Friday, September 8, 2017

The Agony and the Artistry: Mary V. Dearborn’s Ernest Hemingway

Photo: Robert Capa/Magnum.

“At some point in the unfolding of his brilliant career, a tragedy began to take shape”: so begins Mary V. Dearborn’s Ernest Hemingway: A Biography (Knopf; 738 pp.). What follows is the history of that tragedy. More, perhaps, than any previous Hemingway biography – save Paul Hendrickson’s harrowing Hemingway’s Boat (2011), which is more a psycho-factual exploration of selected themes than biography per se – Dearborn’s is a chronicle of physical and mental agonies, some fateful, others self-inflicted. In this telling, as tragedy takes its shape, it misshapes the life. It’s a more than valid view of this particular figure. Even in his prime, when he was kicking ass and taking names, beaming out from front pages and basking in celebrity, Hemingway was moving toward a violent end almost too easy to see, with hindsight, as predestined. The end seemed foretold in family dysfunction – suicidal father, mother whose outsize presence and personal ambition both influenced and infuriated her son. It was encouraged by ego, money, and acclaim after the first stunning short stories and history-making novels. It was urged from the 1930s onward by alcoholism, physical self-abuse, and a tendency to disastrous accidents. It burgeoned in the lengthening depressions, cognitive degeneration, and inferior work of his last decade. And it came, finally, in the early hours of July 2, 1961, when Hemingway took his life with a shotgun in an isolated house in the mountains of Idaho, three weeks short of his sixty-second birthday.

The drama of a rapid rise and long downward spiral keeps Hemingway fascinating as a biographical subject. (Following Carlos Baker’s foundational A Life Story, published in 1969, have been full-scale bios by Jeffrey Meyers, Scott Donaldson, Kenneth S. Lynn, James M. Hutchisson, and Michael Reynolds – this last running to five volumes – and several dozen shorter works focusing on specific aspects of the life.) Ernest Hemingway: A Biography joins this company with honor, and with caveats, as a good, thick, complete accounting of its subject’s existence. Dearborn acquits the biographer’s business brilliantly even while indulging in the tedious inventories of fishing and hunting expeditions (guns, poles, reels, engines) endemic to all Hemingway books. Her diagnostic notes are well-judged: after suggesting bipolar traits in both Hemingway parents, she spots similar indications in the young man himself – boundless energy, deep funks. Reading his work against his life, she sees red flags that expose half-truths and plain lies Hemingway told about his adventures as soldier and sportsman. While she often acknowledges the autobiographical fallacy – what critic Keith Dixon has called “the popular myth that by knowing more about Hemingway's life we know more about his novels” – Dearborn realizes that Hemingway’s work, especially the very best of it (the Nick Adams stories, The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber”), combines autobiography with prophecy, real people and places with a visionary terror of where his weaknesses would lead him.

It’s part of Dearborn’s skill to never turn us against her subject, though she won’t shy from showing him at his worst. There’s Hemingway the dangerous friend, compulsively betraying those who have given him professional and editorial aid. Dearborn identifies Hemingway’s “lifelong pattern of using his fiction for revenge,” a trope he usually got away with because of his fame, and because “his charisma protected him from the consequences of his more outrageous actions.” (This talent for cruelty peaked in his treatment of F. Scott Fitzgerald, an erstwhile friend and benefactor whom Hemingway pitilessly mocked, in both private letters and public writings, at the time when Fitzgerald, experiencing his own agonies, was least able to bear it.) There’s Hemingway the bad husband, the four-times-married “serial cheater and home-breaker” who always commenced an affair with the next wife while still married to the last one. There’s Hemingway the macho braggart, whose lies manifested most flamboyantly in inflated tales of wartime exploits – youthful and exuberant exaggerations of his wounding in World War I, boorish boasts about his celebrity tour of World War II hot spots. (His dispatches from the Normandy invasion, the battle of Hürtgen Forest, and Paris upon its liberation managed in almost every case to overrate his heroism, let alone his centrality to the military operations.)

There is, finally, Hemingway the tragic figure – not the victim of tragedy, precisely, but again and again its battered target. All exaggerations aside, he was seriously wounded on the Italian front at the age of 19; and his father did commit suicide, by revolver, when Ernest was 28. He suffered at least five major concussions, all of which were exacerbated by non-stop drinking and a deficit of bedrest; the worst was in a car accident in London in May 1944. Three years after that came the death of Max Perkins, Hemingway’s close friend and longtime editor, and, around the same time, the horrible aftermath of a head injury suffered by his middle son. In 1949-50, he exhibited wild swings and weird behaviors in what Dearborn reckons to be a “full-on manic episode.” (Symptoms of mania, or even of brain damage, may easily be read into Lillian Ross’s famous 1952 New Yorker profile, later published as Portrait of Hemingway.) Hemingway was producing some interesting, exploratory work in this period, which he was never able to complete and which, due to its sensitive nature, would not appear until well after his death; the book that was published, Across the River and into the Trees (1950), was risible self-parody. The overwhelming critical and popular success of The Old Man and the Sea (1952) was less a “comeback” for its author than a global sigh of relief that he could still make the motions of profundity. In 1954, in the midst of an African safari, Hemingway and his fourth wife crashed in a small plane, and were in another that exploded; worldwide reports of their deaths were precipitate, but their survival was by a hair’s breadth, and Hemingway’s head took another banging. Soon after, the always-incipient mental illness gathered strength and took hold; “his thinking [grew] less and less rational as he became more and more unhinged,” Dearborn observes. Like Howard Hughes, Hemingway got in the habit of saving his urine, and in his last year, the man famous for his fearlessness was shriveled by paranoid visions of government agents, shadowy pursuers. In Dearborns handling, the last act of the tragedy is bleak and benumbed: no long goodbye, only a short final chapter opening with the words, “It did not end well.”

