THE WRITER ALSO RISES
Mar 2, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 24 • By BRIAN MURRAY
Hemingway: the name still evokes carousing, bullfighting, big game hunting, the bars of Paris, the waters off Key West. It's linked, that name, with the most famous face in American literature.
Indeed, no modern writer was ever photographed so frequently -- or so well. One thinks of the celebrated shot of Hemingway on safari, in Kenya, in 1953. There's Papa posed beside a large leopard, freshly bagged. The leopard looks fierce, and Hemingway, his rifle aloft, looks splendid. He's handsome, poised, and triumphant. His beard of silver shines. Only a year later Hemingway won the Nobel Prize for literature. And only eight years later he was dead by suicide, his name still magic but his career in decline.
Books about Hemingway have flowed forth ever since. The earliest were sympathetic, even adoring, endorsing the view that Hemingway was a monumental figure whose spare, exacting, and sometimes swaggering style influenced several generations of American writers.
Of course, Papa's off his pedestal now. Over the past decade or so critics and biographers have been chipping away at the Hemingway myth and offering in its place the image of a man who, when not toiling over his prose, was almost always behaving badly. Hemingway debunked is self-destructive and self- absorbed -- touchy, truculent, a tad paranoid.
In Hemingway and His Conspirators, Leonard J. Leff focuses primarily on the making of Hemingway's public image, suggesting that several factors came together to give the author of The Sun Also Rises (1926) and A Farewell to Arms (1929) a fascinating ride to literary fame. In part, Leff contends that Hemingway "rose from obscurity to prominence not only because he had talent and personality but because he was adopted and championed by publishers as well as reprint houses, reporters, photographers, and especially movie companies."
Nor was Hemingway a passive partner in all this. Although he assumed a rather detached pose, and claimed to hate the trappings of fame, Hemingway was susceptible to both "the accouterments of a literary career and the blandishments of a culture of celebrity." Leff declares, "Inside the serious writer of the 1920s was the notorious personality and durable exhibitionist of the 1940s and beyond."
The Sun Also Rises started Hemingway's ascent, marking him as a distinctive stylist, a writer to watch. Leff suggests that Hemingway fully realized that the novel would be "fashionably indecent." He also hoped it would be both "praised by highbrows" and "read by lowbrows" -- a consistent Hemingway goal. The publishing house of Scribner's, Leff writes, had just as deliberately aimed The Sun Also Rises at college students, a proven audience for novels promising "sensation" if not "sensationalism." Thus Scribner's shrewdly wrapped The Sun Also Rises in a somewhat racy Yellow Book-like jacket that "breathed sex yet also evoked classical Greece." Years later, the critic Malcolm Cowley would remember Smith College women "modeling themselves after Lady Brett," while his own pals, "bright young men from the Middle West," were "trying to be Hemingway heroes, talking in tough understatements from the sides of their mouths."
But by the time A Farewell to Arms appeared, both Hemingway and Scribner's were more eager to reach "the general public" and so hatched a plan to replace the image of Hemingway "the coterie author" with "Hemingway the robust American male." Thus Scribner's magazine -- an esteemed venue in those days -- ran photos of Hemingway wading ashore in Key West, holding " a fishing rod in one hand and an enormous tarpon in the other." The pictures spoke volumes, telling readers that Hemingway was perfectly all right for " middlebrow consumption." He was "no Paris phony but a virile storyteller with the masculine grace of a model." He had "the silver-screen allure of Gary Cooper."
The 1932 film version of A Farewell to Arms, starring Cooper and Helen Hayes, was planned and promoted as a major release. Now, high-toned Scribner's joined forces with Paramount Pictures and its more practiced publicity machine. Paramount unleashed a flood of material on Hemingway, all of it dazzling and most of it wrong. Hemingway, the studio shamelessly claimed, had once flattened a French boxing champion and still bore a silver plate in his shoulder -- a poignant reminder of his battlefield heroics during the Great War.