Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

The Male Impersonator: Ernest Hemingway

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Very interesting review by Fintan O’Toole in the NY Review of Books:

Ernest Hemingway: A Biography
by Mary V. Dearborn
Knopf, 738 pp., $35.00Ernest Hemingway: A New Life<
by James M. Hutchisson
Pennsylvania State University Press, 292 pp., $37.95Writer, Sailor, Soldier, Spy: Ernest Hemingway’s Secret Adventures, 1935–1961
by Nicholas Reynolds
William Morrow, 357 pp., $27.99

The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway: The Hemingway Library Edition
edited and with an introduction by Seán Hemingway, and a foreword by Patrick Hemingway
Scribner, 576 pp., $32.00 (to be published in July)

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. They raise the issue that Gellhorn stated in a letter to her mother when she was about to divorce Hemingway: “A man must be a very great genius to make up for being such a loathsome human being.”

The constant excavation of Hemingway’s life creates the danger of pollution: the loathsome sludge of the personality might seep into the genius of The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, and a score of magnificent short stories. Unless, that is, we can see through the phoniness of America’s number-one he-man to the genuine tragedy of masculinity that is played out in Hemingway’s life and in his best work.

Early in his brisk new biography, James Hutchisson has an anecdote that smells as fishy as the dead marlin in The Old Man and the Sea. It sets up a physical and psychological contrast between the super-manly Hemingway and the weakling James Joyce in Paris in the mid-1920s:

Although Hemingway often made fun of the Irishman’s frail physique, this afforded opportunities for fun and games when they went out drinking together, as they did frequently. When Joyce got drunk and challenged some stranger in a café to settle things manfully, he would simply defer to his companion, saying, “Deal with him, Hemingway! Deal with him!”

Did Joyce really go around picking physical fights in bars? If so, his biographers have missed it. Michael Reynolds, in his authoritative Hemingway: The Paris Years, makes no mention of this delicious anecdote. The origin of the story, so far as I can tell, is Hemingway’s boasting thirty years later. He tells it an interview with Time when he won his Nobel Prize in 1954. And the context makes it obviously bogus. The tale of the frail Irishman hiding behind the manful American is part of a longer quotation in which Joyce allegedly tells Hemingway that “he was afraid his [own] writing was too suburban and that maybe he should get around a bit and see the world.” Nora, Joyce’s future wife, is listening in and adds her approval: “His wife was there and she said, yes, his work was too suburban—‘Jim could do with a spot of that lion hunting.’”

What makes the whole story so clearly specious is that Hemingway’s earliest lion-hunting exploits date from 1933, around a decade after this supposed conversation. Essentially, the Joyces are supposed to be admitting in the mid-1920s that Joyce would be a much better writer if only he were more like the Hemingway of later decades, the world-traveling he-man and hunter, and less like the weedy fellow who needed his bigger companion to “settle things manfully” on his behalf.

In one sense, this episode tells us nothing more than that Hemingway was a compulsive liar and that Hutchisson is foolish to fall for his bragging. The idea of Joyce on safari suggests the possibility of a parlor game: Proust in space, Kafka at the disco. But behind it there is an immense sadness. For this woeful fabrication substitutes for something that might have been real: Hemingway did have a deep connection to Joyce. His two earliest—and best—novels, The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms, pick up on what Joyce had done in Ulysses. As Hemingway admitted to George Plimpton in a celebrated Paris Review interview in 1958, “the influence of [Joyce’s] work was what changed everything, and made it possible for us to break away from the restrictions.”

These restrictions were partly questions of frankness about sex and the body and partly questions of style. Hemingway made wonderful use of the freedom that Joyce had created. The tone of his masterly Nick Adams stories comes from Dubliners: it is impossible to imagine his first fully achieved piece, “Indian Camp,” for example, without “Araby,” and we can see in Seán Hemingway’s introduction to the new edition of the short stories precisely how his grandfather ruthlessly cut eight pages from the beginning of that story to plunge the reader, as Joyce does, straight into the stream of the action. The long interior monologue of Harry Morgan’s wife, Marie, that ends To Have and Have Not may not be a worthy successor to Molly Bloom’s in Ulysses, but at least Joyce gave Hemingway permission to try.

However, even these influences may be less important than something else that Joyce gave Hemingway: a specific idea of maleness. That idea is the opposite of the persona Hemingway would later forge—the hero who “settles things manfully.” Joyce gave us, in Leopold Bloom, the hero who settles nothing and is not at all manful, the pacifistic little man who just lives with Molly’s cheating on him with Blazes Boylan. Hemingway’s great tragedy is that he delved deeper into this unmanliness but then turned himself into a parody of the very masculinity he had subverted. For all his talk of courage, his is perhaps the greatest loss of nerve in twentieth-century literature.

Hemingway had imaginative access to two things he hid behind his outlandish public image—a complex sexuality and a deep trauma. Since the publication in 1986 of the unfinished novel The Garden of Eden, which he had worked on fitfully from 1945 until 1961, it has been obvious that he was drawn to the excitement of crossing sexual boundaries. The he-man was at least in part imaginatively a she-man. It was already clear that Hemingway was drawn to the erotic potential of androgyny. In A Farewell to Arms, Frederic and Catherine discuss growing their hair to the same length so that they can be “the same one.” In the story “The Last Good Country,” Nick Adams’s sister cuts her hair off so she can be like him—“I’m a boy, too”—and Nick says, “I like it very much.” But The Garden of Eden took all of this much further. Catherine cuts her hair to match that of her husband David but she then becomes a boy, Peter, and David becomes a girl, also called Catherine. David/Catherine is penetrated by his wife/husband:

He lay there and felt something and then her hand holding him and searching lower and he helped with his hands and then lay back in the dark and did not think at all and only felt the weight and strangeness inside and she said, “Now you can’t tell who is who can you?”

Zelda Fitzgerald’s mockery of Hemingway as “a pansy with hair on his chest” was crude and inaccurate but no more so than Hemingway’s own self-caricature as the straightest hombre on the planet.

Mary Dearborn’s well-balanced and deeply researched new biography convincingly traces some of this interest back to Hemingway’s childhood and the way his formidable mother Grace insisted on treating Ernest and his older sister Marcelline as if they were twins, giving them the same haircuts and insisting that they be in the same classes at school. The strong antipathy that Ernest developed for Marcelline may be the first expression of his tendency to react to complicated desires by swinging to the opposite extremes.

But Hemingway’s sexual complexity may also be connected to his experience in World War I. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

4 June 2017 at 3:19 pm

Posted in Books, Daily life

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