Commentary Magazine


Hemingway: Portrait of the Artist as an Intellectual

At first glance Ernest Hemingway is not easily recognized as an intellectual at all. On closer inspection he is not only seen to exhibit all the chief characteristics of the intellectual but to possess them to an unusual degree, and in a specifically American combination. He was, moreover, a writer of profound originality. He transformed the way in which his fellow Americans, and people throughout the English-speaking world, expressed themselves. He created a new, personal, secular, and highly contemporary ethical style, which was intensely American in origin, but translated itself easily into many cultures. He fused a number of American attitudes together and made himself their archetypal personification, so that he came to embody America at a certain epoch rather as Voltaire embodied France in the 1750’s or Byron England in the 1820’s.

Hemingway was born in 1899 in the salubrious suburb of Oak Park near Chicago.1 His parents, Grace and Clarence Edmonds (“Ed”) Hemingway were, or certainly seemed to be, healthy, industrious, efficient, well-educated, many-talented, and well adjusted to their society, grateful for their European cultural inheritance but proudly conscious of the way America had triumphantly improved upon it They feared God and lived a full life, indoors and outdoors. Dr. Hemingway was an excellent physician who also hunted, shot, fished, sailed, camped, and pioneered; he possessed, and taught his son, all the wilderness skills of the woodsman. Grace Hemingway was a woman of strong intelligence, powerful will, and many accomplishments. She was widely read, wrote excellent prose and skillful verse, painted, designed and made furniture, sang well, played various instruments and wrote and published original songs. Both did everything in their power to transmit to their children, of whom Ernest as the eldest son was the most favored, all their cultural inheritance and to add to it. In many ways they were model parents, and Hemingway grew up well-read and highly literate, a skilled sportsman and an all-around athlete.

Both parents were strongly religious. They were Congregationalists, and Dr. Hemingway was a strict Sabbatarian too. They not only went to church on Sunday and said grace at meals but, according to Hemingway’s sister Sunny, “We had morning family prayers accompanied by a Bible reading and a hymn or two.” The moral code of mainstream Protestantism was minutely enforced by both parents and any infringements severely punished. Grace Hemingway spanked the children with a hairbrush, the Doctor with a razor-strop. Their mouths were washed out with bitter soap when they were detected lying or swearing. After punishment they were made to kneel down and beg God for forgiveness. Dr. Hemingway made it clear at all times that he identified Christianity with male honor and gentlemanly conduct: “I want you to represent,” he wrote to Ernest, “all that is good and noble and brave and courteous in Manhood, and fear God and respect Woman.” His mother wanted him to be a conventional Protestant hero, non-smoking, non-drinking, chaste before marriage, faithful within it, and at all times to honor and obey his parents, especially his mother.

Hemingway, however, rejected his parents’ religion in toto, and with it any desire to be the sort of son they wanted. In his teens he seems to have decided, quite firmly, that he was going to pursue his genius and his inclination in all things, and to create for himself a vision both of the man of honor and of the good life which was his reward. This was a romantic, literary, and to some extent an ethical concept, but it had no religious content at all. Indeed, Hemingway seems to have been devoid of the religious spirit. He privately abandoned his faith at the age of seventeen when he met Bill and Katy Smith (die latter to become the wife of John Dos Passos), whose father, an atheist academic, had written an ingenious book “proving” Jesus Christ had never existed. Hemingway ceased to practice religion at the earliest possible moment, when he went to work at his first job on the Kansas City Star and moved into unsupervised lodgings. As late as 1918, when he was nearly twenty, he assured his mother: “Don’t worry or cry or fret about my being a good Christian. I am just as much as ever, and pray every night and believe just as hard.” But this was a lie, told for the sake of peace. He not only did not believe in God but regarded organized religion as a menace to human happiness. His first wife, Hadley, said she only saw him on his knees twice, at their wedding and at the christening of their son. To please his second wife, Pauline, he became a Roman Catholic, but he had no more conception of what his new faith meant than did Rex Mottram in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. He was furious when Pauline tried to observe its rules (e.g., OVCT birth control) in ways which inconvenienced him. He published blasphemous parodies of the Our Father in his story “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” and of the crucifixion in his book about bullfighting, Death in the Afternoon; there is a blasphemous spittoon-blessing in his play The Fifth Column. Insofar as he did understand Roman Catholicism, he detested it He raised not the slightest protest when, at the beginning of the Civil War in Spain, a place he knew and said he loved, hundreds of churches were burned, altars and sacred vessels desecrated, and many thousands of priests, monks, and nuns slaughtered. He abandoned even the formal pretense of being a Catholic after he left his second wife. All his adult life he lived, in effect, as a pagan, worshipping ideas of his own devising.

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Hemingway’s rejection of religion was characteristic of the adolescent intellectual, and still more characteristic in that it was part of a rejection of his parents’ moral culture. He later sought to differentiate between his mother and father, in a way which exonerated the latter. When his father committed suicide, he tried to hold his mother responsible, though it was clearly a case of a doctor anticipating what he knew would be a painful, terminal illness. Dr. Hemingway was the weaker of the two parents but he supported his wife entirely in their disputes with their son, whose quarrel was with both rather than the mother alone. But Grace was the person on whom Hemingway’s resistance concentrated, probably, in my view, because he recognized in her the chief source of his own egotistical will and his literary power. She was a formidable woman as he was becoming a formidable man. There was not room in the same circle for both.

Their dispute came to a head in 1920 when Hemingway, who had spent the latter part of World War I in an ambulance unit on the Italian front, and had returned something of a war hero, not only failed to find a job but offended his parents by his idle and (by their standards) vicious conduct. In July of that year Grace wrote him a Grand Remonstrance. Every mother’s life, she said, was like a bank. “Every child that is born to her enters the world with a large and prosperous bank account, seemingly inexhaustible.” The child draws and draws—“no deposits during all the early years.” Then, up to adolescence, “while the bank is heavily drawn upon,” there are “a few deposits of pennies, in the way of some services willingly done, some thoughtfulness and ‘thank yous.’” With manhood, while the bank goes on handing out love and sympathy:

The account needs some deposits by this time, some good-sized ones in the way of gratitude and appreciation, interest in Mother’s ideas and affairs. Little comforts provided for the home; a desire to favor any of Mother’s peculiar prejudices, on no account to outrage her ideas. Flowers, fruit or candy, or something pretty to wear, brought home to Mother with a kiss and a squeeze. . . . A surreptitious paying of bills, just to get them off Mother’s mind . . . deposits which keep the account in good standing. Many mothers I know are receiving these and much more substantial gifts and returns from sons of less abilities than my son. Unless you, my son, Ernest, come to yourself, cease your lazy loafing and pleasure seeking . . . stop trading on your handsome face . . . and neglecting your duties to God and your Savior, Jesus Christ . . . there is nothing before you but bankruptcy: You have overdrawn.

