ALONG WITH YOUTH; Hemingway, the Early Years. By Peter Griffin. Oxford University Press. 258 pp. $17.95. HEMINGWAY: A Biography. By Jeffrey Meyers. Harper & Row. 644 pp. $27.50. DATELINE: TORONTO; The Complete Toronto Star Dispatches, 1920-1924. By Ernest Hemingway. Edited by William White Scribners. 256 pp. $19.95 (To be published next month).
IN A POEM about Hemingway, Archibald MacLeish once wrote "And what became of him? Fame became of him." As the newest publications indicate, the Hemingway name and fame continue. Why are still more works about him on the way? Because of curiosity about his spectacular, ultimately calamitous and very public private life. Because he is a giant of modern literature whose exact worth has long been a matter for contention. And in part because of the abundance of Hemingwayana, much of it available (for some reason) at the John F. Kennedy Library in Dorchester, Massachusetts.
For his work on Hemingway's early years, Peter Griffin, aided by Hemingway's fourth and last wife Mary, and by Hemingway's eldest son Jack, has also had access to the papers of Bill Horne, a friend of Hemingway's youth. Griffin is thus able to amplify or amend older biographical studies. He includes some early poems, five unpublished short stories, and family correspondence with Hemingway's parents and with his fianc,ee Hadley. Jeffrey Meyers too has done his homework; he lists dozens of people with whom he has discussed his material, and a full tally of research collections.
Neither biographer deals harshly with Hemingway. Griffin is gentle, indeed almost gushing, and anticipates two further volumes: ample three-decker hagiography on the Victorian scale. Meyers' final tribute is eloquent and generous (Hemingway "wrote as naturally as a hawk flies and as clearly as a lake reflects"). In fact Meyers, a veteran biographer and a Hemingway expert, does all one could ask for. He is skillful at the task defined by Virginia Woolf: that of somehow combining the "granite" facts of a writer's life with the "rainbow" of the writer's creative existence.
The effect of their books is nevertheless depressing. In Griffin's case that is partly because he has not yet achieved the right granite-rainbow mix. He reprints the apprentice poetry and prose with a sort of proprietary pride but with meager analysis. His observations sometimes leave the impression that his knowledge of Hemingway stops short around 1920, when this volume ends. For instance, in the "Buckley at Mons" vignette from In Our Time, when a British officer says Germans looked "awfully surprised" at being shot, Griffin's comment is that "Ernest mocked the clipped British fashion of speaking." Mocked? He and Hadley, in their letters, used a semi-English with "awfully" as a standard non-humorous adverb. The Sun Also Rises is only one of the key Hemingway works that show a liking for slangy British understatement. "Chink" Dorman-Smith, a British regular officer and pukka sahib, became a friend as early as 1918. During the 1920s an acquaintance described Hemingway as "more European than American in get-up. Could have been taken as a young Guards officer." Again, Griffin is not always explicit enough. A sentence on the Hemingways as a young married couple in Paris reads: "Each morning, Ernest rose at dawn, emptied his chamber pot, and cooked his breakfast eggs in it." Why? -- poverty, la vie de Boheme? We are left to guess, if we feel like it.
These are smallish affairs. A worse fault is Griffin's tendency to treat a fictional account as equivalent to straight autobiographical testimony. He has Hemingway eat spaghetti "very quickly and seriously" because that is how Lieutenant Henry eats it in A Farewell to Arms. When Henry is wounded by an Austrian mortar-bomb, "I tried to breathe but my breath would not come . . ." Griffin reproduces the passage unquestioningly as as Hemingway's own memoir (except that he makes the phrase read "I tried hard to breathe").
Peter Griffin is not then altogether reliable or authoritative. Jeffrey Meyers is more savvy as well as more comprehensive. Yet both biographies, to repeat, make sad reading. Despite their authors' intentions they serve to diminish the man who, according to Meyers nicknamed himself "Wemedge, Taty, Stein, Hemingstein and even Hemorrhoid before he finally became the patriarchal Papa." Our major difficulty in responding properly to Hemingway is that his writing fell away so badly after the 1920s, his great decade. A famous master by 30, for admirers such as Edmund Wilson he was afterwards mainly a braggart celebrity who had abused his talent.
THAT VERDICT can of course be contested. Meyers is among the commentators who think that after A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway alternated between bad books (Across the River) and pretty good ones (The Old Man and the Sea). But from these latest publications it appears that early Hemingway, at least very early Hemingway, was likewise often bad and even puerile. The poems and stories brought to light by Griffin were not of themselves worth publishing, as Hemingway himself probably recognized. True, most beginners turn out poor stuff even if they subsequently shine. The first ventures of F. Scott Fitzgerald are thin enough. What is disquieting about young Hemingway's short apprentice fictions is their thematic resemblance to the inferior yarns of the aging Papa: bars, boxing, bellicosity.
