A birthday appreciation of Ernest Hemingway, whose work has relevance in today’s pandemic
If you’re looking for a way to mark the 121st birthday of one of the finest writers in our canon, Lillian Ross’s Portrait of Hemingway offers a look at sides of the writer and man you may not have encountered.
Ross, a journalist for The New Yorker who died three years ago, chronicled her meetings with Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) over the course of two days that he spent in New York in the winter of 1949. Ross had met Hemingway in Idaho two years before, on her way from Mexico back to New York. She’d gone to Mexico to do research on bullfighter Sidney Franklin, who told her that Hemingway was one of the few who could discuss bullfighting intelligently.
Hemingway has an awful lot to say to readers today, not least about the time of crisis we’ve been going through. More on that a bit later.
Hemingway’s fondness for bullfighting, the subject of one of his last books, The Dangerous Summer, is widely known, but Ross quickly grasped how savvy Hemingway was about a good many other things besides. Her own literary instincts were developing, and she asked Hemingway for a list of authors he recommended. Not surprisingly for a writer who captured such multifarious facets of human experience in his work, he read widely. The list included French novelists and poets such as Flaubert, Baudelaire, Stendhal, De Maupassant and Proust. He read Russian masters (Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Gogol), and Thomas Mann from Germany. There were also the canonical American names: Melville, Hawthorne, Twain, Crane and James.
Hemingway also tells Ross about reading W. Somerset Maugham and Stephen Vincent Benét novels in his youth, and feeling inspired and galvanized by jealousy because they had written novels and he hadn’t yet done so. This led to Hemingway writing The Sun Also Rises over the course of six weeks at the tender age of 27.
For an author that young to produce such an enduring classic, outpacing the efforts of much more experienced writers, may be somewhat humbling for the rest of us, but in truth the experience was far from the marathon sprint you might imagine. Hemingway tells Ross that the early draft was really lousy, and the rewriting kept him busy for almost five months. He was proud nonetheless, but he doesn’t want others to feel cowed by the achievement.
“Maybe that will encourage young writers so they won’t have to go get advice from their psychoanalysts,” he says.
New York Adventures
But the bulk of Ross’s memoir is not about literary discussions. It’s about a raucous, engaging, larger-than-life writer living it up in New York. Ross relates a couple of days in which she joins Hemingway and his wife as they go out on the town and binge on caviar and champagne. Hemingway the hell-raiser and wild drinker is a living, breathing presence in the pages of this book. It says something about his habits at this time of life that he is proud of trimming his weight all the way to 208 pounds.
As Hemingway and company put on their coats and prepare to leave a restaurant late one night, Ross relates, the writer looks wistfully at a bottle of champagne on the table that is not yet empty. “The half bottle of champagne is the enemy of man,” Hemingway says, and everyone sits down again — never mind that it’s nearly 3 a.m.
They meet up with a range of famous characters and personae of the time, including the great Marlene Dietrich and the Anglo-American polo legend Winston Guest. They also meet the publisher Charles Scribner, whose company released the paperback editions through which many of us first came to know Hemingway’s work, and Hemingway’s second son Patrick, who is still with us, and whom Ross describes as “a shy young man of medium height, with large eyes and a sensitive face.”
For all his enjoyment of the high life in New York, Hemingway makes a telling admission to Ross as they are heading over the Queensboro Bridge and looking out at the Manhattan skyline where lights are on in the office buildings. “This ain’t my town. It’s a town where you come for a short time. It’s murder.”
He greatly prefers Havana, Venice, and of course Paris, whose place in Hemingway’s heart and mind is perhaps best understood in the context of his adventures as an ambulance driver during the Great War and his near-fatal wounding. “I am as lonesome and as happy as I can be in that town we lived in and worked and learned and grew up in, and then fought our way back into,” he tells Ross.
But New York’s diversions are not so easily exhausted. The most brilliant section of Ross’s memoir is her account of her visit with the Hemingways to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Asked by Patrick whether she’d rather see the Goyas or the Breughels first, Mrs. Hemingway expresses a preference for the latter, but the Breughel room turns out to be closed for repairs. After passing by and commenting on works of Van Dyck, Rubens, and El Greco, the little party arrives at the wing where Cézanne, Degas, and other noted Impressionists are on display.
Hemingway’s excitement is palpable. The painters here have influenced and inspired him as a writer. One very famous painting of Cézanne’s, “Rochers à Fontainebleau,” prompts Hemingway to talk about the comparative nature of Impressionist art and the work of 20th-century authors.