She brooded on this document for three days, polishing it as carefully as Hemingway was ever to do his own prize passages, then presented it personally. It indicates whence he got the strong sense of moral outrage, not unmixed with self-righteousness, which is so important a part of his fiction.

Hemingway reacted as might have been expected, with slow, mounting, and prolonged fury, and from then on he treated his mother as an enemy. Dos Passos said Hemingway was the only man he had ever come across who really hated his mother. Another old acquaintance, General “Buck” Lanham, testified: “From my earliest days with Ernest Hemingway he always referred to his mother as ‘that bitch.’ He must have told me a thousand times how much he hated her and in how many ways.” This hatred was reflected repeatedly, and variously, in the fiction. It spilled over into a related detestation of his elder sister, “my bitch sister Marcelline,” “a bitch complete with handles.” It broadened into a general hatred of families, often expressed in irrelevant contexts, as in the discussion of bad painters (his mother painted) in his autobiography, A Moveable Feast: “They do not do terrible things and make intimate harm, as families do. With bad painters all you need to do is not look at them. But even when you have learned not to look at families nor listen to them and have learned not to answer letters, families have many ways of being dangerous.”

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The family breakup drove Hemingway to the Toronto Star and thence to Europe as a foreign correspondent and novelist. He repudiated not merely his parents’ religion but his mother’s view of an optimistic, Christianized culture, expressed in her powerful but conventional—and to him detestable—prose. One of the forces which drove Hemingway toward the literary perfectionism which became his outstanding characteristic was the overwhelming urge not to write like his mother, using the stale rhetoric of an overelaborate literary inheritance. (A sentence of hers which he particularly hated, as epitomizing her prose style, came from one of her letters to him: “You were named for the two finest and noblest gentlemen I have ever known.”)

From 1921 Hemingway led the life of a foreign correspondent, using Paris as his base. He covered warfare in the Middle East and international conferences, but the main focus of his attention was on the expatriate literati of the Left Bank. He wrote poetry. He was trying to write prose. He read ferociously. One of the many habits he inherited from his mother was carrying books around with him, shoved into his pockets, so that he could read at any time or place during a pause in the action. He read everything, and all his life he bought books, so that any Hemingway habitation had stacks running along the walls. At his house in Cuba he was to build up a working library of 7,400 volumes, characterized by expert studies on all the subjects in which he was interested and by a wide range of literary texts, which he read and reread. He arrived in Paris having read virtually all the English classics but determined to broaden his range. He was never touchy about having missed a university education, but he regretted it and was anxious to fill any gaps its absence might have left. So he settled down to Stendhal, Flaubert, Balzac, Maupassant, and Zola; the major Russian novelists, Tolstoy, Turgenev, and Dostoevsky; and the Americans, Henry James, Mark Twain, and Stephen Crane. He read the moderns, too: Conrad, TS. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, D.H. Lawrence, Maxwell Anderson, James Joyce. His reading was wide but also dictated by a growing urge to write. Since the age of fifteen he had made a cult of Kipling, and continued to study him all his life. To this was now added close attention to Conrad, and Joyce’s brilliant collection, Dubliners. Like all really good writers, he not only devoured but analyzed and learned from the second-rate, such as Marryat, Hugh Walpole, and George Moore.

Hemingway moved right to the center of the Paris intelligentsia in 1922 with the help of Ezra Pound, who said of him: “He writes very good verse and he’s the finest prose stylist in the world.” Made in 1922, the remark is highly perceptive, for Hemingway had by no means yet developed his mature method. But he was working on it, as his early notebooks, with their infinite erasures and amendments, testify. Probably no writer of fiction has ever struggled so hard and so long to fashion a personal manner of writing exactly suited to the work he wished to do. A study of Hemingway during these years is a model of how a writer should acquire his professional skills. It is comparable, in nobility of aim and persistence of effort, with Ibsen’s arduous efforts to become a playwright. It also had the same revolutionary impact on the craft.

It was Hemingway’s belief that he had inherited a false world, symbolized by his parents’ religion and moral culture, and that it must be replaced by a truthful one. What did he mean by truth? Not the inherited, revealed truth of his parents’ Christianity—that he rejected as irrelevant—or the truth of any other creed or ideology derived from the past and reflecting the minds of others, however great, but the truth as he himself saw it, felt it, heard, smelled, and tasted it. He admired Conrad’s literary philosophy and the way he summed up his aim—“scrupulous fidelity to the truth of my own sensations.” That was his starting point. But how do you convey that truth? Most people when they write, including most professional writers, tend to slip into seeing events through the eyes of others because they inherit stale expressions and combinations of words, threadbare metaphors, clichés, and literary conceits. This is particularly true of journalists, covering at speed occasions which are often repetitive and banal. But Hemingway had had the advantage of an excellent training on the Kansas City Star. Its successive editors had compiled a house-style book of 110 rules designed to force reporters to use plain, simple, direct, and cliché-free English, and these rules were strictly enforced. Hemingway later called them “the best rules I ever learned for the business of writing.” In 1922, covering an international conference, he was taught the ruthless art of cablese by Lincoln Steffens, which he acquired with rapidity and growing delight. He showed Steffens his first successful effort, exclaiming: “Steffens, look at this cable: no fat, no adjectives, no adverbs—nothing but blood and bones and muscle. . . . It’s a new language.”

