It is difficult for people who weren’t around at the time to grasp the scale of the Hemingway cult in twentieth-century America. As late as 1965, the editor of The Atlantic could write reverently of scenes from a kind of Ernest Hemingway Advent calendar: “Wine-stained moods in the sidewalk cafés and roistering nights in Left Bank boîtes. Walking home alone in the rain. Talk of death, and scenes of it, in the Spanish sun. Treks and trophies in Tanganyika’s green hills. Duck-shooting in the Venetian marshes. . . . Loving and drinking and fishing out of Key West and Havana.” It was real fame, too, not the thirty-minutes-with-Terry Gross kind that writers have to content themselves with now. To get close to the tone of it today, you would have to imagine the literary reputation of Raymond Carver joined with the popularity and political piety of Bruce Springsteen. “Papa” Hemingway was not just a much admired artist; he was seen as a representative American public man. He represented the authority of writing even for people who didn’t read.
The debunking, when it came, came hard. As the bitter memoirs poured out, we got alcoholism, male chauvinism, fabulation, malice toward those who had made the mistake of being kind to him—all that. Eventually there came, from his avid estate, the lucrative but not reputation-enhancing publication of posthumous novels. The brand continues: his estate licenses the “Ernest Hemingway Collection,” which includes an artisanal rum, Papa’s preferred eyewear, and heavy Cuban-style furniture featuring “leather-like vinyl with a warm patina.” (What would Papa have said of that!) But few would now give the old man the heavyweight championship of literature for which he fought so hard, not least because thinking of literature as an elimination bout is no longer our style. We think of it more as a quilting bee, with everyone having a chance to add a patch, and the finest patches often arising from the least privileged quilters. In recent decades, Hemingway has represented the authority of writing only for people who never read.
Suddenly, though, there has been an academic revival in Hemingway studies in which, with an irony no satirist could have imagined, Hemingway, who in his day exemplified American macho, has, through our taste for “queering the text,” become Hemingway the gender bender. The Hemingway Review can now contain admiring articles with subtitles like “Sodomy and Transvestic Hallucination in Hemingway.” It is newly possible to deduce that Papa was far weirder, in a positive sense, than he liked to pretend, and that his texts contain, just below their rigidly tumescent surface, deep glimmering pools of sexual ambiguity and gender liquidity.
Mary V. Dearborn’s new biography, “Hemingway” (Knopf), is hardly full of revelations. With the witnesses almost all dead, and the archives combed through as if by addicts looking for remnants of crack, how could it be? But it is up to date in attitude. The queer-theory patches are all in place, as are the feminist ones. Dearborn has an oddly puritanical attitude toward the storytelling of a storyteller, becoming quite prim as she points out that Hem exaggerated here, confabulated there, made less of this than was quite truthful, and more of that. Hemingway, she writes, told “enormous whoppers” about, for instance, trapping pigeons in the Luxembourg Gardens for dinner in his early years in Paris. In fact, he and his first wife, Hadley, had plenty of money. But he was writing fables about the aspirations of expatriates, not textbooks on accounting. Hungry people—and no one is hungrier than a young writer trying to make a reputation—feel hungry even when they’re not actually starving.
In general, Dearborn seems not to have met many writers along her scholarly path, and appears astounded that the good ones tell tall tales about their own formation, which is like being astounded that fishermen exaggerate the size of their catch. (Of course, Hemingway did that, too.) Most of Hemingway’s fabulations are transparent in style and purpose: he told an interviewer once that, when he walked with Joyce in Paris in the nineteen-twenties, Joyce would “fall into an argument or a fight. He couldn’t even see the man so he’d say, ‘Deal with him, Hemingway! Deal with him!’ ” This surely never happened, but you can see why he wished it had, and can’t hate him for wishing it. He wanted to be Joyce’s Luca Brasi.
In Dearborn’s better moments, she shows how intelligently Hemingway managed to apportion the amount of empirical accuracy for each occasion. Although he inflated his heroism in the Great War—at one point giving credence to the report that he had carried a wounded Italian soldier over a distance twice the length of a football field—he was direct and understated in his published stories. Dearborn thinks that Hemingway was asking whether “there was any more authenticity, or truth.” No, he wasn’t. He was allocating authenticity and truth according to the needs of his art. The original of Catherine in “A Farewell to Arms” was an American nurse named Agnes von Kurowsky, whom he loved passionately, only to have her reject him with a chilly Dear John letter, in which she told him that she was “still very fond” of him but “more as a mother than a sweetheart.” He fixed the facts in the novel by having her die for love bearing his child. Revenge on reality like that is what literature is for.
