The Male Impersonator

John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston
Ernest Hemingway on his first safari in Africa, 1933–1934

I am not sure whether the National Rifle Association has ever thought of having an official Nobel literary laureate. But if it did there is no doubt that it would choose Ernest Hemingway. There is a coffee table book, published by Shooting Sportsman in 2010, called Hemingway’s Guns. It is a lovingly detailed, lavishly illustrated, and creepily fetishistic catalog of the great writer’s firearms: the Browning automatic 5s, the Colt Woodman pistols, the Winchester 21 shotguns, the Merkel over/unders, the Beretta S3, the Mannlicher- Schoenauer rifles, the .577 Nitro Express with which he fantasized about shooting Senator Joe McCarthy, the big-bore Mauser, the Thomson sub-machine gun with which, he claimed, he shot sharks.

Here he is brandishing his Browning Superposed with Gary Cooper, or showing his Model 12 pumpgun to an admiring Hollywood beauty: “Hemingway enjoyed teaching women to shoot—and what man wouldn’t like to coach Jane Russell?” Here is the Griffin and Howe .30-06 Springfield—“already bloodied on elk, deer and bear”—leaning against a dead rhino. The one gun whose identity the authors seem unsure of is the one with which he took his own life in 1961.

Hemingway’s peculiar variation on American romanticism was a profound connection to the natural world expressed through violent assaults on it. In one of his still-radiant stories, “Fathers and Sons,” we find his alter ego Nick Adams driving through the landscape and “hunting the country in his mind as he went by.” This rapaciousness was what made Hemingway so famous in his own time as the gold standard of American masculinity. As David Earle has shown in All Man!, men’s magazines in the 1950s carried headlines like “Hemingway: America’s No.1 He-Man” and “The Hairy Chest of Hemingway.”*

Yet it is this same alpha-male persona and its relentless desire to possess women and defeat nature that now make Hemingway such a rebarbative figure. It is hard to sympathize with the Hemingway who cabled his third wife, the brilliant journalist Martha Gellhorn, while she was away covering World War II: “ARE YOU A WAR CORRESPONDENT OR WIFE IN MY BED?” Harder still not to recoil from accounts of Hemingway’s slaughtering of lions, leopards, cheetahs, and rhinoceros in Africa or from Mary Dearborn’s deadpan revelation of the fate of eighteen mahi-mahi caught by Hemingway and his cronies off Key West: “They would be used as fertilizer for [his second wife] Pauline’s flowerbeds.”

Add in the overwhelming evidence that Hemingway in his later decades was, in the words of his fourth wife Mary, “truculent, brutal, abusive and extremely childish” and his life story becomes ever more repellent. Yet the appetite for Hemingway biographies appears limitless. Michael Reynolds seemed to say everything worth saying in his five-volume life, published between 1986 and 1999, but the books keep coming.…

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