On this journalistic basis, Hemingway built his own method, which was both theory and practice. At one time or another he put down a lot about how to write—in A Moveable Feast, in The Green Hills of Africa, in Death in the Afternoon, and in By-line and elsewhere. The “basic principles of writing” he set down for himself are well worth study. He once defined the art of fiction, following Conrad, as “find what gave you the emotion; what the action was that gave you the excitement. Then write it down making it clear so that the reader can see it too.” All had to be done with brevity, economy, simplicity, strong verbs, short sentences, nothing superfluous or for effect “Prose is architecture,” he wrote, “not interior decoration, and the Baroque is over.” Hemingway paid particular attention to exactitude of expression and ransacked dictionaries for words. It is important to remember that, during the formative period of his prose style, he was also a poet, and strongly under the influence of Ezra Pound, who he said taught him more than anyone else. Pound was “the man who believed in the mot juste—the one and only correct word to use—the man who taught me to distrust adjectives.” He also closely studied Joyce, another writer whose nose for verbal precision he respected and imitated. Indeed, insofar as Hemingway had literary progenitors, it might be said he was the offspring of a marriage between Kipling and Joyce.

But the truth is Hemingway’s writing is sui generis. His impact on the way people not only wrote but saw, in the quarter-century 1925-50, was so overwhelming and conclusive, and his continuing influence since so pervasive, that it is now impossible for us to subtract the Hemingway factor from our prose, especially in fiction. But in the early 1920’s he found it difficult to win approval, or even to get published at all. His first work, Three Stories and Ten Poems, was a typical avant-garde venture, locally published in Paris. The big magazines would not look at his fiction, and as late as 1925, The Dial, itself regarded as adventurous, was still rejecting his stories, including that superb tale “The Undefeated.” What Hemingway did is what all really original great writers do—he created his own market, he infected readers with his own taste. The method, which brilliantly combined bare, exact depiction of events with subtle hints of the emotional response to them, emerged in the years 1923-25, and it was in 1925 that the breakthrough came with the publication of In Our Time. The British critic Ford Madox Ford felt able to hail him as America’s leading writer: “The most conscientious, the most master of his craft, the most consummate.” To the American critic Edmund Wilson the book revealed prose “of the first distinction,” which was “strikingly original” and of impressive “artistic dignity.” This first success was quickly followed by two vivid and tragic novels, The Sun Also Rises (1926) and A Farewell to Arms (1929), the latter perhaps the best thing he ever wrote. These books sold hundreds of thousands of copies and were read and reread, digested, regurgitated, envied, and quarried by writers of every kind. As early as 1927, Dorothy Parker, reviewing his collection Men Without Women in the New Yorker, referred to his influence as “dangerous”—“the simplest thing he does looks so easy to do. But look at the boys who try to do it”

The Hemingway manner could be parodied but not successfully imitated because it was inseparable from the subject matter of the books and especially their moral posture. Hemingway’s aim was to avoid explicit didacticism of any kind, and he denounced it in others, even the greatest “I love War and Peace,” he wrote, “for the wonderful, penetrating, and true descriptions of war and of people, but I have never believed in the great count’s thinking. . . . He could invent more and with more insight and truth than anyone who ever lived. But his ponderous and messianic thinking was no better than many another evangelical professor of history and I learned from him to distrust my own Thinking with a capital T, and to try to write as truly, as straightly, as objectively, and as humbly as possible.” In his best work he always avoided preaching at the reader, or even nudging his elbow by drawing attention to the way his characters behaved. Nevertheless, his books are suffused throughout with a new secular ethic, and this springs directly from the way Hemingway describes events and actions.

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It is the subtle universality of the Hemingway ethic which makes him so archetypically an intellectual, and the nature of the ethic which reflects his Americanism. Hemingway saw the Americans as a vigorous, active, forceful, even violent people, doers, achievers, creators, conquerors and pacifiers, hunters and builders. He was a vigorous, active, forceful, even violent person himself. Talking to Pound and Ford about literature, he would break off from time to time to shadow-box around Ford’s studio. He was a big, strong man, skilled in a vast range of physical activities. It was natural for him, as an American and writer, to lead a life of action, and to describe it Action was his theme.

There was nothing new in that, of course. Action had been the theme of Kipling, whose heroes, or subjects, had been soldiers, engineers, sea captains, and rulers big and small—anyone or thing, indeed, periodically subject to the strain and motion of violent activity, even animals and machinery. But Kipling was not an intellectual. He was a genius, he had a “daemon,” but he did not believe he could refashion the world by his own unaided intelligence, he did not reject the vast corpus of its inherited wisdom. On the contrary, he fiercely upheld its laws and customs as unalterable by puny man and depicted with relish the nemesis of those who defied them. Hemingway is much closer to Byron, another writer who longed for action and described it with enthusiastic skill. Byron did not believe in the utopian and revolutionary schemes of his friend Shelley, which seemed to him abstract ideals rather than workable concepts, but he had fashioned for himself a system of ethics, devised in reaction to the traditional code he had rejected when he left his wife and England for good. In this sense, and only in this sense, he was an intellectual.

Like Byron, Hemingway worked by illustration. He once specified his ideal as the ability to exhibit “grace under pressure” (a curious phrase in view of his mother’s name) but he went no further in definition. Probably his ethic was incapable of a precise definition and would have been injured and reduced by attempts to construct one. But it was infinitely capable of illustration and that is the driving force behind Hemingway’s entire work. His novels are novels of action and that, paradoxically, makes them novels of ideology because to Hemingway there was no such thing as a morally neutral action. To him even a description of a meal is a moral statement since there are the right and wrong things to eat and drink, and right and wrong ways to eat and drink them. Almost any action—even adultery, stealing, or killing—can be performed correctly or incorrectly, or to be precise, nobly or ignobly. The author himself does not point the moral but he presents everything within an implicit moral framework so that the actions speak for themselves.

The essence of Hemingway’s fiction is observing boxers, fishermen, bullfighters, soldiers, writers, sportsmen, or almost anyone who has definite and skilled actions to perform, trying to live a good and honest life, according to the values of each, and usually failing. Tragedy occurs because the values themselves turn out to be illusory or mistaken, or because they are betrayed by weakness within or external malice or the intractability of objective facts. But even failure is redeemed by truth-seeing, by having the ability to perceive the truth and the courage to stare it in the face. Hemingway’s characters stand or fall by whether they are truthful or not Truth is the essential ingredient of his prose and is the one thread that runs right through his ethical system, its principle of coherence.

