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.
The film, a box-office hit, sparked further sales of the novel and yet more publicity for Ernest Hemingway, the dashing writer-adventurer reared in a sober Chicago suburb. Hemingway was no Houdini, instantly known to tabloid readers everywhere. But, as Leff writes, he was by now "aped, optioned, caricatured, adapted, praised, roasted, celebrated, mocked, filmed, honored, scorned, and quoted. In short, he was famous."
Leff stresses that Hemingway's rise to stardom took place within the context of vast social change. As its population grew, the United States became linked by mass communications as never before. Increasingly, whether in Albany or Azusa, people listened to the same radio programs and read the same books and magazines, including Time, which began the practice of prominently exhibiting "personalities" behind the news. Indeed, according to Leff, early accounts in Time of Hemingway's skills as a skier, fisherman, and soldier helped solidify the Hemingway persona for years to come.
Leff calls Time "one of the megaphones of the culture of celebrity." Obviously, Hollywood was an even more potent force, and its own habit of treating screen actors as "stars" who were also somehow "known" to their audiences was crucial in transforming "the relationship between Americans and their public figures." Certainly, by the late 1920s, Hollywood's "razzmatazz" style had made its mark on the publishing industry, where the more venerable houses, like Scribner's, had hitherto seen themselves as "adherents of literature, conservators whose status hinged on association with great, rather than go-getting, authors." But now, like "cosmetics, automobiles, or motion pictures," publishing "was an industry whose future depended on turning out a product for a mass audience. The author was part of that product, the more promotable the better."
The photogenic Hemingway was eminently "promotable" and, according to Leff, sensed his celebrity potential from the start. Leff calls this Hemingway -- the one who courted editors, posed for cameras, and very carefully tallied up his royalties -- the "Professional Writer." As such, Hemingway sold accounts of his fishing trips to popular magazines and, to Scribner's delight, once planned and drafted a "hard-boiled" novel about gangsters and crooks he was sure would rack up large sales.
But the other Hemingway -- the "Author," Leff calls him -- deplored such vulgar behavior. This Hemingway, the protege of Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein, had absorbed the modernist aesthetic that assumed "audience was secondary to craft." This Hemingway also held that the true artist wrote "for the relief of his own mind and without thought of publication." As "the Author," Hemingway "professed that he hated the traffic in photographs, Book of the Month Club editions, and stage or movie adaptations that could bring an author fame and fortune." He even claimed that the popular success of A Farewell to Arms made him "embarrassed and uneasy and vaguely sick."
Leff is at home in the popular culture of the 1920s and 30s. His previous publications include Hitchcock and Selznick (1987) and (with Jerold Simmons) The Dame in the Kimono (1990), a study of the Motion Picture Association's early attempts at self-regulation and its establishment, in 1930, of the Production Code. In Hemingway and His Conspirators, Leff is at his best when he recounts Hemingway's own troubles with various censors -- including his editor, the fabled Max Perkins, who was understandably squeamish about the stark swearing he found in evolving drafts of A Farewell to Arms. The novel's film version had its own problems with the Motion Picture Association -- as well as the Italian embassy -- but Paramount, Leff tells us, "tended to flout the Production Code." And in fact the movie's wide success with critics and viewers in cities large and small convinced the studio that its relatively huge financial investment had paid off.
Still, it's doubtful that most general readers will find Hemingway and His Conspirators a gripping read. The book's pace is slowed with references to contracts, print runs, and percentages of gross -- subjects that only accountants and certain academics could love. And it's never quite clear where Leff with all of his quotes and statistics wants to go. In his preface Leff suggests that he will show that Hemingway was "contrary" as well as exhibitionistic. But that's hardly news. We've long known that Hemingway was part Teddy Roosevelt, part Gertrude Stein.
In his final chapter Leff rather suddenly charges that Hemingway "the Author" was, in fact, destroyed by his crasser "professional" side. In the end Hemingway, writes Leff, had "no defense against the celebrity that devoured the private person within." Leff even implies that Hemingway put a gun to his head in the summer of 1961 because he had, in effect, sold out, knowing not only that he had settled for "personal rather than literary fame," but that he'd long been unable to supply "the vast audience of the twentieth century with work that was honest and controlled, work as powerful or as enduring as In Our Time, The Sun Also Rises, and A Farewell to Arms."
Perhaps. But it's also worth remembering that by the time he died Hemingway was a physical wreck contending with skin cancer, chronic diabetes, and, more devastating, alcoholism of the worst kind. During the last twenty years of his life, the man was knocking back a quart of booze a day. Moreover Hemingway was always something of an over-achiever -- a journalist and short story writer who found fiction writing agonizingly difficult, but whose first, widely promoted novels caught supremely well a certain mood of the time. The British critic Julian Symons got it right several years ago when he called Hemingway "the classic modern case of a writer who created a style but lacked suitable subjects." Hemingway, he added, "had no interest in other people except so far as they affected himself, no political beliefs, little cultural background. His subject was himself and the physical actions, often including violence, that excited him."
It thus seems strained for critics like Leff to mourn once more Hemingway's tragic literary demise. For one suspects that -- even under the best of conditions -- Papa simply lacked the temperament to keep turning out landmark novels, each more wholly compelling than the last. In fact, in light of his struggles and limitations, Hemingway's later achievement looks quite remarkable in its way. It includes several posthumous titles -- A Movable Feast (1964), Islands in the Stream (1970) and The Garden of Eden (1986) -- for which many readers are grateful. It also includes, of course, The Old Man and the Sea (1952), a little miracle of a book that Leff scarcely mentions at all.
Brian Murray teaches writing at Loyola College in Baltimore.