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Hemingway: The Artist, the Man and the Myth By Michael Corrigan


Ernest Hemingway committed suicide with a favorite shotgun in Ketchum, Idaho on 2 July, 1961. The San Fermin festival in Pamplona would soon begin featuring the running of the bulls which Hemingway made famous in his 1926 novel, The Sun Also Rises. In one violent moment, Hemingway ended a life of literary success including the 1954 Nobel Prize. It was a celebrity life of writing, big game hunting, deep sea fishing, battlefields and bitter divorces. Hemingway had also built a reputation as a masculine icon, but at 61 seemed broken, not unlike Santiago in The Old Man and the Sea, except with less dignity in defeat.

Hemingway left behind three sons, a widow and three ex-wives. He had been suffering from depression that shock treatments at the Mayo Clinic did not cure. Hemingway was also paranoid about Feds stalking him, and—in fact—they were. He feared that his productivity as a writer was over, though his widow, Mary Hemingway, entered the Scribner office with a shopping bag full of unpublished manuscripts. At his death, Hemingway had just finished editing a memoir of early Paris sketches that would appear in 1964 as the enduring A Moveable Feast. The first three sentences conjure the lean but evocative Hemingway magic:

 “Then there was the bad weather. It would come in one day when the fall was over. We 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” (Hemingway A Moveable Feast, 3).

Immediately we are in the mythical Paris of the early 1920s where the career, celebrity and myth of Ernest Hemingway began. Woody Allen’s film, Midnight in Paris, tries to evoke that time, but as a satirical comedy. In A Moveable Feast, the older Hemingway recalls a poignant scene. He had finished a strong draft of The Sun Also Rises which visiting wealthy friends praised when Hemingway read it aloud. He distrusted the “rich” friends and never read from a work in progress again. His wife, Hadley, had let her best friend, Pauline Pfeiffer, move in with them. The inevitable threesome evolved and eventually destroyed his marriage. After a visit to New York to discuss publication of The Sun Also Rises and a brief fling in Paris with Pauline, Hemingway returned to his waiting wife.

“When I saw my wife again standing by the tracks as the train came in by the piled logs at the station, I wished I had died before I ever loved anyone but her. She was smiling, the sun on her lovely face tanned by the snow and sun, beautifully built, her hair red gold in the sun, grown out all winter awkwardly and beautifully, and Mr. Bumby standing with her, blond and chunky and with winter cheeks looking like a good Vorarlberg boy” (Hemingway, 210).

Bumby is Jack Hemingway, his son by Hadley.

The divorce from Hadley would be relatively smooth, but Pauline Pfeiffer would initially refuse to grant a divorce when Martha Gellhorn moved into their life and turned the tables.

Hemingway will always have a place in American literature, but as a celebrity, he should be a dinosaur. Certainly, his very public homophobia, his cruel behavior toward his wives, particularly Martha Gellhorn, herself a rugged individual, and the public macho persona now seem passé and even retrograde. The attitude toward hunting elephants and rhinoceroses has changed. Feminists can only regard the wife slapping Hemingway with horror. He is an icon from another era. Why then does Ernest Hemingway, more than 50 years after his death, remain a dominate figure in our popular culture, while other celebrity writers like Truman Capote, Hunter Thompson, Norman Mailer and even Jack Kerouac, are remembered sporadically?

Is Hemingway truly a great writer or a fascinating icon from another era that refuses to die?
Perhaps he is both.

The books still have power though the films made from Hemingway’s novels have not aged well. The problem may be Hemingway’s dialogue which reads well but sounds “artsy” and artificial when spoken by actors. Consider the last line in The Sun Also Rises. Lady Brett Ashley tells Jake, impotent from a war wound, what a great time they could’ve had and he replies, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” The line works very well in the book, perhaps because it seems slightly out of character for the hard-boiled Jake. As spoken by Tyrone Power in the 1957 film, the line seems a bit flat and unreal. Hemingway’s close friend, Gary Cooper, was the perfect Hemingway hero: blond, blue-eyed, the handsome American man showing grace under pressure and often silent unless he had to speak. Both A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls are relatively weak films despite Cooper’s magnetic presence. A later version of A Farewell to Arms with Rock Hudson was a disaster.  