But Dearborn is an encyclopedic collector of facts and, on the whole, a decent and fair-minded judge of them. One rarely objects to her verdicts about what exactly happened and why. The story here gets retold more or less on the terms we know, with judicious guesses made as to the truth of much-argued-over episodes: yes, his mother dressed him as a girl until he was old enough to notice; no, Scott Fitzgerald probably never asked him to check the size of Fitzgerald’s member in a Paris men’s room; yes, those famous wilderness outings in Michigan took place in the context of a big middle-class house and middle-class vacations, and were not nearly as primitive as the stories make them sound; and no, his first wife did not lose all of his early work on a train for good—a lot was soon recovered. Recent “discoveries” in the field are put more or less into place: the revelation from the author Nicholas Reynolds, in “Writer, Sailor, Soldier, Spy,” that Hemingway had been recruited as a spy by Stalin’s N.K.V.D. in the nineteen-thirties is noted, although it’s also noted that Hemingway seems never to have done anything for it. The truth that he was not entirely paranoid at the end of his life to think that the F.B.I. had been keeping an eye on him is noted, too, and so is the fact that the Bureau seemed to have little malice toward him. Indeed, J. Edgar Hoover himself—another tough guy with a hidden side—was an admirer. And Dearborn sees clearly what was clouded then: that a large part of Hemingway’s decline in his last years was due to an inherited bipolar disorder coupled with a penchant for self-medication through alcohol.
We pass through the usual progress of Hemingway’s life, already well charted in all those other books. Early fraught years in Oak Park, a suburb of Chicago, with a distant, manic-depressive father, who eventually committed suicide, and a cold mother, who once ordered the young Ernest out of the house and, years later, when his first novel was a hit, found a wholly negative local review to send him. Relief in the form of summers spent fishing at the family’s lake cottage. No college years—he missed that part, and paid for it by overcompensating intellectually—but war experiences. Hemingway went to the Italian front in 1918, at eighteen, as an ambulance driver, in the company of the once famous, now largely forgotten novelist John Dos Passos. As James McGrath Morris points out in his new book “The Ambulance Drivers,” Dos Passos had a keen sense of the real waste and horror of war, whereas Hemingway still saw it as an occasion for a heroic show of stoical endurance. The courage of his going at all is undeniable; after a few weeks, he got blown up by a mortar and recovered in the hospital, falling in love with that beautiful nurse. He then went to work as a journalist for the Toronto Star; there’s a nice line in “The Sun Also Rises” about the easy social graces of Canadians. But, as much as generations of newspapermen have claimed him as a student of newspaper style, nothing memorable emerges from the collected journalism.
It was only after his marriage to Hadley Richardson, a St. Louis heiress, that he set off for Paris, arriving in late 1921 with a determination to become a great and modern writer that was touching in one who had received so little encouragement. Encouragement as a writer, that is; Hemingway’s charisma and good looks had made life easy for him, as they would go on doing for a long time after. (Of all the gifts that can grace a literary career, good looks are the most easily overlooked and not the least important: though we may read blind, we don’t befriend blind.) Dearborn is faintly disapproving of his literary careerism in Paris, registering the fact that he used his attractiveness to attract, while rather missing the point that the people he was courting, Ezra Pound and Sylvia Beach and Gertrude Stein and the rest, were avant-gardists with no influence in the realms of commercial publishing where he had to make a living. He was certainly ambitious and appealing, but the ambition for which he used his appeal was to write well in a new way.
His natural sound, the tone that rises when he is writing unself-consciously to friends, is nothing like the voice of his good fiction. He was naturally garrulous and jocose—indeed, by the time he was a celebrity he was so garrulous and jocose that it shocked people, though he was just being himself. (This explains the response to the notorious Profile of him by Lillian Ross that ran in this magazine in 1950: he read the galleys, thought he sounded hilarious and charming, and had no idea that he would come off as a self-absorbed blowhard.) Writing to a friend about bullfights in 1925, when his literary style was already fully formed, he said, “It ain’t a moral spectacle and if a male looks at it for a moral standpoint there isn’t any excuses. But if a male takes it as it comes. Gawk what a hell of a wonderful show.” His letters are stuffed with similar kinds of heavy-handed kidding.
