This superb revisionist study suggests to me that its subject, once the cynosure of writerly interest, may soon emerge from a long eclipse. No American writer was more obsessively studied and imitated half a century ago. Then Ernest Hemingway fell as far from fashion as any great writer ever does. Some of it was his own doing: He wrote some later novels that read like inferior parodies of himself.
But in the time of my youth he was still golden. My Hemingway memories are associated with a great English department mentor at Chapel Hill, Harry K. Russell, under whose tutelage I wrote a term paper on Topic A: “The Hemingway Style.” My main finding, as I recall, was that Hemingway did not always write in hypnotic and sensuous declarative sentences linked by “and,” but often committed complex sentences as well. The paper is long lost, and was probably as sophomoric as its writer. But Russell graciously cited it in one of his class lectures, inflating my already ample ego.
To revive these old memories is to explain to intervening generations that this ur--obsession with Hemingway’s craft was overwhelmingly stylistic. Tragedy is a challenge for boys of college age. But anyone with writing ambitions, however modest, could bend an ear to mannerisms. You can catch the flavor of our puerile obsession in Woody Allen’s recent movie about expatriate Paris in the 1920s, in which the Hemingway character speaks a wooden patois we thought Hemingway wrote. Few of us, if any, achieved that “fifth dimension” of poetic implication he sought, after the example of the great Anton Chekhov.
Hemingway himself was not guiltless of encouraging puerile superstitions. In Green Hills of Africa (1935), he affected a tough-guy mask and said some valuable things (extolling Flaubert, Twain and Kipling, Poe and others) and some things that were silly and even brutal. To wit: If he could bring Conrad back by grinding Henry James to a fine powder, he would head for the errand with his sausage-grinder. As time passed, the macho mask hardened, and Hemingway seemed to write and talk the way people with tuneless ears thought he did.
The most valuable feature of Hemingway’s Boat is that it does justice to the shadow under which Hemingway lived and wrote, the clinical depression that he probably inherited from his physician father. Both were suicidal and both ultimately acted on the impulse. An adequate grasp of the deadly dangers of depression only came to the literary scene long after Hemingway blew his head off one summer morning in 1961.
Earlier biographers and critics—even Carlos Baker, who wrote the big biography nearly half a century ago—were relatively clueless about Hemingway’s condition of spirit and its subtle effects on his art. In that earlier era, criticism had rebelled against scholarship that “historicized” writers, instead pretending that authors’ tales had little to do with their lives: a view as extreme, and often as misleading, as the biographical pedantry they had revolted against.
Paul Hendrickson makes no such mistake. He builds his account around Hemingway’s fishing yacht, the Pilar, which he bought in New York in 1934 and fished from for decades in Key West and Havana. Hemingway’s fascination with big-game fishing becomes the frame for a sympathetic look into many neglected corners of his life, some of them very dark. All are revealing, but perhaps the most revealing is the story of Hemingway’s youngest son, Gregory, known to the family as “Gi-Gi.” Gregory was a devoted physician when he chose to be, but he was also a man of confused identity who secretly began slipping on his stepmother’s stockings at age 11. By the end of his erratic and often drugged and exhibitionist life, he had undergone sex-change surgery. But even then he continued to oscillate between male and female roles.
Implicit psychologizing in such a matter can be tricky and tasteless, but Hendrickson navigates this treacherous terrain with tact and compassion—and plausibility. And having looked into these painful aspects of Hemingway’s life, he finds hints in the writings congruent with Hemingway’s third son’s (let us merely say) ambiguities. It is as if Gregory Hemingway may have enacted inherited, if unconscious, impulses. May have—let that conditional phrase be emphasized.
Is there a clue here that illuminates the elaborate façades of bluster and bravado that so often damaged Hemingway’s work and reputation? Is it conceivable that the legacy of the puritanical, macho culture in which he grew up hid a soul that clamored for expressive release? That is the implication of Hemingway’s Boat.
Fishing was always Hemingway’s first love among sports, beautifully evoked in the early Nick Adams stories. But then came a frenzied intensification of hunting different types of game that went well beyond sport: the slaughter of African beasts, the often self-satirizing work on bullfighting, the boisterous drinking and whoring and celebration of warfare.
It cannot be baldly speculated that these were psychological “defenses”—that would simplify a complex man and artist. What can be said, after Hendrickson’s diligent book, is that Hemingway’s finest novels and tales may now be seen in a more revealing light, for they sound an insistent tragic note. In a way, we knew that all along, but not so clearly. Jake Barnes, in The Sun Also Rises, a book whose title echoes the bleak wisdom of Ecclesiastes, cannot consummate his love for Brett Ashley. He has been emasculated by a “rotten” wound in the First World War. (Or so it seems; the problem is never made explicit.) Frederic Henry, in A Farewell to Arms, deserts the Italian front—where the young Hemingway served as an ambulance driver—in that war to run away with his great love. But she dies one rainy day in childbirth.
In “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” a dying writer laments wasting his talent with drink and frivolity, and yearns for the distant, austere purity of the mountain. In the parallel African safari story, “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” an episode of cowardice estranges Macomber’s wife, who takes up with their white hunter and later shoots Macomber. In The Old Man and the Sea, the heroic old fisherman hooks a magnificent fish, only to see it nearly devoured by sharks before he can bring it ashore.
One is reminded of the familiar lines of Matthew Arnold about Sophocles long ago, who Heard it on the Aegean, and it brought / Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow / Of human misery. That is one “fifth dimension” that sophomoric readers and writers of 50 years ago did not fully discern.
Edwin M. Yoder Jr. is is the author, most recently, of Vacancy: A Judicial Misadventure.