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Having created his style and his ethic, Hemingway necessarily found himself living both. He became, as it were, the victim, the prisoner, the slave of his own imagination, forced to enact it in real life. His pursuit of “real” life, the life of action, was an intellectual activity in the sense that it was vital to his kind of fiction. As the hero Robert Jordan says in the Spanish war novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940), he “liked to know how it really was; not how it was supposed to be.” Hemingway, the intellectual obsessed by violent action, was a real person. A perceptive colleague on the Toronto Star summed him up at twenty: “A more weird combination of quivering sensitiveness and preoccupation with violence never walked the earth.” He enjoyed all his father’s outdoor pursuits and more—skiing, deep-sea fishing, big-game hunting, and not least, war. There was no doubt about his courage, on occasion. The New York Times reporter Herbert Matthews described how Hemingway, during the Ebro river battle in 1938, saved him from drowning in the rapids, by an extraordinary exhibition of strength: “He was a good man in a pinch.” The white hunters who took him on safari in East Africa, often a good test, bore similar witness. Moreover Hemingway’s courage was not unthinking and instinctive but cerebral. He had an acute sense of danger, as many anecdotes testify. He knew what it was to feel afraid and conquer his fear—no writer ever described cowardice more vividly. He made the reader sense his willingness to live his fiction.

This was why Hemingway’s action-man image grew as quickly as his fame. Like many other intellectuals, from Rousseau onward, he had a striking talent for self-publicity. He created the physical Hemingway persona, reversing the old, soft-velvet, relaxed image of the Romantics, which had done such yeoman service in its time, in favor of a new he-man appeal: safari suits, bandoliers, guns, peaked cap, a whiff of powder, tobacco, whiskey. One of his obsessions was adding a few years to his age. In the 1920’s he quickly promoted himself to “Papa”; the latest girl became “daughter.” By the early 1940’s “Papa” Hemingway was already a familiar figure in the picture magazines, as famous as the leading Hollywood males. No writer in history ever gave more interviews and photo opportunities. In time his white-bearded face became better known than Tolstoy’s.

But in trying to personify his ethic and live up to the legend he created, Hemingway was also mounting a treadmill, from which he would not allow himself to descend till death. Rather as his mother saw maternal love in the shape of a bank account, Hemingway was constantly depositing experience of action to his credit, then drawing on it for his fiction. His Italian war, 1917-18, was his initial capital. During the 1920’s he used up most of it, balancing the drain by frenzied sportsmanship and bullfighting. In the 1930’s he made valuable deposits of big-game hunting, and the huge windfall of the Spanish Civil War. But he was slothful at exploiting the opportunities of World War II and his belated involvement in it added little to his writing capital. Thereafter his chief deposits were hunting and fishing; his attempts to retrace his steps on the big-game shooting and bullfighting circuits bore more farce than fruit Edmund Wilson noted the contrast, both in the writing and the activity: “The young master and the old impostor.” The truth is, Hemingway continued to enjoy some of his violent pursuits, but not quite so much as he claimed. There was a perceptible decline in zest for the wilderness, as though he would willingly, if only he dared, hang up his rifle and settle down in his library. A false, forced, boastful note crept into his situation reports to his publisher, Charles Scribner. Thus in 1949 he wrote to him: “To celebrate my fiftieth birthday . . . I fucked three times, shot ten straight pigeons (very fast ones) at the club, drank with friends a case of Piper Heidsieck brut and looked the ocean for big fish all afternoon.”

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True? False? An exaggeration? One does not know. None of Hemingway’s statements about himself, and very few he made about other people, can ever be accepted as fact without corroboration. Despite the central importance of truth in his fictional ethic, he had the characteristic intellectual’s belief that, in his own case, truth must be the willing servant of his ego. He thought, and sometimes boasted, that lying was part of his training as a writer. He lied both consciously and without thinking. He certainly knew he was lying on occasion, as he makes clear in his fascinating tale, “Soldier’s Home,” with its character of Krebs. “It is not unnatural that the best writers are liars,” he wrote. “A major part of their trade is to lie or invent. . . . They often lie unconsciously and then remember their lies with deep remorse.” But the evidence shows that Hemingway habitually lied long before he worked out a professional apologia for it He lied when he was five, claiming to have stopped a bolting horse unaided. He told his parents he had become engaged to the movie actress Mae Marsh, though he had never set eyes on her except in Birth of a Nation; he repeated this lie to his Kansas City colleagues, down to the detail of a $150 engagement ring. Many of these blatant lies were transparent and embarrassing as when, aged eighteen, he told friends he had caught a fish he had obviously bought in the market. He told an elaborate story about being a professional boxer in Chicago, having his nose broken but nonetheless going on fighting. He invented Indian blood for himself and even claimed he had Indian daughters. His autobiography, A Moveable Feast, is quite unreliable and, like Rousseau’s Confessions, most dangerous when it appears to be frank. He was usually mendacious about his parents and sisters, sometimes for no apparent reason. Thus he said his sister Carol had been raped, aged twelve, by a sex pervert (quite untrue) and later claimed she was divorced or even dead (she was happily married to a Mr. Gardiner, whom Hemingway disliked).

Many of Hemingway’s most complicated and reiterated lies concern his World War I service. Of course most soldiers, even brave ones, lie about their wars, and the degree of detailed investigation Hemingway’s life has been subjected to was bound to turn up some malpractice with the truth. All the same, Hemingway’s inventions about what happened in Italy are unusually brazen. In the first place he said he volunteered for the army but was rejected because of poor eyesight. This does not appear in the records and is most unlikely. He was in fact a noncombatant, and by choice. On many occasions, including newspaper interviews, he said he had served in the Italian 69th Infantry Regiment and had fought in three major battles. He also claimed he had belonged to the crack Arditi regiment, and he told his British military friend, “Chink” Dorman-Smith, that he had led an Arditi charge on Mount Grappa and had been badly wounded during it. He told his Spanish Civil War friend, General Gustavo Duran, that he had commanded first a company, then a battalion, when he was only nineteen. He had indeed been wounded—there was no doubt about that—but he lied repeatedly about the occasion and nature of the injury. He invented a story about being shot in the scrotum, not once but twice, and said he had had to rest his testicles on a pillow. He said he had been knocked down twice by machine-gun fire and hit thirty-two times by .45 bullets. And as a bonus, he said he had been baptized a Catholic on what the nurses believed was his deathbed. All these statements were untrue.

