder was making a last stand in this book against the old rumpot, winning a page here and losing three there. The result is wildly, almost zanily, uneven, and as such may serve as the last missing link between Nick Adams and Colonel Cantwell.
Ominously, the girl is mad about David’s work, and can’t get enough of it. This is how his girls will be from now on. Catherine, contrariwise, in a last truly flamboyant gesture, burns every scrap of his writing that she can get her hands on, declaring that it is no good anyway and that he should start all over. This, for Hemingway, is like finally coughing up a fish bone. Many years before, his first wife had left a suitcase full of his early work, plus copies, on a train for a few minutes, and had returned to find them all gone, and Hemingway had been brewing up theories about it ever since, none of which included accident. Sexual jealousy, artistic jealousy (all the copies, for Christsake!)—he juggled every dark possibility before arriving at the combination in this book, presumably his last word. After the fire, David feels at first as his creator must have felt (it rings terribly true), that it is all over, that he can never get it back now. Then in despair he returns to the story he has been working on, an African hunting yarn that has been running through the book as a kind of counterpoint, and he finds that it is still there, it will always be there when he wants it. Alas, poor David, poor Hemingway.
Obviously, a great deal depends on the quality of this African story. If it is going to save his life and career, it had better be pretty good—had better, in fact, have been written by the young Hemingway, just to be on the safe side. Fortunately, it is not bad at all. Who knows from what mysterious notebook the old master dug it out (there tends to be a mystery about his notebooks), but it contains all the sights, smells, and textures of Hemingway at his best. And it has enough left over to serve a double purpose, that of offsetting the childish corruption of the Riviera with the deeper and more interesting kinds of corruption available to men on the hunt.
Warts (if that is word enough for certain cancerous blemishes) and all, The Garden of Eden is surely the novel Hemingway should have published after the war—supposing, that is, that he still knew how to edit as sharply as Tom Jenks at Scribner’s, which seems possible. The parlor Freudians, who had been baying after Hemingway for some time anyway, would have had a field day of course, but it would only have been a day. In the longer run, this complex journey into a fetish would have served Ernest far better than the crude analyses that nowadays are slapped on him routinely and randomly by his inferiors. Whether it speaks to you or not, Hemingway’s recurrent theme of communion under pressure between bully and victim, hunter and hunted, man and woman, so that each becomes the other, deserves better than being labeled the theme of a “closet queen.” No doubt he asked for it, with his playground fag-baiting, but what’s the point of giving it to him now? If a major, but very dead (as he would say), writer is slighted, the loss isn’t his.
Before The Garden of Eden can be recommended less reservedly than that, I suppose the usual warnings should be read out about the later Hemingway prose. All the primary adjectives are here in force. “Dark,” “cool,” “cold,” “hard,” and “very” all of the above. Such words are obviously meant to make you see more clearly, and perhaps they do, except that you keep seeing the same thing or types of thing. It’s like being trapped in an endless exhibit of primitive paintings. Why, one wonders again and again, did so gifted a man chain himself to so narrow a method?
Pursuing this question, I have arrived at my own Hemingway variation which, since one tall story deserves another, I have entitled “Romancing the Stein.”
Of all Hemingway’s influences, Gertrude Stein, both Jewish and homosexual, two sometime bugbears1 of his, is surely the strangest and perhaps the strongest, and I found myself reminded of her every time Catherine Bourne teases her husband about his work, because it was Stein who in real life told Ernest to “begin over again and concentrate.” His wives would probably not have dared to talk to him like that. And while Gertrude would probably have drawn the line at torching the young man’s manuscripts, one can well imagine her scoffing at his press clippings, which did indeed grow to choke him, like the bad seed in the Gospels.
With the possible exception of his mother, none of the other women in his life had anything like the authority to talk to him the way they do in this book: they were much too busy imitating him. And Hemingstein (as he sometimes called himself) wouldn’t have sat still for it anyway. Only Miss Stein and possibly Ezra Pound could induce this kind of reverence in him. And even after their inevitable falling-out, Hemingway admitted that he had “learned the wonderful rhythms in prose from her”—the kind of credit he usually reserved parsimoniously either for painters, or for very dead writers.
