What Was It Like to Be Ernest Hemingway?

What Was It Like to Be Ernest Hemingway?

Frequent Gunfire

What was it like to be Ernest Hemingway?


The vigorously kicked-up dust has long since settled, and one wonders anew what all the fuss was about. He sent himself to Paris in the 1920s, which was the place to be just then. He shrewdly latched on to a lot of influential literary people and later learned how to be a celebrity by associating with stars of the screen and the corrida. He wrote a clutch of good stories and a handful of novels ranging from fresh and original through mediocre to abysmally bad—although the posthumously published The Garden of Eden is nearly very good, in its weird way. He mythologized himself as the Great American Novelist, despite the fact that none of his novels is set in America (except To Have and Have Not, a minor work) and he was arguably at his best in the medium of the short story. Later in life, he blundered into depression, alcoholism, paranoia, and manic delusion, and killed himself. At best, much of his life was only of passing notoriety—or so one would have thought—and yet the legend lives on, as tenacious as ever. How to account for it?

Perhaps a man possessed of an ego the size of a hot-air balloon could only subsist within a myth. To keep himself airborne required so much huffing and puffing that inevitably he ran out of breath. He was jealous, insecure, treacherous to his friends, and merciless toward his promoters—no good turn, no matter how good it was, went unpunished—and although he overestimated his talent, he also largely wasted it, which was precisely the charge he had laid against his old pal F. Scott Fitzgerald, who, with The Great Gatsby, surely did write if not the then at least a great American novel. On the evidence of his letters and conversations as reported by Mary Dearborn in her new biography, he was also a racist, an unrelenting anti-Semite, and a homophobe, and while pretending to treasure women, he despised, feared, and failed utterly to understand them.

The term “literary lion” could have been invented for him, but he ended up in old age pacing the cage of his collapsing self-regard in ever more desperate circles. He—the real he—would have been the perfect subject for one of his own novels, only he would have heroicized and sentimentalized his image to such a degree that the fictional self-portrait would have turned out a travesty. And yet, for all that, there was a touch of the tragic to Ernest Hemingway that was almost ennobling, and his end was painfully sad.

Mary Dearborn, who has written biographies of Peggy Guggenheim, Henry Miller, and Norman Mailer—no shrinking violets, they—tells us that when she began to consider undertaking a life of Hemingway, she asked herself the question of “whether a woman could bring something to the subject that previous biographers had not.” Then it occurred to her that perhaps “what I did not bring in tow” was precisely what fitted her for the task. “I have no investment in the Hemingway legend,” Dearborn explains. “I think we should look away from what feeds into the legend and consider what formed this remarkably complex man and brilliant writer.” A fine program for a biographer; the trouble is, behind the legend lay resentment and jealousy, meanness of spirit, writerly irresolution, and, more often than not, artistic failure—though the public of his time, avid for colorfully embroidered tales of derring-do, whether on the battlefield, on the hunting ground, or at the writing desk, refused to acknowledge it. The people’s Papa was beyond reproach.

In her prologue, Dearborn recounts how, after a panel discussion on Hemingway’s work in a New York City library in the 1990s, a professor and critic who she recognized, “a burly man with a peppery crew cut” whose specialty was American literature in the Jazz Age, stood up to announce that “Hemingway made it possible for me to do what I do.” Afterward, she thought about the matter and came to the conclusion that the peppery professor had been

talking about whether writing was an acceptable occupation for a man, both on his terms and the world’s. Hemingway, not only in his 
extraliterary pursuits as a marlin fisherman, a big game hunter, a boxer, and a bullfight aficionado but also in his capacity as an icon of American popular culture, was the very personification of virility—and he was a writer. Any taint of femininity or aestheticism 
attached to writing had been wiped clean.

The insight is accurate, and it highlights one of the more malign aspects of Hemingway’s legacy to American literature. By endlessly trumpeting the fact that one could be a writer and literary artist and at the same time preserve one’s he-manhood, he goaded numerous male writers who came after him into baring their chests and swinging their fists and downing oceans of alcohol to show that they also could be tough guys.

