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The Limelight Kid

By John TytellJuly 25, 2017

The Limelight Kid

Ernest Hemingway: A Biography by Mary V. Dearborn

ERNEST HEMINGWAY’S early publisher, Robert McAlmon, called him The Limelight Kid. Though Hemingway may not have been the heavyweight champion of the modern novel (as he imagined and pretended), he has been one of our more colorful and actively engaged writers, an adventurous participant in what might be called the School of Action division, more like Stephen Crane than Henry James. And he lived on such a grand scale: the war journalism, the big game hunting, the battles with marlin in the deep seas between Cuba and Florida, the conflicted friendships with contemporaries like F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Dos Passos, the buckets of booze he consumed with a posse of other sportsmen, sycophants, reporters, tavern owners, and army intelligence officers — all provide juicy ingredients for lots of great yarns. Yet Hemingway’s significance and merit have been questioned in recent decades, in part because of the swaggering machismo associated with his bullfighting obsession, his guns, his pugilism, and his serial marriages.

Mary Dearborn’s new book is the first major biography of Hemingway in 15 years, and she has accessed archival sources previously unavailable. All of Hemingway’s past biographers — Carlos Baker, Scott Donaldson, Kenneth Lynn, Michael Reynolds (in five volumes!), Jeffrey Meyers, and James Mellow — have been male, and all have helped sustain popular fascination with a writer that Clifton Fadiman once called an American Byron. Each of these biographers in his own way has contributed to the mist of legend — kicked up by a combustible mix of approbation and scandal — that inevitably envelops such larger-than-life figures.

Dearborn’s poised and elegant account is compelling because of her clarifying, sober, and calculated restraint, which serves to diminish much of the mist. She also cites relevant Hemingway scholarship with tact and discrimination, skillfully integrating into her narrative the work of people like Charles Fenton, Mark Spilka, Matthew Bruccoli, Philip Young, and others. Building on this tradition, Dearborn acknowledges the formative impact of the severe wounding and shell shock Hemingway suffered as an ambulance driver on the Italian front during World War I. Hemingway himself brashly discounted Young’s Freudian reading of his war wounds and the hospital recovery that led to A Farewell to Arms (1929), his second and perhaps best novel. The author generally disdained literary criticism, comparing critics to fisherman’s bait, “[a]ll angleworms in a bottle.” “When they bawl you out,” he once admonished Fitzgerald, “ride with the punches.” While this comment may be a register of Hemingway’s prizefighting instincts, it expresses a much more stoical front than he actually maintained when faced with contemporaneous reviews of his work.

At the emotional center of Dearborn’s chronicle are the complicated strands of Hemingway’s personality, beginning with his enormous self-confidence. When he got to Paris in the early 1920s, he boldly gave his unpublished stories and sketches to Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein, two American expats who were significant arbiters of the emerging aesthetic of modernism. This self-confidence was reflected in Hemingway’s later insistence that, except for spelling and punctuation, not a manuscript word would be subject to editorial change — a radical position as far as commercial publishing was concerned since it diminished the editor’s function and power.

Hemingway’s writing is the result of a rigorous scrutiny, an insistence on seeing and making the reader see, and the keenness of this perception may be compensation for Hemingway’s own poor eyesight. His strength — especially in his early Nick Adams stories set in northern Michigan, where Hemingway spent childhood summers — is a relentless focus on the mechanics of a process, whether choosing a wine, fishing for trout, shooting a charging beast, or facing a bull in a ring. As Dearborn reminds us, Hemingway believed that “there was a right way to do things that must be followed.” His friend Dos Passos observed, somewhat clinically, that he “stuck like a leech till he had every phase of the business in his blood.” This approach is commonly attributed to his early training as a reporter for newspapers in Kansas City and Toronto, and his later work as a war correspondent. The brilliant and brutal war vignettes in his first important collection, In Our Time (1925), reflect in their unsettling detachment the news dispatches Hemingway wrote while covering the Greco-Turkish war in 1922. These sections were so graphic and shocking they had the impact of detonations, heralding a new frankness in modern literature.

Hemingway’s life in Paris with his first wife, Hadley Richardson, during the 1920s has been a critical locus for anyone considering the author’s career. Dearborn relies, as any biographer must, on the recollections of his friends and associates: memoirs by Gertrude Stein, Sylvia Beach, Malcolm Cowley, Caresse Crosby, Robert McAlmon, A. E. Hotchner, and Dos Passos. These observers all stress that Hemingway’s charm, his winningly boyish grin, his good looks and hearty physical stature, reinforced a charisma that had considerable appeal and could open doors. James Joyce’s impression was of “a big, powerful peasant, strong as a buffalo. A sportsman. And ready to live the life he writes about.” While his charisma was striking, it could also become overwhelming. Gerald Murphy, one of Hemingway’s friends in Paris, claimed that he “was such an enveloping personality, so physically huge and forceful, and he overstated everything and talked so rapidly and so graphically and so well that you just found yourself agreeing with him.”

