Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Hemingway Revisited

The publication this month by Scribner’s of a “restored” version of Ernest Hemingway’s posthumous memoir, A Moveable Feast, forty-eight years after the great American writer’s suicide, is a notable event, not only for Hemingway scholarship but also because this more complete version of a significant Hemingway text could introduce a new generation of readers to the work of one of American’s most important writers. In what follows, I attempt an assessment of Hemingway, whose novels and stories I began reading in high school and have continued learning from through more than half a century. I conclude with some thoughts about the new version of A Moveable Feast. The first two sections of this essay appeared in slightly different form as columns in the Gloucester Daily Times.

Sooner or later you come back to Ernest Hemingway if you are an American writer. You come back to Hemingway as you come back to the novels of Herman Melville or the poetry of Emily Dickinson or Wallace Stevens. You come back to those writers who meant something to you, not only in your craft but in the way they transformed your means of looking at the world.

There are writers like Thomas Wolfe, whom you can never read again; writers you cannot go home to because you have outgrown them. And their attraction for you was based on what you needed from them at a certain stage of your development. There are writers like Faulkner, whom you find it difficult to read again, but you always know they are there and you look back with respect for what their achievement taught you.

There are writers of a particular time and place, like Josephine Herbst, who wrote about the 1920s and 30s. Such writers often read better now because the struggles they depicted, the issues which motivated them to write, are no longer of such moment. It is then you discover how fine a writer Herbst was—she who was overshadowed by Dos Passos and Hemingway, though it was Herbst who went to Cuba first and then to Spain; and it was she who stuck to her socialist ideals, dying finally in 1969 after living for years in obscurity in a stone farmhouse in Pennsylvania.

Since his death in 1961, six major biographies of Hemingway have been published, beginning with Carlos Baker’s groundbreaking Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story (1969) and concluding with Michael Reynolds' definitive five-volume sequence, Hemingway (1986-1999), and James Mellow’s magisterial Hemingway: A Life without Consequences (1992), the third volume in his Lost Generation trilogy and the best-written and most critically brilliant of all the Hemingway biographies. Perhaps the time has finally come to consider Hemingway the writer and not the caricature that was made of him in the Media or by critics, who felt the need to attack him personally or for the myth that grew up around him, partially at his own behest, which obscured the exceptional work he did.

Six books published posthumously show Hemingway working right up to the end of his anguish. These include A Moveable Feast (1964), Hemingway’s poignant memoir of his Paris years, Islands in the Stream (1970), a seriously flawed abridgement of a massive novel Hemingway worked on after the war and left incomplete, True at First Light (1999) and Under Kilimanjaro (2005), two versions of a manuscript about Hemingway’s last visit to Africa, The Dangerous Summer (1985), a first-hand account of the competition between the bullfighters Antonio Ordonez and Luis Miguel Dominguin during the summer of 1959, which appeared first as articles in Life, in 1960, and The Garden of Eden, an abridgement of a long novel in which Hemingway returned to his Paris years.

Edited from an immense manuscript, The Dangerous Years is Proustian in its detail and in the author’s attempt to recapture the lost part of his life in Spain before the Civil War. It is also vintage Hemingway. It shows the mature writer working near the top of his form in the face of crushing depression and the emerging paranoia accompanying the psychosis that led to his suicide, on July 2, 1961.

I approached the published fragment of The Garden of Eden (1986) with some trepidation. I had seen a couple of reviews, a silly one in the New York Review by Wilfred Sheed, and a generous one by E. L. Doctorow in the New York Times Book Review. I was somewhat reluctant about reading a book that was not published with Hemingway’s consent or in the way he finally left it. I couldn’t read Islands in the Stream for that reason. And ultimately when I felt the need to return to Hemingway, I went back to his stories (Philip Young published a superb collection of the Nick Adams stories in 1972, and in 1987 Scribner’s brought out The Finca Vigia Edition of The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway) and the two earliest novels, The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms.

I am not as troubled as some critics have been by the way Hemingway depicts relationships or sex roles in those early novels. They are of a time and place; they describe behaviors and attitudes common to that era and not unknown in our own times. They render a consciousness that was as pervasive as our hopefully less sexist consciousness is now. Hemingway’s characters are also a projection of his own psyche. To ask them to be different is to ask for Hemingway to have been a different, less conflicted, and, as such, a very different kind of writer (see Nancy R. Comley and Robert Scholes’ Hemingway’s Genders, Carl Eby’s Hemingway’s Fetishism, and Hilary K. Justice’s The Bones of the Others for three recent provocative critical views of Hemingway’s sexuality as it played out in his fiction and his life).