The real American masculine style, as Sinclair Lewis shrewdly saw, is not tight-lipped-stoical but wheezy-genial. Hemingway was no exception to the rule that every American man needs to see himself as funny. (Clint Eastwood’s famous turn at the 2012 Republican National Convention is further evidence of this: America’s tough guy took it for granted that he was so naturally amusing that all he had to do was drag an empty chair onstage and start joking.) Hemingway actually had zero gift for comedy—he liked making fun of other people, but could never implicate himself in the jokes, which shuts off the humor spigot quickly. Still, the tight-lipped grimace was always threatening to turn into a regular-guy grin, since the regular-guy grin was what the tight-lipped grimace started off concealing.
But—what a fantastic writer he became! Scribner has now produced a new volume of Hemingway’s short stories, most from the nineteen-twenties, his best decade, complete with many of the drafts he made along the way. What is amazing is how pitch-perfect he was. Reading passages from the Nick Adams stories published originally in relatively obscure literary reviews, one is overwhelmed by how so little produces so much—how the brevity, far from being taciturn or severe, is matchlessly eloquent in its evocation of the pleasures of the senses and of the feeling of place, as in the famous description of a trout stream in Michigan from the 1925 story “Big Two-Hearted River”:
Nick looked down into the pool from the bridge. It was a hot day. A kingfisher flew up the stream. It was a long time since Nick had looked into a stream and seen trout. They were very satisfactory. As the shadow of the kingfisher moved up the stream, a big trout shot upstream in a long angle, only his shadow marking the angle, then lost his shadow as he came through the surface of the water, caught the sun, and then, as he went back into the stream under the surface, his shadow seemed to float down the stream with the current, unresisting, to his post under the bridge where he tightened facing up into the current.
Nick’s heart tightened as the trout moved. He felt all the old feeling.
The beauty of the description is reinforced by its emotional subject: we sense and then briefly deduce that Nick is a veteran of the war, trying to relocate his mind through familiar pleasures. How did Hemingway do it? Simplicity, monosyllables, elimination of adverbs and adjectives . . . that’s supposed to be the formula. For mordant mischief, one can now download the Hemingway Editor app, which contains an algorithm meant to reproduce his style, and see how well this works. (The app picks out, adversely, the single adverb “swiftly” in the opening paragraph of “A Farewell to Arms.”) But all the algorithm can do is simplify, and produce the kind of baby-talk prose that Hemingway himself wrote only when he was losing it. The heart of his style was not abbreviation but amputation; not simplicity but mystery.
Again and again, he creates his effects by striking out what would seem to be essential material. In “Big Two-Hearted River,” Nick’s complicated European experience—or the way that fishing is sanity-preserving for Nick, the damaged veteran—is conveyed clearly in the first version, and left apparent only as implication in the published second version. In a draft of the heartbreaking early story “Hills Like White Elephants,” about a man talking his girlfriend into having an abortion, Hemingway twice uses the words “three of us.” This is the woman’s essential desire, to become three rather than two. But Hemingway strikes both instances from the finished story, so the key image remains as ghostly subtext within the sentences. We feel the missing “three,” but we don’t read it.
That’s typical of his practice. The art comes from scissoring out his natural garrulousness, and the mystery is made by what was elided. Reading through draft and then finished story, one is repeatedly stunned by the meticulous rightness of his elisions. There are influences at work, obviously, from Stephen Crane to Sherwood Anderson, not to mention Gertrude Stein’s faux-naïf smarts. Yet Hemingway himself gave most of the credit to Cézanne. In that cancelled passage from “Big Two-Hearted River,” we read, “He wanted to write like Cezanne painted. Cezanne started with all the tricks. Then he broke the whole thing down and built clearly and slowly the real thing. It was hell to do. He was the greatest. It wasn’t a cult.” (The crossing-out is in the original.) This is the kind of classy thing that writers are bound to say and biographers are bound to doubt—Dearborn calls Hemingway’s constant reference to Cézanne “mystifying”—but it makes all the sense in the world. The whole aim of Cézanne’s painting from the eighteen-seventies on is to build up landscape and still-life from the pictorial equivalent of monosyllables—from small, square constructive marks, like the cross-shadings of a pencil, which make space by being overlaid. Outline and firm shape are subordinated, as in Hemingway, to the passage of one shape into the next. Both men are masters of “and” more than “this.”