Hemingway had to be the cynosure of his circle — its vital center and the perpetual object of its admiration. Underneath the charm, however, lay a subterranean mean streak — a kind of booby trap, as Donald Ogden Stewart, one of his friends, remarked — that often flared in his friendships and affected the development of his fiction. Edmund Wilson, perhaps the most intelligent critic of his time, praised Hemingway’s “barometric accuracy,” but he noted that, as a person, Hemingway “was a real all-American S.O.B., mean and curmudgeonist, quarrelsome and extremely egocentric and in many ways virtually a psychopathic case.” The most notorious example of this latent behavior was manifested in an early book, The Torrents of Spring (1926), a satire on the style of Sherwood Anderson, a writer whose breakthrough collection Winesburg, Ohio (1919) had formed an early model of minimalist description. Anderson had helped get In Our Time published by an important commercial house, Boni and Liveright; he had suggested that Hemingway and his wife move to Paris; and he had written letters of introduction to Pound and Stein, both of whom would become key mentors for Hemingway. By opportunistically caricaturing Anderson in his new novel, Hemingway hoped to get out of his contractual obligation to Boni and Liveright and move on to Scribner’s, a bigger commercial house. Harold Loeb, another person who had helped get In Our Time noticed, was maliciously — or at least condescendingly — portrayed as Robert Cohn in The Sun Also Rises (1926).

Sometimes Hemingway’s meanness was the result of a perceived rivalry, as in his ambivalent friendship with Fitzgerald. When they met in Paris, Fitzgerald had already published two promising novels, This Side of Paradise (1920) and The Beautiful and Damned (1922). Fitzgerald had paved the way for Hemingway to work with Maxwell Perkins at Scribner’s, then the leading American fiction editor. While praising The Sun Also Rises to Perkins, he objected to the initially weak beginning of the novel and persuaded Hemingway to cut it. As Dearborn observes, Hemingway had

established a pattern whereby anyone who came to his aid or did things for him eventually had to pay the price of his lost friendship. The more important the favor, and the more helpful for Ernest’s career, the swifter and more sure the end would be. Ernest would abandon the friend, and perhaps betray him in some fashion.

In Fitzgerald’s case, the end was particularly cruel, culminating in the infamous scene of penis measurement in A Moveable Feast (1964), Hemingway’s memoir of his Paris years. According to Hemingway, the incident began with Fitzgerald’s complaint that his wife, Zelda, found him too small to satisfy her. Zelda despised Hemingway, and Dearborn suggests the scene is made up, but its inclusion in the memoir dramatically displays Hemingway’s attitude toward his rival. In his Notebooks (published in 1978), Fitzgerald poignantly recalled their good times together, before Hemingway “began to walk over me with cleats.”

Hemingway recognized that Fitzgerald was his closest competitor. Only Hemingway, however, virulently felt the contest. Fitzgerald was vulnerable, disabled by his drinking, frequently apologetic about his behavior in public (his inability to hold his alcohol disgraced him according to Hemingway’s code). In my view, he was the more consummate novelist, although this did not immediately translate into the kind of popular success Hemingway came to enjoy. Fitzgerald kept improving as a writer until the major achievement of The Great Gatsby (1925), which did not see the reception or sales of The Sun Also Rises. While Fitzgerald’s dedicated efforts to hone his craft are visible in his last completed novel, Tender Is the Night (1934), and even in his unfinished manuscript, The Last Tycoon (1941), Hemingway’s later work became increasingly sentimental. With To Have and Have Not (1937), Across the River and Into the Trees (1950), and the posthumously published The Garden of Eden (1986), Hemingway’s skills seem to have deteriorated. The Old Man and the Sea (1952), basically a long short story, shows some recovery of his essential powers, but it is still deformed by sentimentality. Curiously, Hemingway himself acknowledged the probability of a descending arc in a novelist’s art in his Nobel Prize remarks.

This decline is explained by Dearborn as a function of what Hemingway called his “Black-Ass moods” — an increasing incidence of bipolar swings, distortions, lies, bragging, and belittling of others. These episodes could be infected by a coarse bitterness, as when he ungraciously inscribed a book with a vicious caricature of Stein: “a cunt is a cunt is a cunt.” Hemingway’s mental stability certainly could not have been helped by a series of car accidents, a plane crash, and several concussions that led to probable traumatic brain injury. For the last decade of his life, he was on an anti-psychotic drug, which, when combined with his drinking, had to have been poisonously disabling.

Dearborn tells the sad story of Hemingway’s later years with intelligence and grace. She makes too much, perhaps, of sexual issues — an alleged hair fetish, a son who was a cross-dresser and ended his life as a woman, a scene of anal penetration in The Garden of Eden — mistakenly believing that such an emphasis serves to make the author more relevant. Great writing encompasses all that is imaginable in human situations, and sometimes inversely reflects pains that cannot otherwise be expressed. In the end, the pain was too great for the beleaguered warrior: on July 2, 1961, less than a decade after receiving the Nobel, Hemingway positioned a double-barreled shotgun against his forehead and pulled the trigger. The title of one of his best Nick Adams stories offers an appropriate verdict: it was “The End of Something.”


John Tytell has written nine books of nonfiction, the most recent being Beat Transnationalism (2017). He is professor of English at Queens College (CUNY).

LARB Contributor

John Tytell is best known for Ezra Pound: The Solitary Volcano and Naked Angels, an early history of the Beats. He had two new books appear in 2014: Writing Beat and Other Occasions of Literary Mayhem and The Beat Interviews.


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