“Hemingway’s Boat: Everything He Loved in Life and Lost, 1934-1961,” by Paul Hendrickson
By Howell Raines,
While reading “Hemingway’s Boat,” it occurred to me that serious students of Ernest Hemingway have been like passengers in another vessel, the metaphorical boat invoked by his friend and rival F. Scott Fitzgerald in “The Great Gatsby.” As readers, we have been beating against a ceaseless current of posthumously published novels, biographies, family memoirs, psychoanalytic studies and polarized critical debates about Hemingway’s oeuvre and character. Now thanks to Paul Hendrickson, we can rest on our oars for a while.
This book is a large-minded, rigorously fair summation of the best thought on Hemingway’s writing, his life, traumas, pathologies, his family and friends, his even more abundant cast of personal, literary and cultural enemies. There is new reporting, too, about significant events and previously ignored witnesses aboard Pilar, a 38-foot ocean fishing boat delivered to Hemingway in 1934. Like earlier books by this deft storyteller, this parallel biography of Pilar and her captain is extremely well written. Moreover, in the academic field of Hemingway studies, the book will stand as an indispensable document. It recognizes Hemingway’s deservedly high place in the modernist literary pantheon and broadens our understanding of the half-century fad among scholars and critics to denigrate his magnificent early work, notably “The Sun Also Rises”, “A Farewell to Arms,” and “The First Forty Nine Stories,” by documenting the declining editorial judgment, manners and common sense that marked his later years.
In journalistic and scholarly terms, here is the main thought. Hendrickson makes a convincing case that Gregory Hemingway, the author’s transvestite (and eventually transsexual) son, was acting out in extreme ways a gender confusion shared by — and sympathetically understood by — his father. Contrary to other accounts, including Gregory Hemingway’s own memoir, which depicts them as totally estranged for the last decade of Ernest’s life, their contacts continued, by letter and phone, until a few months before the father killed himself in 1961. By the time of Gregory’s first arrest for entering a ladies’ restroom in female attire in 1951, the father already knew about his son’s gender issues, often writing him caring letters, paying his psychiatric bills, and advising him on business and marital disasters. True, the ensuing 10 years were also marked by storms of rage on both sides, but the record is clear that an author who supposedly was terrified of homoeroticism understood that Gregory’s obsessive need to wear women’s clothes was linked genetically to the elder Hemingway’s own penchant for gender-switching, role reversal in lovemaking, and the fetishism underlying his fondness for dying and cutting women’s hair to make them boy-like. Hendrickson shows that, contrary to critics and psychobiographers who have depicted Hemingway, almost gleefully, as a self-deceiving homophobe, both the author and his son were psychosexually aware and “far braver human beings than anyone ever knew” in confronting their compulsions.
By a meticulous attention to medical and behavioral records, Hendrickson gives us a valuable new tool for the task, as defined by Thomas McGuane, of seeing Hemingway “the great artist, the hero, and the fool” as “the same person.” He does this by documenting a fourth persona: Hemingway as a medical basket case. Indeed, this re-telling of Hemingway’s illnesses and his lack of self-control convinces me that, for the last third of his life, he was probably suffering from organic brain damage due to traumatic, blunt-force head injuries, a syndrome now readily diagnosed among professional football players. Four times between1928 and 1954 Hemingway suffered major brain concussions in planes crashes and other accidents, often in combination with spinal and intestinal injuries. Then there was his mid-life mania for boxing against much younger men and, in one case, a knockout inflicted by a boxing professional.
Add the decades of untreated alcoholism and the hereditary manic-depresssion that was ignored medically until the last year of his life, and we have an important way of understanding the man’s mountainous health issues. Ernest Hemingway was not the architect of his pathologies. He died of his imposed and inherited illnesses as surely as we will all die of ours. Less charitable readers may say that he chose the fame that made his incidents of erratic behavior into public spectacles. However, I’m not sure that Hemingway readers and scholars have allowed sufficiently for the florid evidence that we were watching, as early as World War II, a man without a fully functioning brain and intellect. The great novels were all before 1940, and even his last generally admired book, “The Old Man and the Sea” in 1952, was conceived in 1936.
It was never in the cards for Hemingway to enjoy the long productive career and cuddly tolerance enjoyed by fellow giants like Picasso and Yeats. But he did not even receive the biographical and critical mercies accorded his generational peers, Fitzgerald and William Faulkner. Unlike them, he was writing at top form almost from the start, which made him a bigger target for a longer time. Also, Hemingway was unlucky in his main biographers and critics. The alcoholism, depression, adulteries, public spectacles, literary failures, senescent romances and Hollywood sell-outs of Fitzgerald and Faulkner have been portrayed with the indulgent sympathy given to quirky geniuses.
Hendrickson rightly recognizes the deleterious effect of the seminal Hemingway biography published by Carlos Baker in 1968. It is a magisterial work, but one in which it is clear that Baker, a Princeton professor, arrived at a deep personal dislike for the man to whom he dedicated his academic career. Subsequent biographies by Michael Reynolds and others have been more balanced, but Hemingway’s reputation has never fully recovered from the Baker biography and the trend-setting critical rejections of his later work by two early admirers, Edmund Wilson and Alfred Kazin. Then Philip Young’s trend-setting 1952 psychoanalytic study, “Ernest Hemingway,” made it popular to put Hemingway the man on the couch so as to diminish Hemingway the writer. How would the dipsomaniacal Faulkner have fared, one wonders, without the cadre of worshipful PhDs churned out by Southern English departments since World War II?
Among journalists, Hendrickson, a former Washington Post reporter, has long been recognized for having the most authoritative reportorial acquaintance with the three Hemingway sons. (As it happens, I knew two of them. I shared several fishing trips and dinners with the eldest, Jack, in Idaho, Argentina and New York, and briefly met Gregory at a memorial service for Jack in 2000, a few months before Gregory died in Miami’s jail for women.) Jack Hemingway deeply loved his youngest brother, known as Gigi in the family, and spoke tolerantly of his sexual and addictive tribulations. Gregory was dressed as a man at Jack’s memorial service. Jack had told me that in recent years, Gregory, who was not homosexual, had a lady friend and was talking about reversing the sex change that gave him female genitalia in 1995. There are those, of course, who would argue that this late-blooming phallic obsession tells all there is to know about Hemingway pere et fils. Paul Hendrickson has found a much more complex story. Ernest snatched his art from the steadily closing jaws of mental disability. Gregory crafted a short but useful medical career despite his self-destructive compulsions. This was the family leitmotif, Hendrickson asserts, the existence of artistic beauty and enduring love amid immense personal wreckage.
This book reminds me of Scott Fitzgerald’s maxim that the sign of a first-rate mind is the ability to hold two opposed ideas at the same time. With this sterling summation of the entire Hemingway canon, Hendrickson shows what has eluded some very able scholars. A writer’s life can contain two conflicting existences, one of purely original genius and one of irreversible destructiveness. It’s a lucky genius who gets credit for the first and a free pass on the second. Hendrickson issues no free pass to Papa. He gives the ravaged old man something more honest: a fair summing-up of a life like no other.
Howell Raines is working on a novel set in the Civil War.
HEMINGWAY’S BOAT Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost, 1934-1961 By Paul Hendrickson Knopf. 531 pp. $30