Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Reflections on Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway at age 24
A trip late last summer into Northern Michigan’s Hemingway country rekindled an old interest of mine in his life story.  I grew up not far from his hometown of Oak Park in suburban Chicago, and his boyhood there was of course well-known in the area.  As a boy, Hemingway fished and hunted in the “prairie” west of the Des Plaines River near his home; years later houses were built on that land and I grew up in one of them.  My interest has been not so much in his fiction but rather in his person, why he wrote and how he wrote about his life's adventures.  It has always struck me that his public persona of the great adventurer, full of vim and at times reckless vigor, was at odds with the themes of death and violence that he so often employed.  I wanted to know more about him, to see whether this was true.  And that terse writing style – perhaps I might find some insight as to why I have trouble stopping a sentence while he strained to keep one going.  Since his fiction was semi-autobiographical anyway, why not read the real stuff. 

Hemingway’s life is remarkably well documented.  He was a prodigious letter writer and many memoirs have been written by family, friends, and associates.  He saved a wealth of papers, some involving the most mundane aspects of his life.  His literary importance and the amount of personal material have led to numerous biographies.  I have been reading a bunch of material: memoirs, biographies, letters, stories.  I’ve moved through many of them simultaneously, taking each phase of his life in turn, and it has been a valuable comparative exercise.  It’s been quite interesting to see what each biographer feels is important, what he covers, and the things omitted by one that another dwells on. 

Some observations:

·       He had a most remarkable, oversized personality.  Men and women were drawn to him like flies around a bright night light.  I’ve jotted down lots of adjectives as I moved through the story of his life:  passionate, adventuresome, narcissistic, mean, kind, energetic, envious, competitive, thoughtful, bombastic, self-absorbed.  He had a commanding personality, who, as his friend the poet Archibald MacLeish once said, would suck all the oxygen out of the room when he walked in.  Friends would flock to be around him – to Northern Michigan, Chicago, Paris, Spain, Key West, Bimini, Wyoming/Idaho, Cuba – wherever he was, wherever he was going, they wanted to be there with him.  It is truly remarkable how many people, over so many years, traveled long distances to spend time with him, once there often in the company of other friends of his they had never met, forming a sort of gang in orbit around him, and typically doing something they may never have done by themselves and didn’t always particularly like – fishing and hunting.         

·       When Hemingway was in his late teens and early twenties, beginning to make his place in the world, it is remarkable how many of his close friends and associates were much older than he.  His two most important Michigan friends, the siblings Bill and Kate Smith, were four and seven years older.  As an aside, there’s reasonably suggestive evidence that he had a romantic relationship of some kind with Kate, who years later would marry the author John Dos Passos, another friend of Hemingway’s whom she met when they were both visiting him in Key West.  His first great love, the Red Cross nurse Agnes in Italy, was seven years his senior.  His first wife Hadley was eight years older, and his second wife Pauline four.  His best friend from his Red Cross ambulance experience in Italy, and with whom he roomed for a while in Chicago, was Bill Horne, a Princeton graduate eight years older.  In Paris, he socialized and corresponded with writers and artists sometimes decades older.  He was mature for his age, exciting, interesting, and interested.        

·       So how was it then that this man so full of boundless energy and adventure could be so focused on death?  When Hemingway was a teenager, his mother told him “everything you write is morbid.”  He had that strange fascination with death, suicide, and killing animals (particularly big ones) for sport.  It’s there in his writing from the beginning.  In Indian Camp, one of his earliest published stories, his alter-ego Nick Adams as a boy witnesses the terrible suffering of a woman undergoing an emergency cesarean section without anesthesia and the suicide of her nearby husband who, unable to bear her screams, slits his own throat.  The personality of the man seems so inconsistent with the themes of his writing.  Being around him in person, I imagine one would think that he was the writer of grand adventure stories. 

·       The startling number of suicides in his immediate family is well known:  besides himself, his father, his one brother, and one and possibly a second of his four sisters; and, many years later, a granddaughter.  But the number of suicides among his extended circle is also remarkable:  his third wife the writer Martha Gelhorn; his young Venetian love Adriana Ivancich; the father of his first wife Hadley; and his long-time Havana housekeeper.    

·       As an adult, Hemingway became progressively estranged from most of his family, save his sister Ursula.  When his mother died, he hadn’t seen her in 20 years, and he didn’t attend her funeral.  He had few real life-long friends.  And as with people, when he was done with a place, he moved on.  The Northern Michigan about which he wrote so passionately in his early years, which was so formative of his character, he visited just once after leaving at age 22.  From about that age as well until his death he returned to his hometown of Oak Park/Chicago only a handful of times.  When he left Key West after living there for about 10 years, he rarely returned.  His youngest son once said that Hemingway would swallow and use up places, then be done with them.  He was like that with a lot of people as well.

·        Yet he could be remarkable kind and thoughtful, sometimes to people he hardly knew.  One poignant example stands out to me:  the two touching, well-crafted letters he wrote to old Paris friends Gerald and Sara Murphy on the deaths of their two teenaged sons, one from meningitis and one from tuberculosis just a few years apart, reveal an extraordinary kindness.  The boy with TB was sick for some years, and Hemingway went out of his way to visit him, and he wrote the boy letters as well.  For recondite reasons that will be grist for generations of psychologists to come, by the tender age of 32 Hemingway was calling women not much younger than himself  “daughter,” and not long after that chose for himself the nickname “Papa.”  Imagine, say, being 40 years old and calling your 35 year-old friend Ernest Hemingway “Papa.”

·       He was a disciplined writer (and a voracious reader).  Hemingway could write anywhere; in hotel rooms, on trains, on boats.  He had to, for he was often away from his home base for many months at a time.  In 1929-1930 at one stretch he was away from Key West for 10 months, staying from days to months at a variety of locations in Europe and the States.  He was very focused on word counts – he continually mentions them in letters, often also noting how many pages he threw away.  His well-documented writing experience reveals that for him as for many great writers it was as much perspiration as inspiration. 

·       To say Hemingway was accident-prone would be an understatement.  Throughout his life, a progression of serious injuries caused by alcohol, recklessness, and just plain bad luck (such as the two airplane crashes in Africa in the early 1950s), including a staggering number of concussions, left him physically and mentally compromised by his mid-50s.  That he was a prodigious drinker and amateur boxer surely didn’t help his health any.  The courses of experimental electroshock treatments he received at the Mayo Clinic seem especially misguided and likely contributed to his mental deterioration in the months before his suicide.

Hemingway was an exciting man, a magnetic man, with great virtues and great faults.  Even if he had never written a word, it would not have been surprising if stories were written about him, he was that kind of man. 

R Balsamo

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