If war brought out the liar in Hemingway, so did sex. One of his choicest Italian tales, often repeated, was being held sexual prisoner by a Sicilian woman hotel owner who hid his clothes so that he was forced to fornicate with her for a week. He told Bernard Berenson (the recipient of many mendacious letters) that when he finished The Sun Also Rises, he brought a girl home, his wife came back suddenly, and he was forced to smuggle the girl out through the roof; no truth in it at all. He lied about his famous jealous fight with “that kike [Harold] Loeb” in Pamplona in 1925, saying that Loeb had a gun and threatened to shoot him (the incident was transfigured in The Sun Also Rises). He lied about all his marriages, divorces, and settlements, both to the women concerned and to his mother. His lies to, and about, his third wife, Martha Gellhorn, were particularly audacious. She, in turn, dismissed him as “the biggest liar since Munchausen.” As with some other novelist-liars, Hemingway left false trails: some of his most striking stories, seemingly autobiographical by overwhelming internal evidence, may be pure inventions. All one can say is that Hemingway had little respect for the truth.

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In consequence he was apt and ready for that “low, dishonest decade,” the 1930’s. Hemingway never held any set of political convictions with consistency; his ethic was really about personal loyalties. His one-time friend Dos Passos thought that as a young man, Hemingway “had one of the shrewdest heads for unmasking political pretensions I’ve ever run into.” But it is hard to find much evidence for this assertion. In the 1932 election Hemingway supported the Socialist, Eugene Debs. But by 1935 he had become a willing exponent of the Communist party line on most issues. In the September 17, 1935 issue of the CP paper New Masses, he contributed a violent article, “Who Killed the Vets?,” blaming the government for the deaths, in a Florida hurricane, of 450 ex-servicemen railway workers employed on federal projects—a typical exercise in CP agitprop. Hemingway’s view, throughout the decade, seems to have been that the Communist party was the only legitimate and trustworthy conductor of the anti-fascist crusade, and that criticism of it, or participation in activities outside its control, was treachery. He said that anyone who took an anti-Communist line was “either a fool or a knave,” and he would not allow his name to appear on the masthead of the new left-wing magazine Ken, launched by Esquire, when he discovered it was not a CP vehicle.

This approach governed his response to the Spanish Civil War, which he welcomed on professional grounds as a source of material—“Civil war is the best war for a writer, the most complete.” But, curiously in view of his ethical code, which made elaborate provision for conflicts of loyalties, the power of tradition, and different concepts of justice, he accepted, from start to finish, the CP line on the war in all its crudity. He paid four visits to the front (spring and autumn 1937, spring and autumn 1938), but even before he left New York he had decided what the Civil War was all about and was already signed up for a propaganda film, Spain in Flames, with Dos Passos, Lillian Hellman, and Archibald Mac-Leish. “My sympathies,” he wrote, “are always for exploited working people against absentee landlords even if I drink around with the landlords and shoot pigeons with them.” The Communists were “the people of this country” and the war was a struggle between “the people” and “the absentee landlords, the Moors, the Italians, and the Germans.” He said he liked and respected the Spanish Communist party, who were “the best people” in the war.

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It was Hemingway’s line, in accordance with CP policy, to play down the role of the Soviet Union, especially in directing the Spanish CP’s ferocious conduct in the bloodstained internal politics of Republican Spain. This led him into a shameful breach with Dos Passos. Dos Passos’s interpreter was José Robles, a former Johns Hopkins University professor who had joined the Republican forces on the outbreak of war and was a friend of Andres Nin, head of the anarchist POUM. He had also been interpreter to General Jan Antonovic Berzin, head of the Soviet military mission in Spain, and therefore knew some of the secrets of Moscow’s dealings with the Madrid Defense Ministry. Berzin had been murdered by Stalin, who later gave orders to the Spanish CP to liquidate the POUM too. Nin was tortured to death, hundreds of others were arrested, accused of fascist activities, and executed. It was thought prudent to accuse Robles of spying, and he was secretly shot.

Dos Passos became worried about Robles’s disappearance. Hemingway, who saw himself as an ultra-sophisticate in political matters and Dos Passos as a naive newcomer, pooh-poohed his anxieties. Hemingway was staying at Gaylord’s Hotel in Madrid, then the haunt of the CP bosses, and asked his crony Pepe Quintanilla (who, it later emerged, was responsible for most CP executions) what had happened. He was assured Robles was alive and well, under arrest to be sure, but certain to get a fair trial. Hemingway believed this and told Dos Passos.

In fact Robles was already dead, and when Hemingway belatedly found this out—from a journalist who had only just arrived in Madrid—he told Dos Passos that it was clear Robles had been as guilty as hell and only a fool could think otherwise. Dos Passos, greatly distressed, refused to accept Robles’s guilt and publicly attacked the Communists. This brought from Hemingway the rebuke: “A war is being fought in Spain between the people whose side you used to be on and the fascists. If with your hatred of the Communists you feel justified in attacking, for money, the people who are still fighting the war, I think you should at least try to get your facts right.” But Dos Passos, as it turned out, had got his facts right: Hemingway was the naif, the innocent, the dupe.

And such he remained, until the end of the war and for some time afterward. His work for the Communists reached its climax on June 4, 1937 when he spoke at the Second Writers’ Congress, which the American CP, through a front organization, held in New York at Carnegie Hall. Hemingway’s point was that writers had to fight fascism because it was the only regime which would not allow them to tell the truth; intellectuals had a duty to go to Spain and do something there themselves—they should stop arguing doctrinal points in their armchairs and start fighting: “There is now, and there will be for a long time, war for any writer to go to who wants to study it”

Hemingway was certainly a dupe. But he was also consciously participating in a lie, since it is clear from his novel about the Spanish war, For Whom the Bell Tolls, that he was aware of the dark side of the Republican cause, and had probably known some of the truth about the Spanish CP all along. But he did not publish the book until 1940, when it was all over. So long as the Civil War lasted, Hemingway took the same line as those who tried to suppress George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, that truth came a long way behind political and military expediency. His speech to the Writers’ Congress was thus completely fraudulent.

It was odd in another way too, since Hemingway showed no inclination to follow his own advice and “study war.” When America’s involvement in the crusade aginst Nazism began in earnest in 1941, he did not join it. By now he had acquired for himself a home, the Finca Vigia, outside Havana in Cuba, which remained his chief residence for most of his remaining years. The success of For Whom the Bell Tolls, which became one of the great best-sellers of the century, brought him an enormous income and he wanted to enjoy it, notably in what was now his preferred sport, deep-sea fishing.

