Icons, icons, icons. We had so many icons around the house last week, you could hardly get from one room to the next. Thanks to the New York Times and the Baltimore Sun, Woolworth's was an "icon." In The Washington Post, Hechinger -- Hechinger! -- was an "icon." In the Wall Street Journal, "the black, family-owned funeral home" was an "icon." Again in The Washington Post, Ernest Hemingway was an "icon."
It's the new twist on Andy Warhol's axiom. Where a few years back everybody got to be famous for 15 minutes, now everybody -- and everything -- gets to be an icon for 15 minutes. In the case of Ernest Hemingway, maybe longer. Why, Hemingway was an icon before anyone had heard of icons. He was Papa: stormy, husky, brawling, writer of the big shoulders. Back when I was a pup, every boy who could put pencil to paper dreamed of being Papa, and more than a few spent the rest of their lives trying, mostly to absolutely dreadful effect.
Then, maybe a couple of decades ago, Papa stopped being Papa, or at least many of us stopped thinking of him that way. People took a second look at his prose and saw there was less there than met the eye. People took a second look at "The Old Man and the Sea" and saw that it was possibly, just possibly, the worst novel ever written by anyone masquerading as a major writer. People took a second look at the macho style -- the booze, the boats, the broads -- and saw that not far beneath it lay a man desperately trying to overcompensate for an uncertain sexual identity.
So in some of the places where literary and pop-cultural reputations are made, Papa took a beating. But apparently word of this never made its way to the subtropics, for in Key West they just kept right on worshiping Ernest Hemingway as though he were, for once and for all and forever, Papa. They held festivals in his honor, wore T-shirts and other raiment sporting his bearded image, and held contests to choose those who most closely resembled him.
So they do, more or less, unto this day. More or less, that is, because the right to conduct public Papa-worship for veneration and profit has become a bone of some of the more ludicrous contention to hit the headlines in recent years. The three sons of Papa -- John, Patrick and Gregory -- have suddenly decided that, in the words of one who represents them, only "an authorized licensee" can "market Hemingway memorabilia in any form" or "charge admission" to the Hemingway Home museum in Key West.
To protect what the brothers Hemingway now perceive as their interest in their father's name and image -- his iconography, as we say these days -- they have engaged the services of Fashion Licensing of America and its president, Marla Metzner. She has, this newspaper reported last week, "plans to market Hemingway as a very upscale lifestyle brand," and she has already set about bringing this to fruition, through her offices and those of the brothers' company, Hemingway Ltd.
The first step toward that end can only be described as a stroke of genius. Keepers of the Hemingway flame -- Hemingway iconodulists -- will recall that the writer, deeply depressed, took his life in 1961 by firing a shotgun into his head. So what was the very first Hemingway Ltd. licensed product? Yes: a Hemingway shotgun.
Hard on the heels of that, Hemingway Ltd. came up with another "upscale lifestyle brand," a Mont Blanc pen selling for a cool $600. (Whether the full text of "The Sun Also Rises" is programmed into the pen has not, as yet, been disclosed.) Presumably we will not have long to wait for the Hemingway Safari ($47,500 per person, only at Neiman Marcus), the Hemingway Sport Utility Vehicle ($175,000, from Land Rover) and the Hemingway Finca Vigia (800 feet of Caribbean waterfront, helipad, library fully stocked with 1920s first editions: $7.4 million at Sotheby's).
Not every Hemingway is with the program. Lorian Hemingway, a niece of the master, says of those involved with Hemingway Ltd.: "I don't want to be so incautious or careless that I ascribe greed to it, but frankly, that's what I think it is. Ever since they have gotten this trademark they have tried various ways to pull money out of it, like the insane licensing of a Hemingway shotgun. And now to patch up that image, they've licensed . . . a Mont Blanc pen. Personally, I think that is more of an insult to Hemingway than a bunch of people going around in hats and T-shirts."
Considering how quick her uncle was to take offense, she's probably right. He may have thought that the rich weren't really different, they just had more money, but he had a distinctly limited tolerance for people who tried to buy what they couldn't earn. The spectacle of some Wall Streeter prowling the Idaho countryside with his Hemingway shotgun would have infuriated or amused him. Perhaps both. So, too, the more intimate picture of that same bond trader trying to write the Great American Novel with his $600 Hemingway Mont Blanc.
What's even more preposterous about the Hemingway brothers' money-grubbing is the price they're making Key West pay for it. Say what you will of that tiny island, with its shameless mixture of local color and rank commercialism, but there can be no doubt that its funkiness and its delight in its association with Hemingway are genuine. The Hemingway Days Festival, with its look-alike contest at Sloppy Joe's Bar and its arm-wrestling competition and its other bibulous celebrations, probably comes closer to the heart of the writer -- when he was off-duty, easing back, having fun -- than anything that happened last week at the brothers' International Hemingway Festival; this was held at Sanibel and Captiva, up-market islands Hemingway never visited, and featured, according to the New York Times, "a literary conference, golf and a children's arts camp."
Sounds like Papa, doesn't it? Whatever one may think of the man and/or his work -- me, I don't think much of either -- he deserves to be given his due, and his due wasn't golf or a children's arts camp, much less a literary conference. Once those eggheads and airheads got to nattering away up there in the panel discussion, Papa would have knocked back a pint of rum and shouted them off the premises. He had his pretensions and his affections and his insecurities, but the drinks and the fishing and the carousing were as much of his essence as all those perfect little sentences that just screamed for a bit of the fat he so sedulously scraped away from them. Whoever and whatever he was, he wasn't a $600 pen or an afternoon's lit'ry chitchat. He wasn't an icon, either. Jonathan Yardley's Internet address is firstname.lastname@example.org