One famous short story about two hit men appropriately called “The Killers” was made into two fairly successful films, one with Burt Lancaster at the beginning of his film career, and another version starring Ronald Reagan at the end of his. Neither film is viewed much today.

Part of the answer to why Hemingway’s personal story grips the public imagination is that Hemingway’s observations of famous peers are provocative today, particularly regarding Hemingway’s masculinity and any who dared question it. A good example is Hemingway’s confrontation with the socialist, Max Eastman, who suggested after reading Death in the Afternoon about bullfighting that Hemingway was posing too much and had “false hair on his chest.” The article was called, “Bull in the Afternoon.” In Max Perkins’ office at Scribner’s, Hemingway confronted Eastman, ripping open his shirt to show chest hair and ripping apart Eastman’s to reveal a hairless chest. What happened next is disputed. Eastman claimed he pushed Hemingway to the ground but Hemingway insisted Eastman came clawing at him “like a woman” so he gently put Eastman down because he “didn’t want to hurt him.”
In the Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Gertrude Stein stated that Hemingway was “yellow” about revealing his hidden life, and suggested Hemingway had repressed homosexual feelings, despite his homophobia. (Jake Barnes criticizes homosexuals who enter a bar in The Sun Also Rises.) Such a revelation about homosexual feelings would’ve ruined any writer at the time. Hemingway knew about Stein’s remark and in A Moveable Feast, describes a visit to Stein’s Paris home where he overhears Gertrude Stein pleading with her lover, Alice B. Toklas.

“The colorless alcohol felt good on my tongue and it was still in my mouth when I heard someone speaking to Miss Stein as I have never heard one person speak to another; never, anywhere, ever. Then Miss Stein’s voice came pleading and begging saying, ‘Don’t pussy, Don’t. Don’t, please don’t. I’ll do anything, pussy, but please don’t do it. Please don’t. Please don’t, pussy’” (Hemingway, 118).

Hemingway leaves the house and the reader to imagine what humiliation is happening between these two female companions. In the same memoir about Paris, Hemingway’s description of F. Scott Fitzgerald whom he admired does suggest that Hemingway found Fitzgerald either a bit of a “sissy” or had a latent attraction to him.  He describes Fitzgerald’s face as “between handsome and pretty with a delicate long-lipped Irish mouth that, on a girl, would have been the mouth of a beauty” (Hemingway, 149).  Hemingway ends his description of Fitzgerald with a strange observation.

“The mouth worried you until you knew him and then it worried you more” (149).

Just what did “worry” Hemingway more? If they were attracted to each other, neither man would have acted on it due to the taboos and phobias of the time. The great wit and writer, Oscar Wilde, went to prison for the crime of homosexuality. The speculation that Hemingway himself was a latent homosexual or had feelings of same sex attraction has inspired a series of articles bringing Hemingway back into the news. In the article, “The Importance of Being Ernest: Hemingway Meets the Gay Gothic,” Mark Dery sites evidence in addition to Stein’s observations that Hemingway and Fitzgerald may have had sexual fantasies about each other, interesting since Scott Fitzgerald also nursed a loathing of homosexuals.

“There’s a poetic justice, then, in the rumor spread by the gay writer and notorious gossip Robert McAlmon, that Scott and Hem were themselves fairies—a rumor that Zelda happily used as a stick to beat Scott with” (Dery, qtd. in Thought Catalogue).

Hemingway disliked Zelda who was no friend of Hemingway, finding his macho bluster “bogus.” Robert McAlmon did publish Hemingway’s first book, Three Stories and Ten Poems, but he disturbed Max Perkins at Scribner’s with his gossip about Hemingway. Perkins felt McAlmon was “jealous.” Fitzgerald told Perkins that McAlmon was “a failed writer and a rat” (James R. Mellow, Hemingway, A Life Without Consequences, 392). Concerning Hemingway’s attacks on other writers except for Fitzgerald, Dery reveals that despite his fascination with Hemingway’s Paris memoir, “A Moveable Feast is one seriously bitchy book” (Dery, Thought Catalogue).