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For a man whose code and whose fiction exalted the virtues of friendship, Hemingway—as his relations with Dos Passos showed—found it curiously difficult to sustain any for long. His quarrels with fellow writers were particularly vicious. Hemingway was unusually jealous, even by the standards of literary life, of the talent and success of others. By 1937 he had quarreled with every writer he knew. There was one notable exception, which reflects highly on him. The only writer he did not attack in his autobiography was Ezra Pound, and from first to last he wrote approvingly of him. From their first acquaintance he admired Pound’s unselfish kindness to other writers. He took from Pound the sharp criticism he would accept from no one, including the shrewd advice in 1926 that he should get down to a novel rather than publish another volume of stories, expressed characteristically: “Wotter yer think yer are, a bloomink DILLYtante?” He seems to have admired in Pound a virtue he knew he himself conspicuously lacked, a complete absence of professional jealousy.

Hemingway also avoided a quarrel with Joyce, perhaps because of lack of opportunity or perhaps because he continued to admire his work, once calling him “the only alive writer that I ever respected.” For the rest it was a sad tale. He quarreled with Ford Madox Ford, Sinclair Lewis, Gertrude Stein, Max Eastman, Dorothy Parker, Harold Loeb, Archibald MacLeish, and many others. His literary quarrels brought out a peculiar streak of brutal malice as well as his propensity to lie. Indeed many of his worst lies concerned other writers. In his autobiography, he told a string of lies about F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda. Zelda had punctured Hemingway’s ego, but Fitzgerald had admired and liked him and done him no harm; Hemingway’s repeated assaults on this fragile and bruised spirit are difficult to understand, except in terms of an unappeasable jealousy. According to Hemingway, Fitzgerald told him: “You know I never slept with anyone except Zelda. . . . Zelda said that the way I was built I could never make any woman happy and that was what upset her.” The two then went into a men’s room and Fitzgerald took out his penis for inspection; Hemingway generously reassured him: “You’re perfectly fine.” This episode seems to be a piece of fiction.

But Hemingway’s most malevolent quarrel was with Dos Passos, particularly painful in view of their long acquaintance. Jealousy was clearly the original motive—Dos Passos made the cover of Time magazine in 1936 (Hemingway had to wait another year). Then came the Robles incident in Spain, followed by a row in New York with both Dos Passos and his wife Katy, an even older friend. Hemingway called Dos Passos a bum who borrowed money and never repaid it, and his wife a kleptomaniac; and there was a lot of sneering about his Portuguese ancestry and supposed illegitimate birth. Hemingway tried to insert these libels into To Have and Have Not (1937) but was obliged by his publishers, on legal advice, to cut them. He unleashed a last quiver of darts at Dos Passos in A Moveable Feast—Dos Passos was a vicious pilot-fish who led sharks like Gerald Murphy to their prey and he had succeeded in destroying Hemingway’s first marriage.

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The last assertion was palpably false since Hemingway needed no help in destroying his marriages. In his fiction he often wrote about women with remarkable understanding. He shared with Kipling a gift of varying his habitual masculine approach with unexpected and highly effective presentation of a female viewpoint There have been all kind of speculations about a feminine, even a transvestite or transsexual, streak in Hemingway, arising from his apparent obsession with hair, especially short hair in women, and attributed to the fact that his mother declined to dress him in boy’s clothes and kept his hair uncut for an unusually long time. What is clear, however, is that Hemingway found it difficult to form any kind of civilized relationship with a woman, at any rate for long, except one based on her complete subservience.

As it happens, three out of his four wives were unusually servile by 20th-century American standards, but that was not enough for him. He wanted variety, change, drama as well. His first wife, Hadley Richardson, was eight years older and quite well off; he lived off her money until his books began to sell in large quantities. She was an agreeable, accommodating woman, and attractive until she put on weight while pregnant with Hemingway’s first child, Jack (“Bumby”), and failed to get it off afterward. Hemingway had no scruples about fondling other women in her presence—as, for instance, the notorious Lady Twysden, born Dorothy Smurthwaite, who figures as Brett Ashley in The Sun Also Rises, a Montparnasse flirt and the source of his row with Harold Loeb. Hadley put up with this humiliation and later with Hemingway’s affair with Pauline Pfeiffer, a sexy, slender girl, much richer than Hadley, whose father was one of the biggest landowners and grain operators in Arkansas. Pauline fell heavily for Hemingway and in effect seduced him. The loving pair then persuaded Hadley to permit the setting up of a ménage à trois—“three breakfast trays,” she wrote bitterly from Juan-les-Pins in 1926, “three wet bathing suits on the line, three bicycles.” When this did not content them, they pushed her out into a trial separation, then into a divorce. She accepted, writing to Hemingway: “I took you for better, for worse (and meant it).”

Pauline, for her part, used her money to make their life more ample, buying and embellishing a fine house in Key West, Florida, which introduced Hemingway to the deep-sea fishing he came to love. She gave him a son, Patrick, but when in 1931 she announced she was having another child (Gregory), the marriage went into decline. By now Hemingway had acquired his taste for Havana and there he took up with a strawberry blonde, Jane Mason, wife of the head of Pan American Airways in Cuba, fourteen years his junior. She was slim, pretty, hard-drinking, a first-class sportswoman who enjoyed hanging around with Hemingway’s barroom chums, then driving sports cars at reckless speed. She was in many ways an ideal Hemingway heroine, but she was also a depressive who could not handle her complicated life. She tried to commit suicide and succeeded in breaking her back, at which point Hemingway lost interest.

In the meantime Pauline had taken desperate steps to win back her husband. But being a man who felt guilt but who responded by shifting it onto other people, he now held her responsible for breaking up his first marriage and therefore felt she deserved anything that was coming to her.

What came was Martha Gellhorn, a passionately keen reporter and writer, Bryn Mawr-educated (like Hadley) and, as with most of Hemingway’s women, from a secure, upper-middle-class Midwest background. She was tall, with spectacular long legs, a blue-eyed blonde, nearly ten years his junior. Hemingway first met her in Sloppy Joe’s Bar, Key West, in December 1936, and the next year invited her to join him in Spain. She did so, and the experience was an eye-opener, not least because he greeted her with a lie: “I knew you’d get here, Daughter, because I fixed it up so you could”—this was quite untrue, as she was aware. He also insisted on locking her room from the outside, “so that no man could bother her.” His own room at the Hotel Ambos Mundos, she discovered, was in a disgusting mess: “Ernest,” she wrote later, “was extremely dirty . . . one of the most unfastidious men I have ever known.”