As a biographer, Dearborn has done her work beautifully, not just with rectitude, but also with humanity and sympathy. Where she comes up short is on the art, and the artist who created it. Almost never does her language go past the nimbly descriptive to capture something essential about the Hemingway style, or the elusive code of stoic honor to which his heroes cling, or the dry-eyed regard of horror subtle enough to ignite depth charges of feeling in a reader. “Emotions are stripped, buried, obscured, to reemerge to readers as they discover them” is her keenest critical comment on the early short stories, and it stands out for its keenness. She makes a sound assessment of For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940) – which for all its unmitigated flaws is conceivably Hemingway’s best novel – and nails The Old Man and the Sea in passing as a book which “merely showcases [his talent] rather than being a genuine, earned representation of his art.” But she joins the consensus which rates To Have and Have Not (1937) “one of his worst novels,” when a more probing critique might well reconsider it as superior hard-boiled crime fiction, both a product of its historical atmosphere (proletarian politics, Depression hangover) and an ancestor to the brutal noir novels of Jim Thompson and David Goodis.

Mary V. Dearborn. (Photo: Ed Keeting)
In the same vein, one would appreciate a meatier interaction with Hemingway’s tantalizing and troublesome posthumous texts, especially Islands in the Stream (1970), The Garden of Eden (1986), and the “restored edition” of A Moveable Feast (1964), his memoir of Paris in the 1920s. Dearborn is aware of the queer and feminist reappraisals that have been made of Hemingway in the wake of these volumes, but she doesn’t follow through on them. Hemingway isn’t subjected to any test of political correctness – encountering some of his more objectionable lines about women, gays, and minorities, Dearborn doesn’t blink, let alone rush to either defend or condemn. But neither is there a rigorous, consistent questioning of theme and character in terms of what these writings tell us about Hemingway’s dream life, thought processes, and erotic quirks. For instance, he seems to have had a lifelong hair fetish, often taking the form in his work of hetero lovers who strive for unisexuality with matching hairstyles; Dearborn, though she points out references to hair wherever they occur, doesn’t transform the fixation into a tool for understanding Hemingway’s work at large. Likewise, her assertion that he had a “fundamental, long-standing gender confusion” is not elaborated to spread new, retrospective light on the canon. (Then again, perhaps Hemingway wasn’t particularly confused in this respect: maybe he and his wives just enjoyed playing games in the dark.)

What the book lacks is mystery – the mystery of genius. It doesn’t step back to consider the intangibles of a writer who changed not just America’s fiction but also its language, and its conception of character. No approach is attempted of that place in his mind where Hemingway retreated when it was time to write: a place unexplained by psychology and impervious to any influence but its own, where the secrets of his creativity were kept – from Hemingway as much as anyone. Dearborn doesn’t venture that level of understanding or empathy, an empathy which by its nature would be not factual or verifiable, but metaphorical and suggestive. It’s an absence that grows as the book goes on, until finally the Hemingway imagination has become a neglected horizon, a vastness drifting beyond the book’s ambition. There’s a man at the center of these pages, but there’s not a genius.

It’s clear by now that the heartbreaking clarity, the irreducible soul of Hemingway’s writing will survive the worst we can know about him. Certainly, we read him with a critical, revisionist eye – more so than we do other, less troubling or interesting writers – but if we accept him at all, we allow for everything bad: the egomania, the lies, the self-parody. Even his failures, most of them, are richer with the stuff of life than are so many others’ thin, contrived successes. He exemplified a certain kind of artist, the kind whose life and art meld completely – not because he sought to make some existential statement per Baudelaire, but because he could live no other way, and could do nothing, when the bill arrived, but pay the price for not having sensibly segmented his life and his work. He deserves censure for his cruelty, sympathy for his agony, and reverence, finally, for his achievement. As for forgiveness, if he didn’t always deserve it of his friends and family, he deserves it of us. He deserves the words of critic Leslie Fiedler, who came to Idaho several months before the end and, encountering a broken, shambling apparition, didn’t forget that it had once been a great man, a great artist. “I could hear him now in my inner ear,” Fiedler wrote after Hemingway was dead, “crying out that he was too young to be an old man.”

– Devin McKinney is the author of Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History (2003), The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda (2012), and Jesusmania! The Bootleg Superstar of Gettysburg College (2016). Formerly a music columnist (The American Prospect), blogger (Hey Dullblog), and TV writer (The Food Network), he has appeared in numerous publications and contributes regularly to Critics at Large and the pop culture site HiLobrow. He is employed as an archivist at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where he lives with his wife and their three cats. His website is

1 comment:

  1. Thought-provoking review of a deftly-written biography! I appreciate the fact that Dearborn doesn't sentmentalize, nor does she idolize Hemingway. There are plenty of others who do; conversely, this erudite professor of humanities offers the reader an honest, unapologetic bio of a profoundly conflicted genius. I'm with you, however, on your desire to also discover more of a nuanced, multi-layered rendering of the art of this brilliant wordsmith turned zeitgeist...RIP, Hemingstein...