Another answer to the question about Hemingway’s longevity with the public might be the appearance of Hemingway as a character in films. Though no new films have been made from his work except the very bad Garden of Eden (about an androgynous couple), Hemingway has appeared as a character in films like Woody Allen’s comedy and the recent Hemingway and Gellhorn.  

Hemingway and Gellhorn, which should have reversed the title, shows Hemingway as a drunken egotistical self-indulgent bully; one wonders when the lout on screen ever had the talent or time to write great books since he preferred either battlefields or barrooms. Clive Own is effective as a venomous Hemingway, only briefly vulnerable when he and Martha make love in a Spanish hotel while bombs are falling, scattering plaster on their sweating naked bodies. Oddly enough, Martha Gellhorn first appears as a reminiscing old woman insisting she was one of “the world’s worst bed partners.” Nicole Kidman is excellent as the tough, no nonsense Martha Gellhorn, unafraid to move through and work in a man’s world. After Hemingway left for the Normandy invasion without her, Gellhorn went to the front on her own and while covering the war, divorced Hemingway, calling him a “bully.” She refused to discuss her famous ex-husband in future interviews, and outlived Papa by 37 years.

Ironically, Clive Owen could’ve easily played Hemingway in Midnight in Paris, because the famous lines (“There’s nothing to writing…all you do is sit down to your typewriter and bleed”) and macho posing fit both the drama and the parody.

Midnight in Paris was a success but critics were not kind to Hemingway and Gellhorn. Of Owen’s appearance, James Wolcott wrote, “His moustache, glasses, and companion cigar make him look more like a strapping Groucho Marx, one whose wisecracks are meant to inflict some harsh truth about life, the kind of truth one can only learn from war, or hunting, or boxing, or bullfighting, or between the legs of a woman who can shift the earth’s tectonic plates with her hips” (Wolcott, qtd in Vanity Fair). The last reference is a jab at the famous “earth moving” scene in For Whom the Bell Tolls when Robert Jordan and Maria make love. Wolcott ultimately finds Hemingway and Gellhorn an “unchained Malady.”

Both films mitigate Hemingway as an artist, but that may be due to the celebrity that distorts any successful author’s image. William Faulkner in the film, Barton Fink, comes off as a stumbling mumbling drunk, even though Faulkner avoided the spotlight. Fitzgerald appears a weak romantic in Midnight in Paris. Conversely, there is something poignant and tragic to the cinema portrayal of Virginia Woolf in The Hours, even though Nicole Kidman avoided using Woolf’s actual English accent and vocal tone.

In Hemingway, a 1988 miniseries for television shot on the actual locales and based on letters and the biography of Carlos Baker, Stacy Keach gives the most well-balanced portrait of Hemingway. He is the boxer, the soldier, the thoughtful artist who compares the painting technique of Cezanne to the best writing; he is the friend of Gertrude Stein, James Joyce and Ezra Pound, and the husband and father who failed at both. The alcoholism and braggadocio are still there, but with a softer subtext. In one scene after a brutal marital fight, a broken Hemingway stands on the patio petting one of his many six-toed cats. One critic, John J. O’Connor, argued the miniseries was “stately” and perhaps too tame, but agreed it was never boring. Hemingway the miniseries remains the most balanced portrait of Hemingway on screen.

Hemingway hated his critics and his celebrated clashes with them made headlines. He disliked a detailed review of The Sun Also Rises by Virginia Woolf who admired Hemingway’s skill but found his characters shallow and his dialogue excessive. In great form, Hemingway said he wanted to force Virginia Woolf to run naked through a Pamplona crowd and give the bulls a shot at her. He also resented a remark that William Faulkner made referring to Hemingway “lacking courage.” Faulkner did not mean physical courage but rather the courage to try a new style instead of sticking to the simple clear style Hemingway perfected.