Martha was easily the cleverest and most determined of his wives, and there was never any chance of the marriage lasting. For one thing, she objected strongly to his drinking and the brutality it engendered. When, at the end of 1942, she insisted on driving the car home because he had been drinking at a party, and they had an argument on the way, he slapped her with the back of his hand. She slowed down his much-prized Lincoln, drove it straight into a tree, then left him in it Then there was the dirt: she complained about the pack of fierce tomcats he kept in Cuba, which smelled fearfully and were allowed to march all over the dining table. She corrected his French pronunciation, challenged his expertise on French wines, and hinted broadly that he ought to be closer to the fighting in Europe. He finally decided to go, cunningly arranging an assignment with Collier’s, which had been employing her and now, to her fury, dropped her. She followed him to London nonetheless and found him, in 1944, living in his customary squalor at the Dorchester, empty whiskey bottles rolling about under his bed.

From then on it was downhill all the way. Back in Cuba, he would wake her in the middle of the night when he came to bed after drinking: “He woke me when I was trying to sleep to bully, snarl, mock—my crime really was to have been at war when he had not, but that was not how he put it. I was supposedly insane, I only wanted excitement and danger, I had no responsibility to anyone, I was selfish beyond belief. It never stopped and believe me it was fierce and ugly.” He threatened: “Going to get me somebody who wants to stick around with me and let me be the writer of the family.” He wrote an obscene poem, “To Martha Gellhorn’s Vagina,” which he compared to the wrinkled neck of an old hot-water bottle, and which he read to any woman he could get into bed with him. He became, she complained, “progressively more insane each year.” She was leading “a slave’s life with a brute for a slave owner,” and she walked out at the end of 1944. Under Cuban law, since she had deserted, Hemingway kept all her property there.

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Hemingway’s fourth and final marriage endured to his death, mainly because his protagonist this time, Mary Welsh, was determined to hang on whatever happened. She came from a different class from the earlier wives, a logger’s daughter from Minnesota. She can have had no illusions about the man she was marrying, since right at the start of their relationship, at the Paris Ritz in February 1945, he got drunk, came across a photo of her Australian journalist husband, Noel Monks, hurled it down the lavatory, fired at it with his submachine gun, smashed the entire apparatus, and flooded the room. Mary was a journalist on Time, not an ambitious high-flyer like Martha, but hard-working and shrewd. Realizing that Hemingway wanted a wife-servant rather than a competitor, she gave up her journalism completely to marry him, though she continued to have to endure sneers such as “I haven’t fucked generals in order to get a story for Time magazine.” He called her “Papa’s Pocket Venus” and boasted of the number of times he had intercourse with her: he told General Lanham that, after a period of neglect, it was easy to pacify Mary as he had “irrigated her four times the night before” (when Lanham asked her about this after Hemingway’s death she sighed, “If only it were true”).

Mary was a determined woman, a manager; there was something of Countess Tolstoy about her. By this time, of course, Hemingway was as world-famous as Tolstoy, a seer of manliness, a prophet of the outdoors, with drinks, guns, safari clothes, camping gear of all kinds named after him. Wherever he went, in Spain, in Africa, above all in Cuba, he was attended by a court of cronies and freeloaders, sometimes a traveling circus, in Havana usually static.

There were, too, the repetitive, often deliberate, humiliations. Hemingway loved the attentions of women, particularly if they were glamorous, famous, and flattering. There was Marlene “The Kraut” Dietrich, who sang to him in his bathroom while he shaved, Lauren Bacall (“You’re even bigger than I’d imagined”), Nancy “Slim” Hay-ward (“Darling, you’re so thin and beautiful”). There was Virginia “Jigee” Viertel, part of Hemingway’s Paris circus at the Ritz. In Madrid there were Hemingway’s “whores de combat” as he called them, in Havana the waterfront tarts; he liked to fondle them in Mary’s presence, as he had once fondled Dorothy Twysden under Hadley’s worried gaze. As he grew older, the girls he wanted grew younger. Hemingway once told Malcolm Cowley, “I have fucked every woman I wanted to fuck and many I did not, and fucked them all well I hope.” This was never true, and became less true after World War II. In Venice he became infatuated with a young woman, both dreadful and pathetic, called Adriana Ivancich, whom he made the heroine of his disastrous postwar novel, Across the River and Into the Trees (1950). Adriana sneered at Mary as “uncultured,” a judgment echoed by Hemingway himself, who praised the young woman’s breeding and civilized ways, drawing the contrast with Mary whom he termed a “camp-follower” and a “scavenger.”

Hemingway wrote a “situation report” on Mary at one stage which listed her qualities: “An excellent cook, a good judge of wine, an excellent gardener . . . can run a boat or a household in Spanish.” But he had no sympathy when, as often happened, she injured herself in his wilderness expeditions. There were shattering rows in public, scenes of frightening violence in private. On one occasion he hurled her typewriter to the ground, broke an ashtray she prized, threw wine in her face, and called her a slut.

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Hemingway’s son Gregory noted in his book: “It’s fine to be under the influence of a dominating personality as long as he’s healthy, but when he gets dry rot of the soul, how do you bring yourself to tell him he stinks?”

The truth, of course, is that Hemingway did not suffer from dry rot of the soul. He was an alcoholic. His alcholism was as important, indeed central, to his life and work as drug addiction was to Coleridge. Hemingway was a classic textbook case of progressive alcoholism, provoked by deep-seated, chronic, and probably inherited depression, and aggravating it in turn. He once told MacLeish: “Trouble was, all my life when things were really bad I could take a drink and right away they were much better.” He began to drink as a teen-ager, the local blacksmith Jim Dilworth, secretly supplying him with strong cider. His mother noted his habit and always feared he would become an alcoholic (there is a theory that his heavy drinking started with his first big row with Grace). In Italy he progressed to wine, then had his first hard liquor at the officers’ club in Milan. His wound and an unhappy love affair provoked heavy drinking: in the hospital, his wardrobe was found to be full of empty cognac bottles, an ominous sign. In Paris in the 1920’s, he bought Beaune by the gallon at a wine cooperative, and would and did drink five or six bottles of red at a meal. He taught Scott Fitzgerald to drink wine direct from the bottle which, he said, was like “a girl going swimming without her swimming suit.” In New York he was “cockeyed,” he said, for “several days” after signing his contract for The Sun Also Rises, probably his first prolonged bout. He was popularly supposed to have invented the 20’s phrase, “Have a drink”; though some accused him of being mean about offering one and Hemingway, in turn, was always liable to accuse acquaintances of free-loading.