It was a lot of nonsense, of course, but the damage was done. Look at the all-too-obvious example of Mailer, of whose growing reputation the aging Hemingway was sullenly jealous, referring to him sarcastically as the “Brooklyn Tolstoy.” Mailer at his best was a very good writer, especially when he was writing journalism, yet in his Oedipal struggle with Papa, he chose to cast himself in the role of a Jewish fighting Irishman: getting into drunken brawls at parties, stabbing his wife, championing the cause of an unregenerate convicted murderer, and making a fool of himself by running a loud and farcical campaign for New York City mayor.

Dearborn notes that Mailer considered Hemingway “easily America’s greatest living writer,” but he also asked readers to consider how “silly” A Farewell to Arms and Death in the Afternoon would be if “written by a man who was five-four, wore glasses, spoke in a shrill voice, and was a physical coward.” Apart from the absurdity of such a proposition—did not a little man of the type Mailer describes write In Cold Blood?—the obvious point is that those two books, despite many fine qualities, were silly, as even some of Hemingway’s acolytes will acknowledge. With its starkly described battle scenes and buttoned-down prose style, A Farewell to Arms must have seemed revolutionary in its day, but the love affair between its hero, Frederic Henry, and the nurse Catherine Barkley is deeply embarrassing, despite the author’s attempts at tough-minded tenderness and a stoicism that keeps dissolving in heroically withheld tears. As Dearborn puts it, for all that Hemingway bragged about “getting past such old, hollow terms (and concepts) as ‘valor’ and ‘glory’ in pared-down, minimal language, A Farewell to Arms was a highly romantic war novel.” Nothing wrong with that, of course, except that its author saw the book as, and probably believed it to be, something entirely other.

Looking back at the critical reception of Hemingway’s novels at the time of their publication, one is baffled by the almost universal enthusiasm with which they were received by reviewers. Even such a finely discriminating assessor as Edmund Wilson was sometimes taken in by the fake machismo—mind you, is there such a thing as authentic machismo?—and saccharine emotionalism behind the tight-lipped tone of so much of Hemingway’s writing. Wilson considered The Sun Also Rises to be the “best novel by one of my generation”—a generation, it should be noted, that included Fitzgerald—and he praised the “barometric accuracy” of A Farewell to Arms, although, to be fair, he did worry a little about what Dearborn describes as the “sentimentality he saw lurking in Hemingway’s work.” As she uses it here, “lurking” is a charitable word; a miasma of sentimentality hovers over everything Hemingway produced.

One suspects that the image of himself that Hemingway forged—surely the aptest word in the context—is founded in the history of his remarkable and remarkably troubled family. He was born in 1899 in Oak Park, a suburb of Chicago, a middle-class child in a solidly middle-class milieu. He grew up strong, handsome, attractive, and troubled. His parents were entirely mismatched—dominant mother, diffident father—and he was still squabbling with his siblings, especially his sister Marcelline, well into adulthood. His lifelong fascination with gender identity probably sprang in part from the fact that when Ernest and Marcelline were toddlers, their mother, Grace, would dress them in matching outfits, sometimes as boys, sometimes as girls.

Of Grace Hemingway, it is an understatement to say that she was larger than life. “She had a generous, expansive, and loving nature,” Dearborn asserts, and “her energy was inexhaustible,” but surely she must have been for much of the time an unsustainable burden upon those around her. Grace was a singer who had her debut at Madison Square Garden under the conductor of the Metropolitan Opera, and, although she never made it as a diva, she worked diligently at her music, composing songs and taking on well-paying pupils. Dearborn writes:

Later in life, when her voice had deteriorated to the extent that she could no longer give lessons, she took up art and taught that instead, as well as enjoying brisk sales of her paintings. She designed and built furniture. Later still, she had a lucrative career lecturing on such topics as Boccaccio, Aristophanes, Dante and Euripides, and wrote poetry as well.

Hemingway famously defined courage as the ability to sustain grace under pressure; the condition of much of his own early life must have been, rather, pressure under Grace.