What is ironic is that Hemingway’s fictional heroes do not seek the spotlight and are, in fact, calm but vulnerable men. They like to drink but do not beat women. Jake Barnes is impotent, hard-boiled outside but a romantic inside. He is shy about his passion or aficion for the bullfights. Frederick Henry is a brave soldier who eventually deserts when the Italian army tries to execute him during a retreat. Henry knows the obscenity of war and the joy of love, however brief. Robert Jordan in For Whom the Bell Tolls is a freedom fighter for the Spanish Republicans fighting Franco; he’s a man in love, and yet sacrifices himself for the common good. The image of Robert Jordan with a broken leg lying on the “pine-needled floor of the forest” waiting to ambush advancing fascists captures a classic Hemingway moment of courage and grace under fire. These young men and the old man fighting to keep a great fish while sharks converge to devour his catch are very different from the Hemingway caricature we see on film who seems more comfortable boxing drunk in a barroom.

In 2021, Ken Burns and Lynn Novick released a thorough three-part documentary on Hemingway, and while provocative, particularly discussing Hemingway’s androgynous gender-swapping relationship with his wife Mary (he was her “girl” and she was his “boy”), nothing that new is revealed. The novel, Garden of Eden, covers this theme. The television series starring Stacy Keach is perhaps more dramatic, but the Burns-Novick documentary does have poignant moments when Ernest Hemingway’s eventual metal illness is explored.

If Ernest Hemingway did become a strutting caricature, at times, and a braggart at Sloppy Joe’s bar, Hemingway’s work remains powerful and evocative long after his death. A new film of A Moveable Feast is in development under the supervision of Mariel Hemingway, Ernest Hemingway’s granddaughter. A new edition of A Moveable Feast with added material has been reissued but references to Pauline Pfeiffer are cut (the editor is Sean Hemingway, her grandson).

Here is Hemingway’s closing in A Moveable Feast:

“Paris was always worth it and you received return for whatever you brought to it. But this is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy” (Hemingway, 211).
Hemingway’s public image refuses to die. Like James Dean and Marilyn Monroe, he is on a stamp and continues to resonate in the public consciousness.  Ultimately, however, it is the author’s work and not the author’s image that matters.

If Hemingway lacks the scope of Faulkner as a contemporary novelist, or Fitzgerald’s lyrical beauty in The Great Gatsby, Hemingway will not fade as a writer. Hemingway’s simple but clear style matches his description of the best bullfighters who have a clean through line, gracefully risking danger as the bull’s horns pass. Here is Jake’s description of the young gifted bullfighter, Romero:

“Romero’s bull-fighting gave real emotion, because he kept the absolute purity of line in his movements and always quietly and calmly let the horns pass him close each time. He did not have to emphasize their closeness” (Hemingway, 174).

The Sun Also Rises remains one of the greatest American novels, and certainly Hemingway’s best novel. The simple purity and clear prose of The Old Man and the Sea marks a strong relevant ending to a remarkable literary career.

“He started to climb again and at the top he fell and lay for some time with the mast across his shoulder” (Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea, 121).

Like Hemingway, Santiago is destroyed but not defeated. Possibly the best way to approach Ernest Hemingway is the one Heming and Condell suggested regarding Shakespeare’s plays: Read him, therefore; and again, and again.

Works Cited:
Burns, Ken, Novick, Lynn, Hemingway, a three-part, six-hour documentary film narrated by Peter Coyote. 2021.
Dery, Mark, “The Importance of Being Ernest: Hemingway Meets the Gay Gothic,” Thought Catalogue, December 9, 2011.
Mellow, James R., Hemingway: A Life Without Consequences, Da Capo Press, 1993.
Wolcott, James, “No Time For Tulips: On Hemingway & Gellhorn,” Vanity Fair, June, 2012.
Woolf, Virginia, New York Herald Tribune, 1927
Hemingway, Earnest, A Moveable Feast, Scribner’s, 1964.
———The Sun Also Rises, Scribner’s, 1926.

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