To ask Hemingway or Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein or Kay Boyle, or even Josephine Herbst, who was both a feminist and a communist, to be what they were patently unable to be, or to write in a manner which would have been alien to them, is an impossibility. And those who condemn Hemingway for the regressive sexual attitudes they find, or think they find, in his stories or novels are missing the entire point of his work. They are missing the voice of the writer who can speak to us across the years as clearly and as directly as he spoke in 1925 or 1936. They are missing an angle of vision, the revolutionary ability of a writer who developed the technique to help him render the absolute quality and texture of the physical world while also expressing the emotions of the observer. They are losing sight of the Hemingway who could write like this:

In the fall the war was always there, but we did not go to it anymore. It was cold in the fall and the dark came very early. Then the electric lights came on, and it was pleasant along the street looking in the windows. There was much game hanging outside the shops, and the snow powdered in the fur of the foxes and the wind blew their tails. The deer hung stiff and heavy and empty, and the small birds blew in the wind and the wind turned their feathers. It was cold in the fall and the wind came down from the mountains. (“In Another Country)


There is nothing you can do except try to write it the way it was. So you must write each day better than you possibly can and use the sorrow that you have now to make you know how the early sorrow came. And you must always remember the things you believed because if you know them they will be there in the writing and you won’t betray them.

(The Garden of Eden)

Twenty-five years after Hemingway’s death and forty years after he began to write, The Garden of Eden appeared. It was published by Scribners as a complete novel, although it was only part of a much longer manuscript of 1,500 pages left incomplete at the writer’s death on July 2, 1961. Yet I read it with pleasure, as soon as it was published, and with a sense of discovery. For what I found in the book, wonderfully and unexpectedly, was growth.

I found a stretching of the writer’s vision, a tenderness and a depth of feeling that demonstrated to me that Hemingway had not become frozen in old patterns of thought or regressive ways of rendering the world and the people in it, as many had believed. Looking back on that excited first reading, I can only wish the novel had been completed as Hemingway obviously hoped to conclude it. Still, there is much even in this truncated version that makes it worthwhile to experience, even though one recognizes immediately that some of the dialogue is loose and Hemingway would certainly have fine-tuned it, or that there must have been more context to the novel, which is now missing in the excavation by its editors of one single story from a much longer text.

There is some wonderful prose in The Garden of Eden, indeed some of Hemingway’s best writing. But it’s clear that the book as published is only a fragment of a larger design, a more complex narrative. Nevertheless, it works as a story. There is a fine tension between the writing life of its protagonist David Bourne—his struggle with his craft and with the use, the recovery and understanding of his past—and his strange marriage, including the sudden appearance of a second woman, Marita, with whom David and his wife Catherine both become involved. Indeed, there is a psychosexual dimension to the novel that helps the reader to understand much of what might have seemed enigmatic or ambiguous about certain relationships in early Hemingway stories and novels, including an intriguing fetishism around male and female hair styles.

The novel also contains some rich insights into the art of writing, as Hemingway returned in the narrative to the years in France when he had honed his style to perfection and was doing some of his finest work. It is probably Hemingway at his best on writing, on what it feels like to be a writer; on your relationship with your craft, your respect for it and for yourself when you exercise that craft with care and accuracy. Coming it as did, twenty-five years after the writer’s death, the book and its insights proved a wonderful gift to the reader.

Part of the problem with understanding or appreciating Hemingway is that we believe we have known him for a long time. We’ve read most of his writings and we know a great deal, or think we do, about the man himself. What once startled and shocked, what we admired and loved about his unique prose, his vision, is now a matter of everyone’s experience. Other writers, as diverse as Norman Mailer and Raymond Carver, have learned from Hemingway as he, in turn, learned from Henry James, Joseph Conrad, Gertrude Stein and Sherwood Anderson; and they’ve gone on to make another kind of writing, which is as it should be.

Yet we mustn’t allow that necessary evolution and development in the novel, in the shared craft of writing (a development which Hemingway’s struggle with language made largely possible) to obscure his real achievement. We must try to go back and understand that achievement for what it was; see it in its own historical, social and aesthetic context. Then, I think, Hemingway emerges as the truly revolutionary writer he was.

Some of the evidence of Hemingway’s achievement you will find in The Garden of Eden. It’s almost as though Hemingway was compelled to visit his old ground of first success as a writer, just as David Bourne revisits Africa in his story to try to discover what, as a boy, had made him the man and the writer he would become. In revisiting that ground, Hemingway tried to revise what he had previously written, to relive what had gone into some of his earlier writing, including what scholar and critic Mark Spilka calls his “quarrel with androgyny.” And he did this not to repeat himself, I suspect, but to grow beyond what he had previously achieved. The result is quite moving and should be sobering to any writer who cares to learn from it.

I believe that long after many of today’s fashionable writers are forgotten, people will be reading about Nick Adams waking up on a sharp Michigan morning or about the little waiter in “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” who met the nada of existence with the acceptance and grace of the very brave. Long after the myth of Ernest Hemingway has receded, people will encounter his work with that sense of discovery you experience with writers who have transcended time and fashion.