His father, Clarence, known as Ed, was an obstetrician; he was either fatally weak or an example of the enlightened modern man, depending on how you look at it. Ed largely assumed the role of homemaker, since, as his youngest daughter said, “My mother was exempt from household chores, because she must have time to practice her music.” It was Ed who did the cooking, being particularly fond of baking, and he was “famous for his doughnuts.” Fizzing with ambition, testosterone, and the urge to violence—“I like to shoot a rifle and I like to kill”—Ernest must have felt ambivalent, to say the least, before the spectacle of his father in an apron, with flour on his hands, busy over the stove. But Ed Hemingway was a man of the outdoors also, an enthusiastic hunter and fisherman and handy with a rifle, even if, here again, it was Grace who elbowed her way forward for the young Ernest. Dearborn writes, with shaky grammar: “As a little baby, his mother said, she held him in her left arm while she shot a pistol with her right, Ernest shouting with delight at every report.”

The world of the Hemingways rattled with frequent gunfire, and it is no coincidence that Ernest’s life should have been rounded with the awful symmetry of Ed Hemingway’s suicide—he shot himself with the pistol his father had carried in the Civil War—and 
his own death decades later, on the 
morning of July 2, 1961, when he put both barrels of a shotgun to his forehead and pulled the trigger.

Yet it would be wrong to concentrate overmuch on the tragic aspects of the Hemingway story. As Dearborn reminds us, in the early years of his adulthood, he was a golden youth in a golden time. Postwar Paris, as he portrayed it lovingly but not always accurately in A Moveable Feast, was a dawning place in which it was bliss to be alive, and more blissful still to be a young literary star trailing clouds of war-wounded glory in his wake. Or as Sherwood Anderson more plainly put it, “Mr. Hemingway is young, strong, full of laughter, and he can write.” He was also newly married, to Hadley Richardson, a handsome, motherly woman nearly eight years his senior, from whom he eventually would part, but whose memory he would honor for the rest of his life.

Hemingway’s women were a decidedly mixed bunch. Hadley, whom he wrote about with a palpable ache of nostalgia in A Moveable Feast, was the most sensible and supportive of the lot, and certainly the one who understood him most clearly, in all his strengths and his more numerous weaknesses. Pauline Pfeiffer, his second wife, was the classic spoiled little rich girl, though she had a clever and perceptive side to her. Martha Gellhorn, who brazenly stole him from under Pauline’s nose, was the hard-bitten woman journalist typical of the interwar years—think of Lee Miller, Lillian Ross, Dorothy Parker—and the one who made him most proud of possessing her, as he imagined he did. His last wife, Mary Welsh, is something of an enigma, being at once a hunting companion and a player with him of those erotic games—mostly centered on exchanging sexual identities, and his obsession with hair—in which he indulged with the highest seriousness. In The Garden of Eden, Hemingway writes with unexpected candor, though in fictional terms, of his strong hair fetish—he found the short hairstyles especially exciting—and what Dearborn identifies as his “ambivalence about and fascination with gender roles and sexuality, and a lifelong tendency towards androgyny.”

There is also the abiding question as to the possibility of a homosexual element to his nature—the question, simply, as to whether he might have been gay. Dearborn is adamant on this, stating flatly on the first page of her book: “The short answer is no.” But in areas as delicate as this, short answers are often inadequate to the occasion. There is, for example, the matter of Jim Gamble, a Red Cross captain 12 years older than Ernest, with whom, at the close of the First World War, he spent a holiday week in Taormina, Sicily, that left him with vivid memories. Dearborn, in this instance keeping firmly to her seat on the fence, notes that “some scholars have speculated that the two enjoyed a homosexual relationship during this time.” Certainly, in a letter to Gamble in 1919, Hemingway writes with humid wistfulness of “old Taormina by moonlight and you and me, a little illuminated some times, but always just pleasantly so, strolling through that great old place….”

And then there was the seemingly telling remark by one of Hemingway’s lovers—Agnes von Kurowsky, who nursed him in the hospital during the First World War and became the model for Catherine Barkley in A Farewell to Arms—to Carlos Baker, Hemingway’s first biographer: “You know how [Ernest] was. Men loved him. You know what I mean.” How much are we to make of such an innuendo, and is Dearborn being disingenuous recording it while yet withholding judgment on its significance? Hemingway would not have been the first red-blooded heterosexual to stray in youth from the straight and 
narrow sexual path. None of this would much matter, of course, if Hemingway had not flaunted his manly sexuality to an almost risible degree—a skeptical Zelda Fitzgerald remarked, “Nobody is as male as all that”—as he went about manufacturing the myth of himself.