The piece he wrote for the Toronto Star, assembled by William White in Dateline: Toronto, are somewhat more interesting. The majority deal with the European scene, from politics to sport and gastronomy. Hemingway comes across as a knowing, joshing journalist who lives to eat, drink and catch trout. The eye for significant detail and the ear for dialogue can certainly be discerned. There are also, though, hints of the attitudinizing "Hemingstein." Their chief appeal, in other words, is historical. They are not masterpieces -- though, to be fair to their composer, he never regarded them as literature, but merely as a basic livelihood.
The composite picture of Hemingway as a person in this trio of books is, however, disagreeable, as if its substance were not granite but something less staunchly solid. Consider, for example, the details of his experiences in 1918, a year he had begun as a cub reporter in Kansas City. Eager to get to the war in Europe, but with defective eyesight, Hemingway enlisted as a Red Cross volunteer, thereby painlessly acquiring a lieutenant's commission. Virtually without military or medical training, he reached the Italian theater of war via Manhattan and Paris, to find that his assignment was to hand out candy and tobacco to Italian line units. He spent one month in Italy before being wounded, one week of that riding up to the trenches on a bicycle, and one nearly fatal hour of that week in a forward observation post, to which romantic excitement had brought him. The hour was terminated by an Austrian bombardment. For the rest of the war Hemingway was in the hospital, or behind the lines. His letters home were breezy and conventional. He returned home as a veteran with two medals for gallantry, limping down the gangplank in a silk-lined cape, wearing the cock-feathers of a Bersaglieri hat. Back home, he wore this flamboyant costume to lecture at women's clubs.
Such is a possible interpretation of a formative stage in a saga peculiarly macho, morose and accident-prone. The whole Hemingway story can be seen as one of swift ascent, then of a long decline rendered inevitble by inherent flaws of character. This is the man whose views of women seem mawkish, bullish and selfish; who sooner or later savaged all his literary friends (Sherwood Anderson, Gertrude Stein, Dos Passos, Fitzgerald); who thought he had a monopoly on modern war fiction and therefore viciously attacked James Jones' From Here to Eternity -- insisting that Jones lacked combat experience!
The trouble with such a view is that it causes us to lose sight of the rainbow. Hemingway's sudden and universal fame is the truly important phenomenon to make sense of; and secondly, the question of how permanent his achievement may be. Dozens of writers tried to do more or less what Hemingway did. Why did he seem to stand so much higher?
In retrospect we can see how everything began to come together for him between about 1918 and 1925. Economy and candor were already being urged as part of the program of modernism; "Art," Oscar Wilde had said, "is the removal of the superfluous." Hemingway adapted the British upper-class code of debonair reticence to more serious and American usages. Along with other Americans, he approached the Great War as an outsider -- naively anxious at the outset to become initiated into its fascinatingly horrible heraldry (including "the numbers of regiments and the dates"), yet quick to dissociate himself from its rhetoric of glory and honor. The real Hemingway arrived in the closing stages of the fight and had to say a quick farewell to combat. In A Farewell to Arms, he extends the action to the previous year, when the Italian front was in collapse. His writer's intelligence widened and deepened the conflict and the hero's alienation not merely from that war but from nearly all the public occasions of modern life, not least those of his own country.
In these ways, by instinct, application and necessary egotism, Hemingway hit upon a style and a demeanor that came out of American life but also -- like contemporary jazz -- spoke to and for the rest of the world. He was of course not alone in the endeavor. In their different ways Stein, Anderson, Sinclair Lewis and William Carlos Williams were all reaching toward an American-universal idiom. Hemingway's triumph was to apply this to the grim, immemorial themes of death, defeat and the loss of illusions -- a bigger context than that of Winesburg or Gopher Prairie. The omissions and the repetitive utterance gave a certain "thriftiness," comparable to that in Homer and other folk epics.
BEYOND THAT, he patented a form of talk and conduct that seemed instantly "true" -- the way it was, the way people felt they ought to be. It is a style of impatience, cynicism, challenge and suspicion: the manner of someone who will take no more guff, having been offerred too much already. It is the style of veterans, yet also of youth determined to claim their share in adult life. This style has been so much imitated that it has entered into the very texture of American life and literature, not to mention the cinema and television. Bogart is one of its examplars, and thus indirectly a creation of Hemingway. Hemingway is one of the inventors of 20th-century America.
To dwell therefore upon his existence rather than his essence may lead us to undervalue or even miss altogether the astonishing convergence within Ernest Hemingway of an emerging American voice, an international mood in need of expression, and a rare set of appropriate individual instincts. Perhaps the confluence could not in its nature last for more than a decade or so. Perhaps Hemingway was then doomed to a sense of failure and self-parody shaped by his very successes.
We may wish that he had been a nicer man, and so given hs biographers a more cheerful, less-anticlimactic lifespan to chronicle. But then, if Hemingway had been a nicer guy he would not have been Hemingway, and we would not have those incomparably gruff, rueful, pellucid passages, still so haunting in half a dozen Hemingway stories, in The Sun Also Rises, or in A Farewell to Arms:
"The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterwards the road bare and white except for the leaves."