Ernest Hemingway: The self-righteous, no good and bastardly monarch of American literature

by dollydelightly

Ernest Hemingway was a sovereign of stalwart, muscular fiction whose “gentleness and understanding and probity was never far away from his most appalling behaviour”. And Hemingway could certainly be appalling, so much so that most of his life reads like a cautionary tale. Except every word in Paul Hendrickson’s new biography, Hemingway’s Boat, is based on archived documents from the JFK Presidential Library, the testimony of Hemingway’s family and friends, his corpus of work and studious ratiocination on behalf of the biographer. And yet there are gaps in Hemingway’s apocryphal legacy, which Hendrickson fills with caution on the side of temerity. There have been many books about Hemingway throughout the years, which helped compound the myth of his success as a turn of luck. Hendrickson dispels this popular notion early on by saying there’s no truth in the fact that Hemingway “sprung full-blown into the American consciousness as a serious writer” overnight. “What is true,” writes Hendrickson, “is that, for nearly his whole life, Hemingway had a genius, among his many geniuses, for gathering knowledge inside of him with astonishing… The statement can apply as much to the intricacies of big-game fishing as to the art of shaking daiquiris as to the craft of writing fiction: he simply found out, and lodged it inside him very fast. In so many instances, he seemed to mutate from eager novice to acknowledged expert with barely any larval stage in between.” This was also true of Hemingway when it came to sailing and angling, a penchant for which he developed as early as a “five-year-old-nightcrawler-fisherman” in Horton Bay, Michigan, and later resurrected with the purchase of Pilar, the boat which became a permanent fixture in the turbulent seas of his life.

Hemingway was notoriously mercurial. He reviled his “chickenshit critics,” whom he execrated with vituperative epistles and his “turncoat” friends (Max Eastman, Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edmund Wilson, Charles Scribner) for failing to bend to his will. Eventually, he earned himself a reputation as an antagonistic cockalorum, whose talent had gone to “malice and nonsense and self-praise” as the bite of fame chomped down on his ego. In a poem about his former friend Archibald MacLeish seconded this notion, saying: “What became of him? Fame became of him.” Few could keep up with Hemingway; fewer still could endure his boorishness or withstand his competitive sportsmanship, which cost him handsomely both in friendships and in reputation particularly after the publication of The Green Hills of Africa, which was universally panned. The critics were merciless. One of them, John Chamberlain, who was writing for the New York Times at the time, said the book was “divided between big game lore and salon controversy”.  Chamberlain went on: “Mr Hemingway has so simplified his method that all his characters talk the lingo perfected in The Sun Also Rises, whether these characters are British, Austrian, Arabian, Ethiopian or Kikuyu…Can it be that Hemingway has been writing pidgin English from the start?…to offer Green Hills of Africa as a profound philosophical experience is something else again. It is simply an overextended book about hunting, with a few incidental felicities and a number of literary wisecracks thrown in.” According to Hemingway, however, the book was misunderstood by reviewers, who failed to see his calling as a man of nature, an explorer in the throes of a daring adventure.

Hendrickson aims to succeed where Hemingway failed by depicting his subject first and foremost as an adventurer “catching 420 blue marlins” and sailing to foreign lands rather than a “monarch of American literature” famed for his “imagistic economical stroke”. And to a certain extent the biographer prospers, as reading the book one gets a distinct impression of Hemingway’s preternatural inclination for the outdoors. Hendrickson is also keen to outline his subject’s virtues saying “when it was good with Papa – the writing, the fishing, the drinking, the eating, the talking, the palling around” was in fact so good it made “few things seem better.” But his picture of Hemingway also aims to be a balanced one as he scrupulously documents Hemingway’s frequent bouts of anger, embarrassing public outbursts and pointed cruelty, especially toward his successive spouses. At one point Hendrickson posits that Hemingway “was always making things up from what he knew,” and this was no different when it came to his wives, who always made it into his books in one “unflattering way or another”. Not only that, Hendrickson suggests that Hemingway felt guilty for the break-up of his first marriage and in part could never fully devote himself to his subsequent wives. Certainly, they seemed to be secondary to his sporting life and to Pilar, for it was there that that he dreamed up new books and taught his sons “how to reel in something that feels like Moby Dick,” that he accidentally shot himself in both legs, fell drunk from the flying bridge, wrote “achy, generous, uplifting, poetic letters,” propositioned women, hunted German subs and saved guests and family members from shark attacks. Pilar was “intimately his, and he hers, for twenty-seven-years which were his final twenty-seven-years. She’d lasted through three wives, the Nobel Prize, and all his ruin.” Unfortunately, she may have also contributed to it.

Yet, as Hendrickson notes, it was mainly Hemingway that ruined himself as he continued to self-destruct and alienate people by “telling terrific lies about real people” in his work, which he believed “was somehow more truer than it had actually happened”.  Writing about Hemingway in his book, The True Gen, Denis Brian describes him as a “charming bully and artful sadist who sought to get you drunk in a bar and then take you out into the dark and sucker punch you.” Occasionally, Hemingway shared this opinion of himself once saying to a friend he was “self-righteous, no good and bastardly”. The “son of an old Oak Park doctor and a socially pretentious mother” from a “faith-heavy Midwestern family” got his tempter from his father “who had a propensity to erupt into red rage”. Hemingway’s own anger got worse with time. When his reputation was dwindling he hoped to ingratiate himself with the critics again with the publication of Across the Trees and into the River, a book he thought his best. “I have read it 206 times to try and make it better and to cut out any mistakes or injustices,” he wrote, “ and on the last reading I loved it very much and it broke my fucking heart for the 206th time”. But the press almost unanimously deemed it “embarrassing” and “held together by blind rage”.  Hemingway took out his anger on his fourth wife, Mary, periodically subjecting her to verbal abuse (“whore, bitch, liar, moron”), countless public infidelities and increasingly manic behaviour.  “At table his favourite and frequent means of protesting any word, glance, gesture or food he doesn’t like,” she wrote to his publisher, “is to put his full, freshly served plate on the floor.” By this point, Hemingway was in his early 50s and “not a well man”.  He suffered with “ringing ears, migraines, hypertension, diabetes, kidney problems, depression, and paranoia – and all these ailments, and others, were not only ageing him at what seemed a far faster rate than his chronological age, but each was prone to balloon up wildly and almost virally before subsiding again.” Years of hard living, as well as physical and cerebral exertion, left Hemingway a shell of a man he once was and he could no longer find solace in anything except Pilar, his wondrous “fishing machine” for which his love only deepened with age.

“I envy you like hell,” wrote Fitzgerald to Hemingway toward the end of his life without realising the irony of his words, for by this point the “twentieth century Byron,” as Hemingway was once described, was no longer the brilliant “voyager in literary modernism” but rather a bitter and ailing scrivener responsible for “egregiously bad” copy. Among the many snapshots of Hemingway offered by posterity, and an array of biographical paraphernalia, the most prevailing one remains that of him as a writer of perhaps fleeting but profound talent. Hendrickson’s work certainly provides another dimension to his legacy, but one which neither adds nor detracts from the place Hemingway had previously occupied. The book offers a cornucopia of information about Hemingway’s sporting passions, which defined most of his life and in a somewhat nebulous way gives a more complete picture of the writer who to a certain extent has been a casualty of his own popularity. But the last word lies with Hemingway, who after receiving the Nobel Prize in 1954 penned a letter to the Swedish Academy, saying: “Things may not be immediately discernible in what a man writes, and in this sometimes he is fortunate; but eventually they are quite clear and by these and the degree of alchemy that he possesses he will endure or be forgotten.” And forgotten he will certainly never be.