A large component of that myth was Hemingway’s enthusiasm for slaughtering animals large and small, from harmless game birds to lions, tigers, and elephants. The hunt, for him, was closely allied to warfare and to bullfighting, and to the two combined; as he remarked gleefully to a friend, speaking of the bullfight, “It’s just like having a ringside seat at the war with nothing to happen to you.” He occupied many a ringside seat, not only at bullfights but in battles too, but that he was courageous is beyond doubt, even if he saw no more than a fraction of the fighting he claimed to have done in various theaters of war.

Hemingway was famously injury-prone, but few of his injuries were come by in combat—as Dearborn wittily but witheringly notes, “If there is such a thing as a professional soldier, Ernest was a professional veteran.” The plain fact is that, away from the battlefield, he was naturally clumsy, and had an unfortunate tendency to fall down and bang his head against hard surfaces.

The mishaps were not all of his own making. Dearborn gives a lively account—indeed, her book, at more than 600 pages of narrative, is lively and briskly entertaining throughout—of the famous air crash in Uganda in 1954, when the pilot lost control of the plane and had to make an emergency landing. The Hemingways escaped relatively unscathed, though the New York Daily Mirror, in its January 25 issue, reported them dead. Later on the same trip, they were involved in a much more serious airplane accident, which left Hemingway with, as Dearborn writes, “his fifth major concussion and probably the worst of any of them…. Ernest awakened the next morning to see that a wound in his scalp behind his right ear had leaked a clear liquid—cerebral fluid—on the pillow.”

The successive physical injuries Hemingway suffered—it is striking how many of the photographs taken of Hemingway throughout his life show him with his head swathed in bandages—must have contributed to his steady decline, physical and mental, in the latter half of the 1950s. In these years, he was drinking quantities of alcohol that would have killed any ordinary person—he would start his day with a quart or two of beer before breakfast, and later move on to frozen daiquiris and jugs of iced martinis—and he was also taking what amounted to a pharmacopoeia of serious prescription drugs.

In 1961, the year of his death, Hemingway had been diagnosed as suffering from hemochromatosis, probably inherited from his father; the disease, which leads to an excessive buildup of iron in the body, causes physical and psychological disorders. The deterioration in Hemingway’s health was unstoppable. As the end approached, his life must have been well-nigh intolerable, and one cannot but admire his tenacity in holding on, and pity him both for his physical afflictions and his mental anguish.

Family life, too, was a torment. His son Greg took merciless revenge on Hemingway for what he saw as his ill treatment. Addressing his father as “Ernestine”—Greg was himself a cross-dresser—and calling him a “gin-soaked abusive monster,” the son wrote that “when it’s all added up, papa it will be: he wrote a few good stories, had a novel and fresh approach to reality and he destroyed five persons—Hadley, Pauline, Mary, Patrick, and possibly myself.” Nor did Greg stop there:

You’ll never write that great novel because you’re a sick man—sick in the head and too fucking proud and scared to admit it. In spite of the critics, that last one was as sickly a bucket of sentimental slop as was ever scrubbed off a barroom floor.

If by “that last one” Greg meant The Old Man and the Sea—Dearborn does not cite the date of Greg’s letter—one might want to employ more temperate language to describe that final novel but still concur with his assessment of the book, even though it helped win Hemingway the Nobel Prize.

What was it like to be Ernest Hemingway? For all the worldly success, the adulation and adventuring, the boozing and braggadocio, the fact that his sense of himself was cocked on a hair trigger must have kept him in a permanent state of terror until he could take it no longer and put that shotgun to his head. He kept up the facade of the hairy-chested artist for as long as he was able, but at the last, even golden youths lose their glister and must come to dust. Perhaps there are still burly types out there who take comfort and encouragement from the example of a life lived to the full, in the world and in the study, and if so, good luck to them. Their exemplar was less fortunate than they.

Ed’s note: An earlier version of this article erroneously referred to Death in the Afternoon as a novel; it is, in fact, a work of nonfiction.

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