The 100th birthday of Ernest Hemingway would be remarkable were he still alive to celebrate it, but given that he has been dead for nearly four decades it is devoid of true meaning; it is merely a date on the calendar. It is an excuse for academics to confabulate and journalists to pontificate, but in no way does it alter the place Hemingway has come to occupy in American culture or the mythology--part lit'ry hero worship, part rank commercial exploitation--that has grown up around him.
It is, to be sure, an occasion to note one little oddity: Had it not been for the 1890s, American literature as we know it simply would not exist. Writers born during that decade whose work is still (to varying degrees) read and admired include, in chronological order: Katherine Anne Porter, Henry Miller, Archibald MacLeish, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Dorothy Parker, e.e. cummings, James Thurber, Edmund Wilson, John Dos Passos, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Robert E. Sherwood, William Faulkner, Thornton Wilder, Lillian Smith, Hart Crane and E.B. White. Add Hemingway to the mix and you have a substantial part of the bedrock on which 20th-century American literature rests.
But like Hemingway's centennial, that coincidence of birthdays within a single decade is inherently meaningless; it's an interesting curiosity, and if anyone still plays Trivial Pursuit it could be raw material for a tricky question, but that's that. Centennials and similar landmarks of lives long ended are ways of marking the passage of time, and sometimes--as in the recent Duke Ellington centennial--they offer opportunities to reassess the meaning of those lives, but it's hard to see the Hemingway anniversary as anything more than a marketing opportunity.
Thus we have the publishing firm of Scribner, which has cannibalized the Hemingway corpus so assiduously that of the 28 books it lists as being "by" Ernest Hemingway, almost exactly half have been published since his suicide in 1961. Many of these are collections--repackagings--of previously published work, but five have been cobbled together by various editors from fragments Hemingway left behind: "A Moveable Feast" (the best of the lot), "Islands in the Stream," "The Dangerous Summer," "The Garden of Eden" and, now, "True at First Light."
This last is promoted as "A Fictional Memoir," which implies the best of all possible worlds: It holds out the promise of a new addition to Hemingway's fictional oeuvre combined with juicy private tidbits--quarrels with his wife, Mary, a love affair with an African girl--such as the Age of Gossip thrives on. But like its posthumous predecessors, "True at First Light" mainly serves to remind us (as has been noted previously) that it's pointless to hold Bad Hemingway contests since Papa himself retired the cup:
"There is, as I said, no word for love and no word for I am sorry in Kikamba. But I told her in Spanish that I loved her very much and that I loved everything about her from her feet to her head and we counted all the things that were loved and she was truly very happy and I was happy too and I did not think I lied about any one of them nor about all of them."
That Hemingway himself chose not to publish such twaddle is a point upon which in the past I have ranted myself blue in the face, and there can be no use in ranting further. The possibility of commercial gain clearly matters far more to his publisher and his heirs than the dictates of literary judgment or his own stated wishes; at this moment they're probably ransacking his leavings in search of more fugitive straw to be spun into gold. So, more power to them: Bleed the old boy for everything he's worth.
That's certainly what's being done by Thomasville, the furniture manufacturer that has been licensed by the Hemingway estate to peddle the "Ernest Hemingway Collection." An alert reader (to borrow Dave Barry's coinage) in southern Virginia has sent along tearsheets from recent issues of a couple of magazines in which the collection is advertised. "He lived a life most of us can only dream of," one says, the words imposed on a photo of Papa in his manly-gentle mode, while the other says, "Hemingway had a tremendous appetite for life," the photo in this case showing Papa hauling in one of the Big Fish with which he was so obsessed. Under the photo, the copy reads:
"Introducing the new Ernest Hemingway Collection by Thomasville. An eclectic mix of home furnishings inspired by the passionate lifestyle and writings of one of the 20th century's greatest authors. A collection equally at home in a formal setting or a cozy breakfast nook. A line of beautifully crafted furnishings that is truly a feast for the eyes."
Well, whatever Papa had, it wasn't a "lifestyle," and he'd have lost his Big Fish lunch over "cozy breakfast nook," but that "truly" in the final sentence is right on target. Just five paragraphs ago, while typing in the Bad Hemingway extract from "True at First Light," it occurred to me that someone ought to run a Nexis search on "truly" in Hemingway's work, because the worse his writing got the more likely he was to fall back upon "truly" to express whatever sentimental thought was passing through his mind at the time.
This truly is what it comes down to: The most influential American writer of this century--the most influential, not the best--is now in competition with Ralph Lauren and Martha Stewart, marketing furnishings for the houses of the upwardly mobile. Many happy returns, Papa.
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.