Nor is one to imagine a purely Mr. Chips kind of relationship, with the beardless rube from the provinces sitting chastely at the feet of experience. “I always wanted to fuck her,” Hemingway wrote later, in a letter to W.G. Rogers, who had written a book on Stein, “and she knew it and it was a good healthy feeling and made more sense than a lot of the talk.” Whichever version of their final rupture one believes, his or Hadley’s, this “healthy feeling” seems likely to have had something to do with it. In A Moveable Feast, Hemingway talks about overhearing a quarrel between Stein and Alice B. Toklas in which their lesbianism crossed some sort of line beyond which he could not bring himself to look. He had of course always known that Stein was a lesbian—it was rather hard to miss, even for a rube—but like many a vain young male, he may have believed that she could have her lesbianism and, in some sense, him too. Now it seemed this force was a great deal stronger than he was—not the best kind of news for a man like Hemingway. It is a very Jamesian story, as European corruption reveals itself to the kid from Michigan and sends him eventually reeling back to his gun and his fishing rod.
Hadley’s version, interestingly enough, may actually leave her husband looking a bit better. In this one, Toklas is the one who breaks things off, by abruptly turning Hadley away at the old salon door. This suggests that Hemingway’s “healthy feeling” for Stein may at least have been enough to arouse Toklas’s jealousy, whether or not it aroused Stein herself. (And who is to tell with such a one? All we know is that of the three, Stein is the only one in both versions who did not initiate the break personally.)
It may seem a bit much to inject the portly Miss Stein into the athletic love story of The Garden of Eden. But placing her at the author’s side, or in the back of his mind as he wrote it, should not be so difficult. “I liked her better,” he once said of Stein, “before she cut her hair and that was the turning point in all sorts of things”—not the least of these being, of course, the plot of this novel, his hommage to Gertrude.
The other mark of Gertrude Stein in The Garden of Eden and elsewhere is the faucet-dripping prose. In his recent biography Mr. Meyers writes that Stein “remained stagnantly trapped by her own self-defeating technique”—but so did Hemingway. She had taught him repetition and the use of simple words and quasi-mantric rhythms, and he did what he was taught more and more sedulously as his own originality seeped away. Stein, whom William James once called the most brilliant woman he ever met, is now remembered by most people for a few unintentionally funny lines about roses and pigeons, and Hemingway the good disciple only escaped the same fate by an eyelash, and a trunkful of early work that was not lost on a train.
All the above citations were culled from a few pages of Mr. Meyer’s book, thus pointing up its most amiable virtue: it is splendidly organized. The author has licked the chronology vs. structural theme question by giving us a bit of both. For instance, Hemingway’s various feuds are laid out neatly in a row and an impressive crew they make en masse: thus accumulated, they look less like isolated quarrels than like a willful sustained effort by Ernest to purge his life of all literary friendships. Having crashed Paris in a few golden months, El Toro crashed on out again in a shower of broken glass, and Mr. Meyers’s arrangement makes this seem like one sustained sequence. Yet at no stage are we left wondering what year it is or what ever became of so and so. Although neatness may not be the first thing any author wants to be praised for, it is also much too rare to pass unnoticed. Since Mr. Meyers also writes a great deal less laboriously and more engagingly than Carlos Baker, the official biographer and quarry at large, he manages to make his heavy freight of research fairly rattle along.
One quality that grates seriously in Mr. Meyers’s book, however, is his somewhat proprietary attitude toward his subject. In his brief bibliography, fifteen of the thirty-six items listed are by himself, so that there can be no question about whose turf we’re dealing with. And in the text proper, although he doesn’t hesitate to scold Ernest, he can be distinctly peevish with anyone else who attempts to. Having just waded through three different accounts of Hemingway’s childhood, one would think that the last thing Ernest needed was another mother, but there are pages here where he almost seems to be getting one anyway.
Take, for instance, the notorious Lillian Ross interview in The New Yorker of 1950: Papa, by now firmly entrenched in his own driver’s seat, with the boy wonder nowhere in sight, came to town for a few days in 1949, got and stayed plastered the whole time and talked gibberish, and Ross wrote it all down. It might have been kinder of her not to, but mere abdication isn’t nearly enough for Mr. Meyers. In his view, what happened is that “Hemingway put on a performance for Ross, expected her to see through his act and show the highbrow readers of her magazine the man behind the rather transparent mask.”
But why on earth should she have done all that? Usually one is content if a reporter gets her quotes straight. It seems rather a lot to ask of her that she also describe some completely other fellow who apparently lurks behind a mask, and doesn’t speak. After all, if the mask is so transparent, why can’t the reader be trusted to see through it himself? And if Hemingway is putting on a performance, why shouldn’t we be allowed to enjoy it too? Ross didn’t pull any tricks on Papa; he knew he was being interviewed, and the performance he gave was strictly up to him, and he gave a pathetic one.
