THE WRITER ALSO RISES
Mar 2, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 24 • By BRIAN MURRAY
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.