Some of those readers will still wonder, as we do today, about the cost at which those stories and novels were achieved. For, as another American writer very like Hemingway noted, nothing comes in this life without cost. No knowledge is gained without consequences or the requisite amount of life exchanged for it.

You don’t live without risk anymore than you can expect to grow without pain. You don’t achieve insight into yourself or love the clarity of certain spring mornings, the depth of summer nights, without a concomitant sacrifice in some other part of your life. Hemingway taught us that, among many other things. Perhaps it is a good time now, nearly fifty years after his death, to acknowledge our debt to this great American writer.


I know no better way of acknowledging this debt to Hemingway than by re-reading him or discovering his prose for the first time. Were I teaching Hemingway, as I did so many times at the high school and college levels, I would recommend beginning with the early stories, some of which I have mentioned above, and the first two novels (it is interesting to note that both presidential candidates in 2008 named For Whom the Bell Tolls, Hemingway’s 1940 novel of the Spanish Civil War, as one of the books that had the most impact upon their lives). I would also recommend the “restored” version of A Moveable Feast, Hemingway’s posthumously published memoir of his years in Paris during the 1920s. While the book is by no means complete—Hemingway left the manuscript without an introduction or a final chapter, and several subsequent chapters remained in draft form—it is still classic Hemingway, and this new edition attempts to present the book just as he left it. The 1964 version, edited by Hemingway’s fourth wife Mary and his former editor at Scribner’s, is a smoother text; but that apparent smoothness has been achieved at the expense of patching together fragments from disparate chapters, so it is better, in the final analysis, both for Hemingway aficionados as well as for new readers, to have the text exactly as it came from Hemingway’s hand.

That said, there are some wonderful gems in this book, not the least being Hemingway’s breathtaking descriptions of the city in which he began his career as a writer:

Then there was the bad weather. It would come in one day when the fall was over. You would have to shut the windows in the night against the rain and the cold wind would strip the leaves from the trees in the Place Contrescarpe. The leaves lay sodden in the rain and the wind drove the rain against the big green autobus at the terminal and the Café des Amateurs was crowded and the windows misted over from the heat and the smoke inside. . .

All of the sadness of the city came suddenly with the first cold rains of winter, and there were no more tops to the high white houses as you walked but only the wet blackness of the street and the closed doors of the small shops, the herb-sellers, the stationery and the newspaper shops, the midwife—second class—and the hotel where Verlaine had died where you had a room on the top floor where you worked.

There are chapters on his relationships with Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, Ford Madox Ford and F. Scott Fitzgerald, writers who helped, influenced or inspired the young Hemingway. Some critics have found Hemingway’s treatment of these relationships mean-spirited, vindictive even; and the persona of Hemingway that emerges in this book, of an American innocent corrupted by the rich, is often not a pleasant one to encounter. Still, there is an incredible sense of loss that pervades the narrative, not only the loss of that incorruptibility Hemingway exhibited when he first arrived in Europe, but of his first marriage to Hadley, which is described in heartrending terms (“Winters in Scruns,” the chapter in which Hemingway confesses his betrayal of Hadley, is for me the finest in the book).

Hemingway was becoming a very sick man when he began the composition of this book, in June of 1957. He and Mary had survived two plane crashes in Africa, and his head injuries had left him deeply depressed. He suffered from vascular problems, from a sense of waning literary power, after not having been able to complete any subsequent writing project to his satisfaction, and his alcoholism worsened. He became paranoid and he alienated many old friends. It was this Hemingway who sat down to write about his early years in Paris and his state of mind certainly colored both the way he remembered those years and the way he wrote about them.

And yet, for all the pain Hemingway suffered, the debilitating depressions and the incredible sense of guilt and loss, he persisted in writing the Paris sketches that we have today, leaving us, in the process, some of his finest prose. As Hemingway wrote in one of the fragments left out of the final manuscript but included in this new edition, along with ten unpublished sketches:

There is never any ending to Paris and the memory of each person who has lived in it differs from that of any other. We always returned to it no matter who we were or how it was changed nor with what difficulties nor what ease it could be reached. It was always worth it and we received a return for whatever we brought to it.

I believe the same can be said for Hemingway’s writing.


