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Happy birthday, Papa

July 21, 2009

When I was a young man, making up for a desultory education by reading everything I could get my hands on, the principle knock on Ernest Hemingway was that he did not understand women. More than one critic, and not feminists only, asserted that Hemingway, like Joseph Conrad before him, had never created a convincing female character, thereby leaving a fatal and permanent flaw in his body of work.

This seemed reasonable to me, and I accepted it without question for 20 years. After all, Hemingway’s stories and novels always centered on a certain romance of masculinity, on laconic, capable men exhibiting “grace under pressure” — in war, in wilderness, at sea. Then at about age 40, I reread one of the best stories, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” and I realized that, on the contrary, Hemingway understood women quite well.

He just didn’t like them very much.

Today marks Ernest Hemingway’s 110th birthday. Whatever enormous flaws he may have had, as a writer and as a man, he looms as large in the American literary landscape as at any time since he shot himself to death in Idaho on July 2, 1961.

Hemingway wrote a good deal of crap, and his terse writing style can grow mannered and irritating. But when he was good, he was unsurpassable– James Joyce famously called “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” “one of the best stories ever written.” That style, drawn from his experience as an 18-year-old reporter at the Kansas City Star, and his friendship with the modernist Getrude Stein, has been enormously influential, shaping everything from crime fiction to mainstream literary fiction to the Beat writers.

What’s more, Hemingway’s myth of masculinity runs through a huge stream of American writing by men — tense, lean prose that can be more romantic than anything published by Harlequin.

Many places can lay claim to Hemingway — Oak Park, Ill., where he was born; Kansas City or Toronto, where he worked as a reporter; Paris, where he found his voice; Spain, the location of some of his best writing; Idaho, where he died; Cuba, where his estate, Finca Vigia is maintained as a museum by the Castro government.

But the truest claim probably belongs to Florida. Hemingway lived at a house on Whitehead Street in Key West from 1931-40, where he did some 70 precent of his life’s writing, and produced some of his best work. Key West is also the setting for To Have and Have Not, the only Hemingway novel that takes place in the United States.

“New” Hemingway work continues to come out. This month a new version of his posthumous memoir of the Paris years, A Moveable Feast, was published. Edited by Sean Hemingway, grandson of the writer and his second wife, Pauline Pffeiffer, this revised Feast, by adding some previously unpublished material, and moving some other stuff around, casts his Pauline in a better light. The original version, published in 1964 and an acknowledged classic, make it look like Pauline betrayed her best friend, Hemingway’s first wife Hadley.

It’s unlikely the new version will burnish Hemingway’s reputation or provide substantial new insight into his history — A.E.Hotchner argued against it in yesterday’s New York Times. Scribner keeps all Hemingway’s work in print, which is an unqualified good thing. I recommend the story collections, especially In Our Time, Men Without Women, Winner Take Nothing and The Snows of Kilimanjar.

Hemingway has been the subject of no end of serious critical and biographical study, and major biographies are not hard to come by. I’d like to mention two relatively minor works, both of which enhanced my understanding of Papa’s life, work and psychology: First is The True Gen: An Intimate Portrait of Ernest Hemingway by Those Who Knew Him, an oral history by Denis Brian, which shows the man at his worst, and best.

Second: John DeGroot‘s one-man play, Papa, a portrait of the artist as a mean drunk. When it opened on Broadway with Len Cariou, The New York Times said, “As the author desperately shadowboxes with literary ghosts and fires his gun into the air, you feel the unsalveable agony of a man whose body and soul are racked.” If you ever get a chance to see a revival of this play, don’t miss it.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. rachel permalink
    July 21, 2009 2:32 pm

    As someone who is reading “The Women’s Room” by Marilyn French for the first time, I find the portrayal of female characters by male authors and of male characters by female authors very intriguing at this time. The statement that Hemingway did in fact understand women, but that “he just didn’t like them very much” is an interesting idea that I will have to investigate further by rereading some Hemingway. Thanks for the suggestions.

    (Kilimanjar-o).

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      July 21, 2009 2:51 pm

      Start with Kilimanjaro. An amazing piece of work. The tension and conflict between the woman and the man, who blames her for his short comings as he lies dying, is portrayed in raw and honest terms. Which is not always what you get with Hemingway.

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