At the age of seventeen, I—not unlike the patients in the brilliant Robin Williams/Robert De Niro film—experienced an awakening. It was an awakening to the wonders of literary fiction, an awakening brought about by my reading of Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell To Arms.
I read it, and then I read about it…in a book by someone named Carlos Baker, a book called Hemingway: The Writer as Artist. This led to more Hemingway, to Steinbeck, to Fitzgerald, to Faulkner, and eventually to graduate work at Princeton University, where one of my teachers was none other than…Carlos Baker!
Charlie Scribner, one of Baker’s classmates when he himself had been a student at Princeton, had recently invited Carlos to write the official biography of Hemingway, and Carlos, in his turn, had invited me and three or four other graduate students to join him in his researches—in a course called “Hemingway Biography.”
I couldn’t believe my great good luck. First hand contact with the raw materials of the life of America’s great sportsman/adventurer/writer—the man, perhaps more than any other, I’d liked to have been!
It began well. Carlos handed each of us one of the scrapbooks that Ernest’s mother Grace Hemingway had prepared to chronicle the early life of her son—photos, letters, souvenirs. Our assignment? To write a chapter of the biography based upon the materials preserved in each scrapbook.
I was beyond excited…and nervous as could be. I told no one, not my closest friend, that I had in my possession one of these priceless artifacts—in my mind, as precious as the Dead Sea Scrolls.
It was the first of many assignments and led to extensive work with letters to and from Hemingway, transcribed interviews, and much, much more.
It was also the beginning of the end of my infatuation with the man and the myth he had created about himself.
I learned that he was dreadful, destructive, a devil of a human being.
The first evidence turned up in a letter he’d written to a friend named Ernest Walsh. Walsh was the editor one of those little magazines that flourished in Paris in the twenties and had been, as I recall, the first to publish anything Hemingway had written.
In other words, he’d made the mistake of trying to help Hemingway, and Hemingway was determined to punish him for it. Why? To show that he, hard-boiled, hairy-chested Ernest Hemingway had made it on his own.
Walsh was dying of tuberculosis and knew it. Hemingway knew it too.
The letter in question begins this way: “Dear Ernest…Isn’t life wonderful? I want to live to be a hundred, don’t you?”
This became the pattern of the writer’s life. He would go after anyone who helped him, anyone who befriended him, anyone whose literary reputation threatened to rival his own.
There was, of course, Scott Fitzgerald, who helped him edit The Sun Also Rises into the ground-breaking work it became, who recommended him to his own editor Max Perkins and thereby secured him a deal with Scribners, the deal that led to his meteoric career.
His public attacks on Fitzgerald began in the magazine version of “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” where the dying writer/protagonist is meditating on the rich: “He remembered poor Scott Fitzgerald and his romantic awe of them and how he had started a story once that began, ‘The rich are different from you and me.’ And how some one had said to Scott, Yes, they have more money. But that was not humorous to Scott. He thought they were a special glamorous race and when he found they weren’t it wrecked him just as much as any other things that wrecked him.”
Hemingway continued his attack on his former friend long after Fitzgerald’s death, in A Moveable Feast, his memoir of his days in Paris. The chapter in question, “A Matter of Measurements,” purports to be a account of Fitzgerald’s sexual anxieties. If true, it is beneath contempt—a shocking, inexcusable betrayal of a confidence. If false, it is nothing short of libelous.
And so it went. John Dos Passos, Archibald MacLeish, Gertrude Stein, and many, many others.
His destructive behavior was not, however, directed solely at other writers. He was non-discriminatory. In fact, he saved many of his best shots for members of his own family, inviting a teenaged prostitute whose services he enjoyed to meet his fourth wife Mary at the Finca in Cuba, bringing his African mistress into the tent he shared with Mary during one of his safaris to the then Dark Continent, or telling the youngest and most troubled of his three sons that the boy was responsible for the death of his own mother.
In Hemingway’s best work, the most important human value is emotional discipline—the ability to maintain a tight, if tiny, island of order in the midst of the meaningless chaos of life.
He called it “grace under pressure.” But he himself was utterly incapable of it.
Never confuse the art and the artist.
For me, it’s been a lesson hard learned, for like Holden Caufield, if a book knocks me out, I wish its author were a terrific friend of mine and that I could call him up on the phone whenever I felt like it.
Don’t do it!
AN AFTERWARD: Some of you may be wondering what this post about a literary figure is doing on a website devoted to movies. My defense? Art of all kinds and artists of every sort share many things in common. Observations about literature or painting or music often apply to the other arts as well, especially in the case of film, which is an amalgam of all the arts.
So…get used to these tangents.
And be prepared for another diatribe against Hemingway, this one to do with the dialogue for which he is famous, dialogue that has influenced not just subsequent writers of fiction but screenwriters as well.