What sort of bumbling novice, one asks oneself, was this man to expect a reporter to protect him in such a fix? Or could it possibly be that he didn’t know the performance was pathetic, and was quite pleased with it at first? Miss Ross later wrote in her own defense that she had sent Hemingway the advance galleys and that he had pronounced them fine. Hemingway’s version of this was that he got the galleys too late—a strange occurrence indeed with New Yorker galleys. The possibility that Hemingway realized that something was wrong with the interview only when everyone burst out laughing should at least be considered. Throughout Mr. Meyers’s book we have seen the subject, time and again, talk and wriggle his way out of embarrassments, yet on this one the author takes him at his word and piles his wrath on the messenger.
What is additionally puzzling is that, whatever Hemingway’s first reaction to the piece may have been, he was much more forgiving about Miss Ross later than his champion Mr. Meyers can bring himself to be. While Papa continued to correspond warmly with Lillian Ross almost to the day he died, Meyers has only this to say, or rather sniff, about her: She “repaid his generosity with meanness and established her reputation at his expense.”
How much justice can one expect in other matters from an officer of the court who leaps down from his bench like this and starts pounding the witness with his gavel? Well, it varies from case to case. Meyers is particularly tender about the Ross affair because he believes it gave the signal for the bloodhounds to rip into Across the River and into the Trees, a book which he has made his special cause. Rehabilitating this turkey would certainly be a breathtaking coup for Meyers as a literary critic-biographer, but to get there he must first undertake an awesome amount of demolition work, not only of double agent Ross but of the whole literary consensus of the period.
Mr. Meyers sets about his task nothing if not manfully. The novel, he says, while not Hemingway at his best (one has to concede the utterly indefensible) “has been misinterpreted and maligned for purely external reasons.” In other words, the critics in toto were incapable of reading a given text on its merits because of extraneous considerations. (Some bunch of critics.) Meyers then gives four reasons for the book’s disastrous reception, and naturally, the first of them is “Hemingway’s alienation of the critics,” who presumably hunt in packs and decide among themselves in semaphore when and whom to attack.
Now I suppose it’s perfectly all right, if not inevitable, for a novelist to view critics in this embattled way, even if he’s had as easy a ride as Hemingway had till then. But when a biographer does so as well, it rather looks as if he’s lost his bearings. Mr. Meyers has apparently so identified himself with his subject that he can suggest with a straight face that the critics of two nations (the British were even worse) were swayed from their professional duties by personal animus and whatever “alienation” is supposed to entail. As a biographer, Meyers seems to have strayed quite some distance from his own preserve in order to insult someone else’s. And all for the sake of the sly, sod den old Hemingway, who certainly knew how to make an apologist sweat.
Anyhow, let us suppose that, however clumsily, the demolition has succeeded, and that all the other judges have been disqualified. Unfortunately, Mr. Meyers is left alone with the book itself. What sparks can he make fly from this weary bag of wind, which E. B. White once compared to “the farting of an old horse”? Well, the novel is “confessional” and that’s something. It is also another “performance”—by chance the same one he gave for Miss Ross. Again the bumbling critics have failed to see what Hemingway was really up to, and have amateurishly identified the performance with Papa himself. But as before, this still leaves us with the performance itself to dispose of: never mind if we were fooled by it—was it a good one or a bad one? And here Mr. Meyers seems to encounter difficulties. He concedes that the book’s tone is “similar to the exhibitionistic hunting and fishing articles that appeared in Esquire in the mid-1930s…a series of smug disquisitions,” etc. Exhibitionist performance? Any connection? And can anyone still remember what we are arguing about at this point, or why the author seems so steamed up over it?
Across the River, Meyers gamely insists, “would have been hailed as impressive if it had been written by anyone but Hemingway.” Well, here we just plain differ. This particular air bubble of an idea has been floating around ever since the book’s appearance, during which time your reviewer has been fated to read a ton or so of first novels, and it is my unshakable impression that Across the River and into the Trees wouldn’t have been published at all if it hadn’t been written by Hemingway. And since this was the novel Papa had just finished, and was in the process of bragging about, when he performed for Ross, the probabilities further suggest strongly that if he had known what was wrong with the interview he’d have known what was wrong with the book as well.
