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.