For a biopsychosocial view of Hemingway's life, see Christopher D. Martin, Ernest Hemingway: A Psychological Autopsy of a Suicide, Psychiatry 69(4), Winter, 2006. Martin's conclusions, in summary:

Significant evidence exists to support the diagnoses
of bipolar disorder, alcohol dependence, traumatic brain injury, and probable
borderline and narcissistic personality traits. Late in life, Hemingway also
developed symptoms of psychosis likely related to his underlying affective illness
and superimposed alcoholism and traumatic brain injury. Hemingway utilized a
variety of defense mechanisms, including self–medication with alcohol, a lifestyle
of aggressive, risk–taking sportsmanship, and writing, in order to cope with the
suffering caused by the complex comorbidity of his interrelated psychiatric disorders.
Ultimately, Hemingway’s defense mechanisms failed, overwhelmed by the
burden of his complex comorbid illness, resulting in his suicide. However, despite
suffering from multiple psychiatric disorders, Hemingway was able to live a
vibrant life until the age of 61 and within that time contribute immortal works of
fiction to the literary canon.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Michael Jackson: A Backward Look

The recent death of pop music idol Michael Jackson sent me back to my files in search of a column I had written during the spring of 1984 when Jackson was about to appear in Boston during his highly touted “Thriller Tour.” I reproduce it below exactly as it was published in the Gloucester Daily Times.

“He’s coming to town!” read the headline on last Saturday’s Boston Herald.

The “He” referred to was not God or Christ for whom the non-specific capitalized personal pronoun is traditionally reserved. It was none other than pop star Michael Jackson. And for the thousands of fans in the Boston area whose sole preoccupation seemed to be whether or not their idol would appear here, there was presumably no need to say any more than was indicated by the cryptic headline.

You either knew what it meant or it didn’t concern you. All else—the heightened tensions in Lebanon, the Iran-Iraq war, or the president’s vicious proposal to lower the minimum hourly wage on summer jobs for those kids who most need the money and who also constitute Jackson’s largest group of fans—was relegated to the back pages, if it was mentioned at all.

Jackson was front and center. It is a position only fortified by his May appearance in the Rose Garden. There he was given the presidential seal of approval in return for lending his name and face to a long-overdue anti-drug and drinking campaign aimed at teenagers. Indeed, there seems to be little question that the country is in the grip of another craze, one that appears every bit as pervasive as that initiated more than 20 years ago by four young mop-headed working-class boys from Liverpool, England.

The Beatles began first by reproducing American rock n’ roll and recycling it back to us. Their early music was clean and hard-edged and it caught on fast. They soon revealed themselves not simply as imitators but as artists in their own right. In the process, they took most of their fans on that Magical Mystery Tour that lasted through a number of highly creative y ears. They also added to their devotees millions of older people like me, who came originally to scoff at the music our high school students were listening to instead of reading Silas Marner. But instead we stayed, not only to listen ourselves, but to be enthralled by their humor, their ability to grow and their extraordinary political and social consciences.

Years after they disbanded and after the tragic murder of John Lennon, whose creativity seemed only to expand with time, one could still listen to their music and find new things in it. It was also a pleasure to find one’s own children listening to the music we loved rather than laughing at it and us, as we often did with our parents and their generation’s music.

Michael Jackson is an altogether different sort of performer. His music is different, too. It’s far more commercially oriented, lavishly orchestrated, dramatic in its electronically modulated effects. With the advent of MTV Jackson has an entirely new medium for the extension of his music and for reaching vast audiences.

There’s no question about his talent as a singer or dancer. But that talent seems to lend itself to exploitation like a jewel overwhelmed and ultimately engulfed by its setting. When all is said and done, when MTV is off, the record over, or the radio playing another production, there is no resonance. You have to hear the song again, wait again for the segment to appear on MTV, play your record again, or buy the next one.

Jackson’s music depends upon its reproduction, upon the habit it has conditioned in its listeners, not upon its essential impact. A Michael Jackson song or performance does not change its listener. It does not make you see the world or yourself differently, as many Beatles songs did. It does not refer you to something outside of it or yourself. It is entirely reflexive, self-enclosed and self-perpetuating. It leads only to repetition or to another production like itself. It ultimately creates consumers for itself and for the packaged myth of the performer and his carefully orchestrated persona rather than an enlightened audience.

The Beatles were a craze—there is no question about that. They were exploited by the media and the music industry. But they exploited them in turn, using their immense popularity and the money they earned to make music, which the record companies before their time would never have risked producing. They also used their public prominence to espouse important causes and to raise the consciousness of their audience. They put their lives and their talents at the service of more than the music industry or their own personal wealth.

Time and time again, in ways both personal and musical, the Beatles undermined those who set out to exploit and to market them. They transcended the spectacle which they were being forced to participate in and which the larger society had become—that life which is lived at a remove from itself and entirely at the level of image. It is a life which depends not upon what is creative in each one of us but what has been created for mass consumption.

One could not imagine the Beatles being received by Ronald Reagan. Their own Queen acknowledged them only because they increased Britain’s GNP. But then, 20 years ago, one could not have imagined a Reagan presidency. That, like the Michael Jackson phenomenon, can only become possible when the spectacle displaces reality and we are all hooked into MTV and not into each other, our neighborhoods, our towns, our nation or ourselves.