Like the enduring public image, the fading photographs here show him machine-gunning sharks in the Gulf Stream, manhandling marlin, and punching out on shore those occasional skeptics who implied he might eat quiche under pressure.

So how did they describe Ernest Hemingway at the third annual Key West Literary Seminar over the weekend?

"Delicate." "Lonely." "A man of tenderness." "Gentle." "A writer of love stories."

Delicate? Papa?

"We the public never really knew him," said Hemingway biographer Michael Reynolds of North Carolina State University. "The myth obscured the man."

"The macho persona became his device for holding off the world," said poet and Hemingway scholar Robert Gajdusek of San Francisco State University. "His gentleness and sensitivity were really rather extraordinary."

Reynolds and Gajdusek were not just islands in the critical stream.

Some 300 academics, journalists and assorted book lovers from as far as Toronto paid $100 a head to celebrate that most mythic of American writers, whom time and research appear to be rescuing from two decades of critical dismissal.

No fewer than five new Hemingway biographies are scheduled for publication within the next 18 months, as is the first book-length version of the writer's last nonfiction work, "The Dangerous Summer." There is now a Hemingway Society and a Hemingway Review. Last June an international Hemingway conference was held, appropriately, in Madrid.

Even the tinsel-hangers of popular culture are rediscovering Papa. NBC television unleashed a Malibu-minded version of "The Sun Also Rises" last month (much hissed when mentioned from the podium). And of course next month the annual Imitation Hemingway Contest sponsored by Harry's Bar in Los Angeles will prompt thousands of entrants who've written "one good page of really bad Hemingway."

But in Key West, Hemingway never really fell from grace.

The airy, high-ceilinged house on Whitehead Street where he lived from 1929 to 1939 and wrote nearly two-thirds of his books and stories has attracted a steady stream of tourists and literary pilgrims for two generations. They queue up to hear tour guide Larry Harvey point out a dining room fireplace "off center, as are so many of us here in Key West," and insist that "Papa wouldn't have it any other way."

That, at least, was not debated at the seminar, whose name-tagged attendees were feted with harbor-side fireworks, twinkling lights in the bougainvillea and cocktails under the Hemingway banyan tree between lecture sessions at the Tennessee Williams Fine Arts Center. And in Hemingway's former watering holes, such as Sloppy Joe's, his visage fueled a minor industry in tank tops, sun visors and T-shirts. The mythic figure grins from omnipresent photographs -- with slain kudu in Africa, boated marlin in Bimini and raised daiquiri in Havana's Floradita bar.

It was just that swaggering public persona, plus his elemental separation from the social themes and urban obsessions of the 1960s, that edged Hemingway from academic favor after his suicide in 1961. But now, partly due to a mountain of Hemingway material made available to scholars in 1980 and partly due to shifting social, cultural and political winds, the climate has changed.

Writers from George Plimpton to Timothy O'Brien praised Papa at the seminar as a supreme humanist and master craftsman.

"For years I condescended to him," as both a writer and a human being, said Gajdusek. "Now, after 35 years of teaching, I'm doing expiation." The new research material -- much of it letters and manuscripts in the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston -- has revealed, Gajdusek said, a figure of immense complexity amd moral searching beneath the caricature of bull-baiting machismo.

"There was much more to his life than we know," Gajdusek said. "He was a major paradox with enormous dualism" in both his character and his works.

"His winners lose, his losers win . . . his 'simple' writing style conceals enormous depth of meaning . . . he is the most famous American writer, yet he lived most of his life outside America and rarely wrote about America . . . It just goes on and on."

Within and beneath the bluster of Hemingway's macho code, he said, lie "the rites and sacraments of individuation" -- a compelling need to shape life's meaningless pieces into some sort of coherent whole before the inevitability of death.

That search, the poet said, may well have been born in the 19-year-old Hemingway's traumatic first mission as an ambulance driver in World War I Italy -- collecting body fragments after the explosion of a munitions factory in Milan.

Biographer Reynolds, author of two books on Hemingway's early life, said critics who fault the writer for neglecting social issues ignore yet another essential anomaly of his life: The most famous author of the 20th century was actually more a product of the 19th.

Faced with a fairly weak father figure, Reynolds said, Hemingway modeled himself after Theodore Roosevelt, whose swaggering style dominated an era and overshadowed his prolific writing, even as Hemingway's was later to do. Roosevelt's "bully pulpit" philosophy of work, self-reliance and the strenuous life was drummed heavily into schoolchildren in Hemingway's Republican home town of Oak Park, Ill. The writer not only embraced it, Reynolds said, but grew a Rough Rider moustache like the former president and later, in Africa, hunted with one of Roosevelt's old safari guides.

Born in 1899, raised to a nonurban life style close to land, rod and gun, he sought that life in other countries when it became harder to find in America. He was never really faced, Reynolds noted, with the concerns of cities, technology and social interdependence that so dominate the literature of his colleagues.

Even in Hemingway's treatment of women, for which the writer drew the most criticism during his lifetime, seminar panelists found cause for reevaluation.

Linda Wagner, professor of English at Michigan State University, said those who find "the Hemingway woman" one-dimensional ignore the existence of not one "Hemingway woman" but many. Despite his oft-described antipathy toward his strong and critical mother, Wagner said, Hemingway was "raised with four sisters, understood women, liked women and liked to be with women." The four-times-married author was even "a remarkably faithful husband compared to other writers," she said.

His early stories in particular, Wagner said, depict males learning from women -- "real women, not cardboard figures. There is great variety." Even his less rounded characters, like Catherine Barkley in "A Farewell to Arms," on careful reading appear more vital than often depicted, Wagner said.

"What Hemingway was after was a woman who could be strong and act with grace under pressure," she said. "He was the ultimate romantic."

How about Margot Macomber, the bitch-goddess in one Hemingway story who blows her husband's head off with a hunting rifle? She, Wagner replied to much applause, was merely "a one-shot characterization."

Perhaps the most telling testimony, however, came not from Hemingway scholars but from three novelists who came of age as writers during his critical eclipse and find new meaning in his work today.

Speaking on "Hemingway and War," Ambrose Clancey ("Line Pilot"), David Martin ("Crying Heart Tattoo"), and Tim O'Brien ("If I Die in a Combat Zone") said it's not just his technical mastery of their craft that draws them to Papa: It's his values.

"We come from a time when people have an idea there are no rules -- everything's negotiable," said Martin. "No one knows what his duty is in literature or in life. Hemingway tells us there are absolute rules . . . He stands there like Stonewall Jackson. We don't have to rally around him but knowing he stands there is a great comfort."

O'Brien agreed.

"Hemingway's personality was very different from mine. We would disagree on many things . . . I see him more as a theologian . . . He writes the ultimate truth. And that is that there is only one fundamental challenge to life: Can we die well . . . ?

"That effort to be gallant in the face of the inevitable is what it's all about. We can't all do it. But we can try."