Cézanne also showed that a few strong hints of specificity—this one pine tree in the right front plane, this plastic foregrounded orange—are all that is needed for the evocation of shapes and spaces. In “Big Two-Hearted River,” there are moments that are not just constructed like a Cézanne painting; they look like a Cézanne painting:
There was no underbrush in the island of pine trees. The trunks of the trees went straight up or slanted toward each other. The trunks were straight and brown without branches. The branches were high above. Some interlocked to make a solid shadow on the brown forest floor. Around the grove of trees was a bare space. It was brown and soft underfoot as Nick walked on it.
It is exactly the feeling of Cézanne’s “Pines and Rocks,” at moma. Hemingway’s prose combines the brightly colored sensuality of modern French painting with a clench-jawed American repression. The stoical stance and the sensual touch: that was Hemingway’s keynote emotion, and his claim to have learned it from Cézanne looks just.
The stoical stance has been much celebrated—“grace under pressure” and the rest—but the sensual touch is the more frequent material of the prose. Whether at Michigan trout streams or Pamplona fiestas or those Paris boîtes, there is a strong element of “travel writing.” He wrote pleasure far better than violence. Fitzgerald’s evocation of the fashionable world is quite abstract and mostly unspecific. Hemingway is full of advice about what to eat and drink. “Death in the Afternoon” even includes a brief but decisive “Lonely Planet”-style discourse on European beer—the best is Czech, German, and Spanish—as “The Sun Also Rises” does on Spanish wine. There’s a reason that the bar at the Paris Ritz was the first place he “liberated” in Paris, and that El Floridita restaurant, in Havana, still claims him as the father of its grapefruit-enhanced Daiquiri. No good writer ever had such clear views on hotels and cafés and restaurants.
Hemingway’s people are damaged but not shell-shocked. “A Farewell to Arms” is a romance—a Hollywood-movie romance, featuring a couple with glamorous names. The romance of honor and glory may have died on the Western Front, but the romance of romance, and of sex and the material life in particular, was relighted; in the face of annihilation, postponing pleasure just looked silly. For all his reputation for “masculine” values, an instinctive Hemingway theme is far more culturally “feminine,” a graceful bending under pressure. “I’m not brave any more, darling,” Catherine tells Frederic in “A Farewell to Arms.” “I’m all broken. They’ve broken me.” The self-recognition of breakage is the form of bravery available to real people. The edict of Hemingway’s art is to take what life throws at you without complaint, but it is also to never postpone pleasure if you can help it. The travel-literature, brand-name side of Hemingway—the side that made Pamplona a tourist trap and Venice’s Gritti Palace an “icon,” the side kept alive in degraded form by all that artisanal rum and patio furniture—is essential to his effects. Hemingway was a master not of a realized stoicism but of a wounded epicureanism. Have fun while you can, and then endure the bad stuff when it comes. It doesn’t sound high-minded when you say it, but it was saner than almost anything else on offer.
Hemingway’s early style is also a poetic style; it’s significant that, like the Romantic poets, he bloomed as a writer in his mid-twenties. The novel was invented by the middle-aged, and George Eliot and Anthony Trollope were in their fifties when they wrote their masterpieces. But lyric poetry is for the young, and the trouble with a poetic style is that, with age, it can become a pose. Hemingway’s became a style so mannered that it could be parodied endlessly, to the point that Hemingway parodies are nearly as rich a literary form as Hemingway stories. The two best—Wolcott Gibbs’s “Death in the Rumble Seat” and E. B. White’s “Across the Street and Into the Grill”—both appeared in this magazine, and it’s significant that the two parodists shared Hemingway’s project of simplifying the hell out of American prose; it attuned them to the distortions and tics in the Master’s way of doing so.