Later, public and critical reaction, to which Papa was freakishly susceptible, would straighten him out on all this, and steer him next into the narrow but safe waters of the almost criticism-proof Old Man and the Sea—which Meyers partly redeems himself by finding overrated.
In fact, I have lingered over the Across the River fiasco only to show what can happen to a critic who tries to ride a hobbyhorse to glory, and also the dangers of hanging around Hemingway too close and too long. When Meyers talks of To Have and Have Not as having possibly influenced the tough-guy style of Dashiell Hammett we have to wonder if our author has ceased paying proper attention to the world outside Papa. Hammett had written all his novels and short stories well before To Have and Have Not came out, and was a fecund influence in his own right—possibly even on To Have and Have Not. For all his great gifts, Papa did not invent the twentieth century.
Curiously enough, Mr. Meyers is not such a bad conventional critic when he stops trying to shoot the moon and when he sticks to scholarly business and soberly investigates Hemingway’s own influences, tracing the debts to Twain, Kipling, Crane, et al., with concentration and sense. He is particularly good on Kipling, whose soldierly ethic was so close to Hemingway’s that a stranger might have difficulty guessing which of them first called courage “grace under pressure.” In such cases, one sometimes feels that, with so many influences latent in his work, there is hardly room for the author himself. But every writer starts off as a compendium, or revised anthology, and it is particularly useful to know that Hemingway was no exception. To hear him tell it himself, Hemingway only entered his famous ring with very dead Europeans. He never even deigned to put on the gloves with Dickens or (the bout I would like most to have seen) with George Eliot. So it is interesting to hear what he actually did read in his formative years.
According to Michael Reynolds, an old Hemingway hand who is content to cut off small slices (his last book was called Hemingway’s First War), Ernest first actually got into the ring with the Saturday Evening Post, which as late as 1919 was still his model for fiction. And his first opponent was not Flaubert at all, but one E. W. Howe, who wrote a serial called “Anthology of Another Town.” Howe’s sketches of small-town life would soon be superseded by Ernest’s discovery of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. But Reynolds makes the point that this kind of writing had been in the American air for some time, from Hamlin Garland through Edgar Lee Masters, and that this was the air that young Hemingway breathed first and deepest.
There is, of course, no doubt whatever that he later read the European masters, and learned a bit of this and a bit of that from them. But trying to stuff them all into his own literary pedigree seems just a characteristic display of le snobisme. Can anyone reading Up in Michigan really think he is watching a contest with Turgenev? It is probably commoner than not for great writers to be influenced by nobodies, the first food they eat. Pulp writers (as they are aptly called) churn out a kind of featureless, interchangeable materia prima which is often more malleable to the hands of genius than the works of other geniuses are likely to be. Studying under a master, you can only imitate him, feebly or well, and eventually pray for your release; but with Captain Marryat you can do whatever you like.
The publication of Mr. Reynolds’s The Young Hemingway hot on the heels of Peter Griffin’s Along with Youth indicates that the Hemingway track is becoming almost too crowded for new runners to jam onto. Both claim the assistance of the obliging Jack “Bumby” Hemingway (as does Mr. Meyers) as well as a close familiarity with Hadley Richardson’s letters. Of the two familiarities, Griffin’s seems the closer, or at least he makes the more of it, revealing a somewhat more complex woman than one had supposed—not quite the model for mad Catherine in Garden of Eden but capable of playing in the same ballpark, as Papa might have put it. Griffin also includes several samples of Hemingway’s juvenilia, which help to clarify just how much Ernest still had to learn and how much he didn’t. At times Griffin’s book seems a trifle cluttered, as if he wants to dump all his research out on the table before anyone else can get hold of it. But this is merely the first volume of a three-decked biography, and it is understandable that the author would want to lead with his credentials.
It’s a pity that the Reynolds and Griffin books have to compete at all. Each has its particular excellences, and there is still quite enough of the subject, not to mention Bumby’s good will, to go round. Hemingway later seemed to go out of his way to prove Scott Fitzgerald’s dictum that “there are no second acts in American lives” (unless you call beating your chest and growling “me Papa” a second act), just as his own crackup turned out even grimmer than poor Scott’s, of which he had once made such fun. So it is a pleasure to return again and yet again to the early days when a whole world lay before him. The young Hemingway seems to have fairly oozed promise as he bounced his midwestern way (like a boxer on the balls of his feet) into the literary salons of Paris. What unearthly confidence allows a man to shadowbox in front of Stein and Toklas? Anyhow, how he got that way is a story worth reading twice.
