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