Dearborn brings home another truth: for all his time with the Paris modernists, Hemingway’s reputation was made on the best-seller lists in America. “A Farewell to Arms” (1929) had a first print run of more than thirty thousand copies, huge in its day. “For Whom the Bell Tolls” (1940), helped by its timely fighting-the-Fascists subject, stayed on the best-seller lists for two years. He had written much of it while renting Finca Vigía, a beautiful house in Cuba, and, with the money from his books, he bought the place. It became his castle and retreat almost for the rest of his life, until the Cuban Revolution forced him out. It was here that he became Papa Hemingway, the great bear of literature, receiving journalists and raising children and inventing the grapefruit Daiquiri and fighting marlin and taking quick and often dangerous trips to lesser provinces of his empire, to Africa (where, on a single trip, he twice crashed in a plane) and Spain (where he continued to return, Franco notwithstanding, to watch the bullfights).
The weird sexual stuff began, or began to be recorded, in the nineteen-forties. The actual sequence is a little hard to follow, since the literary evidence appears in “The Garden of Eden,” an unfinished, posthumously published novel that he worked on in the forties and fifties but that takes place in the mid-twenties, which is when he started seeing the American journalist Pauline Pfeiffer, who eventually became his second wife. Basically, Hemingway began to insist that the women in his life get their hair cut short, like his, while he dyed his to match theirs, with many complicated twists in both color and styling. The ins and outs of this “sex play,” as Dearborn calls it, read like a mix of D. H. Lawrence and a Clairol ad. She recounts:
First, Ernest bleached or dyed his. Josephine Merck, a friend from Montana, visited Ernest and Pauline in 1933 and remembered Ernest’s hair “bleached by the sun”; it was highly unlikely that the sun “bleached” his dark hair. She also saw it just after, when his hair was red, and when she asked him about it, he got annoyed. A letter from Pauline to her husband cleared up what color his hair was that spring: “About your hair,” she wrote him, “don’t know how to turn red to gold. What about straight peroxide—or better what’s the matter with red hair. Red hair lovely on you.” Evidently Ernest felt some regret, if not for dyeing his hair in the first place, then for choosing the wrong color.
We know this because Pauline wrote to a friend that Hemingway was “a little subdued, though not much, by his haircut,” and explained, “His hair turned bright gold on the boat to Havana . . . and he cut it to the roots in a frenzy.” Later, Hemingway dyed his hair red and went around insisting that it had happened “accidentally.”
Realized as fiction, all the cutting and dyeing becomes even odder, not because of its daring gender fluidity but because of the sticky prose that was necessary to dramatize it. “The Garden of Eden” has sequences with the cooing, self-caressing sound of someone whispering his sexual fantasies in your ear, and, like all sex fantasies, they have a standardized, stereotyped setting—in this case, French hair salons. Dearborn tells us that Hemingway loved to write down the shades of blondness: pale gold, deep gold, ash blond. (The power of words for a writer’s fetishes is absolute; Auden says that he was more stimulated by the words for his sexual obsessions than by their objects.) “Over time, just writing about the shades of hair color would become almost unbearably exciting to him; he would catalogue them with obvious erotic pleasure,” Dearborn recounts. Simply thinking about hair color “made Mr. Scrooby stand at attention.”
Where Mr. Scrooby really got turned around, though, was in bed. In “The Garden of Eden,” the Hemingway stand-in, David Bourne, is anally penetrated night after night by a dildo, with the now short-haired Hadley character on top—a practice that, in real life, seems to date to Hemingway’s fourth marriage, to the journalist Mary Welsh, in 1946. When “The Garden of Eden” appeared, in 1986, reviewers made much of the hair-cutting androgyny while leaving the anality more or less alone, but it’s clear in the text that the “devil things,” as Catherine calls them, center on the penetration, for which all the hair treatment is merely a preparation.
It’s this kind of thing that makes Hemingway’s “libidinal politics” look progressive today, revealing gender roles as the culturally manufactured toys they are. Yet the sex, one soon sees, is actually imagined on much the same macho terms as before, just with the signifiers shaken up. “The Garden of Eden” evokes not cheerful pluralism in transgressing gender boundaries but the old Hemingway themes of the bonding of hunter and hunted, prey and predator. Sex roles are switched, not broadened. The twists and turns are, in this view, entirely sinful—what drives us from paradise, not what reminds us of it.
