Toward the end of James M. Hutchisson’s deftly written biography “Ernest Hemingway: A New Life,” we are reminded to “remember how difficult it was for him to be ‘Ernest Hemingway.’ ” That’s something no reader of this well-researched book is likely to forget. Chapter after chapter, we see Hemingway in splendid complication as both the man and the artist, a figure who Hutchisson believes is “probably the most famous literary figure of all time.”
The outline of Hemingway’s life is well known from earlier biographies: born 1899 in stuffy Oak Park, Ill., the son of a depressed physician father and an artsy mom; wounded in Italy during WWI; cultivated the writer’s life and a new writing style in 1920s Paris; had affairs and multiple wives; battled the fascists in Spain, shot game in Africa and fished the Gulf of Mexico; became a celebrity and masculine icon; was an accident-prone drunk who fought with his friends and critics; lost his ability to write; and, finally, depressed and paranoid, blew his head off with a shotgun.
Hutchisson doesn’t bypass the known facts, nor does he stretch them. He balances them, the public with the private, the artist with the man, and the result is a gentler but sadder look at an American master.
Hemingway couldn’t have hated his mother because he supported her until she died, Hutchisson asserts. Though Hemingway often left his sons to travel, he was an attentive father, worrying about their illnesses, even administering the rectal feedings his son Patrick needed after a car crash. During the Spanish Civil War, Hemingway delivered hypodermic needles to mobile units so that injured fighters in the field could have blood transfusions. Such kind and brave actions balance Hemingway’s reputation for bragging and self-interest.
The extensive details here of Hemingway’s injuries and health crises are painful to read. Many recall the two plane crashes Hemingway survived during his second safari in Africa, but 20 years before, on his first safari, he developed amoebic dysentery that caused part of his large intestine to prolapse. He had to wash and reinsert it himself until he was airlifted to a hospital. Worse still is the impact alcoholism and brain damage from multiple concussions had on his writing. Once he began receiving electroshock treatments at the Mayo Clinic in 1960, Hemingway “could start a sentence but not complete one.” It took him days to write a congratulatory note to recently elected President Kennedy. The list of prescription drugs, often counter-indicative, caused mental and physical complications, and no one did anything about it.
Hutchisson doesn’t make nice when it comes to Hemingway and the critics. Critics could make Hemingway literally “vomit”; he thought of them as “lice who crawl on literature.” But often the critics were wrong in their judgments. Beginning in the 1930s, Hemingway experimented with different styles of writing and mixed genres. One reviewer of the much-maligned novel “To Have and Have Not” accused Hemingway of creating not characters but “sacs of basic instinct.” Another claimed that Hemingway wrote because he was impotent. What Hemingway was really doing in such books as “To Have and Have Not” and “Death in the Afternoon” was experimenting with point-of-view and interior monologue and combining fiction and fact into a hybrid form decades before Truman Capote supposedly invented the nonfiction novel with “In Cold Blood.” By citing critics’ early dismissals, Hutchisson might compel readers of Hemingway’s “greatest hits” to read these more difficult yet rewarding works.
Hutchisson also presents a Hemingway who was far more open-minded about gender than he is typically portrayed. Instead of a man who hated and feared women, Hutchisson’s Hemingway loved, admired and needed them, and we’re told repeatedly that his guilt over divorcing Hadley, his first wife, was lifelong. Discussed at length are the gender difficulties of Gregory, Hemingway’s youngest son, who began cross-dressing at a young age. Hemingway’s interest in lesbians, and the fact that Hadley, Pauline (his second wife) and, perhaps, Hemingway’s mother had lesbian lovers makes Hemingway seem more gender fluid than one might expect. When Hutchisson calls Hemingway postmodern, is he trying to attract a younger audience, one that will see Papa as hip instead of outdated? If so, dear ones, begin with the early stories and go right through to the end.
Hemingway created a new way of writing about experience and nature that changed the history of literature. He also shilled for Ballantine Ale. What’s not to like about such a thoroughly American character? And though I wish it included more quotations from the fiction, Hutchisson’s biography leads us where it should: to the words that Hemingway himself chose with life-giving care and attention.
Sibbie O’Sullivan writes about the culture and the arts. She lives in Wheaton, Md.
By James M. Hutchisson
Penn State Univ. Press. 292 pp. $37.95