Hemingway particularly liked to drink with women, as this seemed to him, vicariously, to signify his mother’s approval. Hadley drank a lot with him, and wrote: “I still cherish, you know, the remark you made that you almost worshipped me as a drinker.” The same disastrous role was played by his pretty 30’s companion in Havana, Jane Mason, with whom he drank gin followed by champagne chasers and huge jars of iced daiquiris; it was indeed in Cuba in this decade that his drinking first got completely out of hand. One bartender there said he could “drink more martinis than any man I have ever seen.” On safari, he was seen sneaking out of his tent at 5 AM. to get a drink. His brother Leicester said that, by the end of the 1930’s, at Key West, he was drinking seventeen Scotch-and-sodas a day, and often taking a bottle of champagne to bed with him at night.

At this period, his liver for the first time began to cause him acute pain. He was told by his doctor to give up alcohol completely, and indeed tried to limit his consumption to three whiskeys before dinner. But that did not last. During World War II his drinking mounted steadily and by the mid-1940’s he was reported pouring gin into his tea at breakfast. A.E. Hotchner, interviewing him for Cosmopolitan in 1948, said he dispatched seven double-size Papa Doubles (the Havana drink named after him, a mixture of rum, grapefruit, and maraschino), and when he left for dinner took an eighth with him for the drive. He claimed: “Made a run of sixteen here one night.” He boasted to his publisher that had he begun an evening with absinthe, dispatched a bottle of wine at dinner, switched to a vodka session, then “battened it down with whiskeys and soda till 3 A.M.” His pre-dinner drinks in Cuba were usually rum-based, in Europe martinis, at fifteen-to-one strength. Once, in the early 1950’s, I watched him down six of these in quick succession—there was a strong element of public bravado in his drinking—on the terrace outside the Dôme in Montparnasse. His breakfast drinks might be gin, champagne, Scotch, or “Death in the Gulf Stream,” a big glass of Hollands gin and lime, another of his inventions. And on top of all, there was constant whiskey: his son Patrick said his father got through a quart of whiskey a day for the last twenty years of his life.

Hemingway’s ability to hold his liquor was remarkable. Lillian Ross, who wrote his profile for the New Yorker, does not seem to have noticed he was drunk a lot of the time he talked to her. Denis Zaphiro said of his last safari: “I suppose he was drunk the whole time but seldom showed it” He also demonstrated an unusual ability to cut down his drinking or even to eliminate it altogether for brief periods, and this, in addition to his strong physique, enabled him to survive.

But despite his physique, his alcoholism had a direct impact on his health beginning with his damaged liver in the late 1930’s. By 1959, following his last big drinking bout in Spain, he was experiencing both kidney and liver trouble and possibly haemochromatosis (cirrhosis, bronzed skin, diabetes), edema of the ankles, cramps, chronic insomnia, blood-clotting and high blood uremia, as well as his skin complaints. He was impotent and prematurely aged; the last, sad photograph taken of him, walking near a house he had bought in Idaho, tells its own tale. Even so, he was still on his feet, still alive; and the thought had become unbearable to him. His father had committed suicide because of his fear of mortal illness. Hemingway feared that his illnesses were not mortal: on July 2, 1961, after various unsuccessful treatments for depression and paranoia, he got hold of his best English double-barreled shotgun, put two canisters in it, and blew away his entire cranial vault.

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Why did Hemingway long for death? It is by no means unusual among writers. His contemporary Evelyn Waugh, a writer in English of comparable stature during this period, likewise longed for death. But Waugh was not an intellectual: he did not think he could refashion the rules of life out of his own head but submitted to the traditional discipline of his church, dying of natural causes five years later. Hemingway created his own code, based on honor, truth, loyalty. He failed it on all three counts, and it failed him.

More seriously, perhaps, he felt he was failing his art. Hemingway had many grievous faults but there was one thing he did not lack: artistic integrity. It shines like a beacon through his whole life. He set himself the task of creating a new way of writing English, and fiction, and he succeeded. It was one of the salient events in the history of our language and is now an inescapable part of it He devoted to this task immense resources of creative skill, energy, and patience. That in itself was difficult. But far more difficult, as he discovered, was to maintain the high creative standards he had set himself. This became apparent to him in the mid-1930’s, and added to his habitual depression. From then on his few successful stories were aberrations in a long downward slide. If Hemingway had been less of an artist, it might not have mattered to him as a man; he would simply have written and published inferior novels, as many writers do. But he knew when he wrote below his best, and the knowledge was intolerable to him. He sought the help of alcohol, even in working hours. He was first observed with a drink, a “Rum St James,” in front of him while writing in the 1920’s. This custom, rare at first, became intermittent, then invariable. By the 1940’s, he was said to wake at 4.30 A.M., “usually starts drinking right away and writes standing up, with a pencil in one hand and a drink in another.” The effect on his work was exactly as might be expected, disastrous. Hemingway began to produce large quantities of unpublishable material, or material he felt did not reach the minimum standard he set himself. Some was published nonetheless, and was seen to be inferior, even a parody of his earlier work. There were one or two exceptions, notably The Old Man and the Sea (1952), which won him the Nobel Prize, though there was an element of self-parody in that, too. But the general level was low, and falling, and Hemingway’s awareness of his inability to recapture his genius, let alone develop it, accelerated the spinning circle of depression and drink. He was a man killed by his art, and his life holds a lesson all intellectuals need to learn: that art is not enough.

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Footnotes

1 In telling the story of Hemingway's life, I have relied throughout on the two excellent recent biographies by Kenneth S. Lynn and Jeffrey Meyers, as well as the earlier work by Carlos Baker.

About the Author

Paul Johnson is the author of Modern Times, A History of Christianity, and A History of the Jews, among many other books.




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