In the same spirit, but perhaps only in the same spirit, Dateline: Toronto is worth reading. One’s heart bounds with such giddy relief to find anything of Hemingway’s that is not written in his later style that one may be tempted to make too much of it. But in this case, the usual constraints of newspaper writing keep these pieces pretty much within the range of the surprisingly clever, which it’s nice to remember Hemingway certainly was. What does peep through here and there are the qualities young Ernest was most frequently noted for—his infectious high spirits and his curiosity. These gifts he strove to hang onto, stoically and in rather drastic fits and starts, as long as he conceivably could: but after 1925 or so, it would never be carefree again.
The literary reputation of the older Hemingway depends almost totally on A Moveable Feast, or “The Second Case of the Missing Suitcase.” It seems that fate, as if to atone for Hadley’s misdemeanor, magically turned up a trove of Ernest’s old notes written back in 1928, which Hemingway transformed into this lateblooming (and posthumously published) masterpiece. Mr. Meyers maintains that the book was only “partly inspired” by the notes, and it would be “pretty to think so,” in Jake Barnes’s phrase: his biography could certainly use a comeback in the second half. But Anthony Burgess, in his modest book, guesses firmly that A Moveable Feast was a book whose “foundations had been laid, and stylistic felicities achieved, in the old days of struggle.” And surely, for want of overpowering evidence, one must go along with the novelist on this one. On textural grounds alone I find it easier to believe that Shakespeare wrote that ridiculous little poem than that the Hemingway of the 1950s miraculously recovered his youthful style intact. No doubt he copied the whole thing out again, and updated the hatreds, and in that sense “worked” on it, but there is precious little in the book beyond some rueful conclusions to suggest any life at all after 1928. Remember, this is the Hemingway of 1957 to 1960, the author of The Dangerous Summer, that punch-drunk chronicle of the bulls, and now only a breath away from the Mayo Clinic. For this tragic wreck of a man to have secreted and brought to life this spring flower of a memoir at his desks in Cuba and Montana would be a miracle requiring much more than his own word for it.2
Aside from this one most useful observation, perhaps the only thing worth discussing about E. H. and His World is why Burgess wrote his book at all. It is a competent rehash and condensation of Carlos Baker’s biography, and no doubt worth doing by somebody. But why a man of Burgess’s great gifts should have settled for so little is a puzzlement: it is as if El Greco offered to draw your portrait in under a minute.
So far Burgess has thus sketched Shakespeare, Joyce, D. H. Lawrence and now Hemingway, arguably the four most written-about authors in English, so he obviously isn’t on the lookout for unknowns. But in this book, he doesn’t even seem to be out to break fresh ground. Burgess has been known as a man of spectacular opinions—I once heard him maintain that Paris was a terrible city and that Los Angeles was a great one—but there is nothing like that here. He tends to go along with received opinion about Fitzgerald, Ford Madox Ford, Hemingway himself, as if he were trying to please some invisible patron, or, most astonishing volte-face of all, trying not to offend his American hosts.
One gets a feeling that Burgess may underrate his own place in letters, and thinks that nobody is watching him. It is relaxing for a writer to imagine that nothing is expected of him anymore, and would to God that Hemingway had felt it more often. But it just isn’t so in Burgess’s case. If this author wants to turn his powers to literary analysis, that’s splendid, but let it come from both barrels, and not in tactful tour guides. An exact and unsparing analysis of where Hemingway really stands would be most welcome from Burgess, as the evidence continues to pile up in sometimes meaningless drifts, and now that The Garden of Eden has finally emerged to complete the corpus.
The old man at the end of the bar has been worked over thoroughly and well by the professors whom he so affected to despise. It would seem only fair to his memory if the next full-dress account came from someone like Burgess who has sat at the bar himself.
June 12, 1986
Hemingway’s bugbears could be strange, two-headed creatures which should not always be taken at (either) face value. For instance, he denounced his father’s cowardice for committing suicide but talked on and off about doing it himself for years. He also raged constantly at his mother but sent her his royalties for A Farewell to Arms. ↩
I am not suggesting that Mr. Meyers doesn’t have such proof, only that I couldn’t find it in his book, and consider it strange that he doesn’t see the need for it. ↩