Like every sexual fetish, his got its tang from transgression. Sex must be experienced as sin to be satisfying. For Hemingway, there was no greater sin than acting in a “womanish” way, and it was therefore the subject that Mr. Scrooby awoke to. The prospect of being unmanned was as thrillingly illicit for his self-stimulation as the enactment of manly ritual was essential to his self-image. We need not believe that the public face is fake to understand that the private desire can be its opposite. The result, as evidenced in “The Garden of Eden,” was certainly more daring and original and honest than the “Old Man and the Sea” stuff he published in the fifties instead. But it was not postmodern gender pluralism, either. It was more binary than that, and more brutal.
What gives Hemingway’s flirtation with gender reversal a special pathos is his relationship with his much loved son Gregory, an intermittent cross-dresser who had a sex-change operation at the age of sixty-three and died using the name Gloria. At one point, Hemingway came upon the boy, whom he called Giggy, trying on his mother’s stockings and dress in a family bedroom in Cuba, and later said to him, “We come from a strange tribe, you and I.” He doubtless saw in this boy, his favorite, ambiguities that he could never confess, and it made him by turns both enraged and, oddly, touchingly, empathetic. Their letters, reprinted in a memoir by Greg’s son John called, appropriately, “Strange Tribe,” are deeply moving, in their moments of cruelty and, on Greg’s part, at least, their flashes of insight. (Greg was the only person ready to tell Hemingway how bad “The Old Man and the Sea” really was: “As sickly a bucket of sentimental slop as was ever scrubbed off a barroom floor.”) As always happens with famous fathers and strangled sons, the letters turn toward money, with Hemingway gracelessly laying out his budget for the boy. (Let it be said, though, that Hemingway’s money troubles must have been exhausting to live through: he was never nearly as rich as his reputation would make you think.)
“He has the biggest dark side in the family except me and you,” Hemingway wrote to Pauline, “and I’m not in the family.” Hemingway’s own suicide, by shotgun, in 1961, at his hunting retreat in Ketchum, Idaho, brought a palette of tragedy to the story, even though the much discussed curse of the Hemingways seems no more than a gene for bipolarity that bounced around fiendishly from generation to generation. The trail of suicide is heartbreaking to consider—the father, Clarence; Ernest, his brother Leicester, and his sister Ursula; his helpless, beautiful granddaughter Margaux.
The new attempts to make Papa matter by making him a lot less Papa and a little more Mama are, finally, not all that persuasive. Hemingway remains Hemingway—the macho attitudes continue to penetrate the prose even when the gender roles get switched around. And those macho attitudes include many admirable things: a genuine love of courage, a surprising readiness to celebrate failure if it is bought with bravery, an unsparing sense of the fatality of human existence, a love of the small pleasures that ennoble it.
At Hemingway’s best, the affectations are undone by an affection for the sensuous surface of life, which is of necessity erotically multivalent, neither neatly masculine nor neatly feminine. Although we may “gender” it, our descriptions, if they have density at all, escape the brutal binaries, the narrow categories, of appetite. To read the opening lines about the lovers’ breakfast in “The Garden of Eden” is to be in touch with an impulse far more moving and pansexual than all the sexual reversals that revisionist critics have to offer:
On this morning there was brioche and red raspberry preserve and the eggs were boiled and there was a pat of butter that melted as they stirred them and salted them lightly and ground pepper over them in the cups. . . . He remembered that easily and he was happy with his which he diced up with the spoon and ate with only the flow of the butter to moisten them and the fresh early morning texture and the bite of the coarsely ground pepper grains and the hot coffee and the chickory-fragrant bowl of café au lait.
The flow of the butter and the bite of the pepper—there is more effective gender-blending in his breakfasts than in his bedrooms. The pleasure he takes in the world’s surface is more plural than the poses he chooses on the world’s stage.
Always an epicurean before he was a stoic, Hemingway is at his worst when he is boasting and bluffing and ruling the roost, at his best when he is bending and breaking and writing down breakfast. Macho and minimalist alike, the sentences are thrilling still in their exactitude and audacity. Coming away even from the sad last pages of his biography, the reader feels that Hemingway earned the epitaph he would most have wanted. He was a brave man, and he did know how to write. ♦