“This is what we try to do in writing, this and this, and the woods, and the rocks we have to climb over,” Hemingway explains. “Cézanne is my painter, after the early painters. Wonder, wonder painter. Degas was another wonder painter. I’ve never seen a bad Degas. You know what he did with the bad Degas? He burned them.”
But disagreements with Patrick led to an outburst that may hold a key to Hemingway’s ethos. To put it simply, Hemingway probably would have little use for the abstruse, ponderous theorizing that has taken over humanities departments in recent decades. “What the hell! I don’t want to be an art critic. I just want to look at pictures and be happy with them and learn from them,” he exclaims.
Hemingway’s style, blunt and epigrammatic, terse and spare yet grandiloquent, unadorned yet lyrical, is a thing of genius that some writers have tried and failed to emulate and many others have parodied.
Another way to enjoy Papa’s birthday is to read Joe Haldeman’s brilliantly funny short novel, The Hemingway Hoax, which is about a pair of grifters in the Florida Keys who come up with a scheme to stun the world with the “rediscovery” of a supposedly lost Hemingway manuscript.
The joke here is that, in the con artists’ scheme, the gauche prose in this putative lost classic is so blatantly Hemingway’s voice that no one will have any doubt who wrote it. Questioning its veracity would be like standing forth and proclaiming that the emperor has no clothes.
“The dirt on the sides of the trenches was never completely dry in the morning. If Rick could find an old newspaper he would put it between his chest and the dirt when he went out to lean on the side of the trench and wait for the light. First light was the best time. You might have luck and see a muzzle flash. But patience was better than luck.”
The Hemingway Hoax is more than an exercise in self-aware metafiction. It’s a hilarious novel about the lengths to which literary imitators, and those looking in at fame from the outside, will go.
A Writer for Our Moment
Ezra Pound once referred to a commentary he wrote on the novels of Henry James as “a Baedeker to a continent,” or a work purporting to be a guide to an unfathomably vast subject. Hemingway wasn’t as prolific as James, but he produced a dizzying array of articles, stories, novels, poems, memoirs, and letters in his 61 years.
Given the vastness of the Hemingway corpus, certain reading suggestions may seem somewhat arbitrary, but at our present juncture they are not arbitrary at all.
Front-line health care workers during the Covid-19 crisis, many tending to patients in increasingly overstuffed and undersupplied hospitals, may find in A Farewell to Arms, and especially its later chapters with their depictions of mud, gore, sacrifice, and the horrifyingly impersonal nature of killing and mass death, a work that speaks directly to their experience.
Other readers may find in The Old Man and the Sea, and its haunting ending where one form of menace abruptly replaces another, a parable about the highly contingent nature of an existence where crises overlap and burn side by side, much as in our moment of pandemic and civil unrest.
Readers on both sides of the debate over best public health practices and the wearing of masks may find a rousing call to arms in stories that encapsulate the macho, bullfighting ethos of a bravely idiosyncratic writer. Near the end of the short story “A Way You’ll Never Be,” Nick Adams gives an inspiring speech to desperate fellow soldiers on the Western Front. He exhorts them to stand up for what they believe or let others set the terms of their existence. “Gentlemen, either you must govern or you must be governed,” Nick tells them.
As we face with trepidation the possibility of further shutdowns, the Hemingway story that some may find most relatable is the great “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.”
In this tale, a writer named Harry, highly accustomed to traveling the world and taking in sights that capture something of the vast diversity of human experience, finds himself immobile. He is dying of gangrene after his failure to clean a wound he sustained in the bush in Tanzania. His condition is rather like confinement at home. All the vastness of his rich experience, in Turkey and Bulgaria and Germany and France and the American West, his loves and losses and his brutal fight with a British service member over a woman, haunt him perpetually. It is only through the medium of memory that he can do the exploring that came so naturally to him.
Those of us who yearn to transcend the restrictions that still crimp our existence these days may find ourselves thinking of Paris in terms not unlike these. “There was never another part of Paris that he loved like that, the sprawling trees, the old white plastered houses painted brown below, the long green of the autobus in that round square, the purple flower dye upon the paving, the sudden drop down the hill in the rue Cardinal Lemoine to the River, and the other way the narrow crowded world of the rue Mouffetard…. There were only two rooms in the apartments where they lived and he had a room on the top floor of that hotel that cost him sixty francs a month where he did his writing, and from it he could see the roofs and chimney pots and all the hills of Paris.”
At the end of the story, Harry succumbs to his injury after a breathtaking vision of the approach by plane to Mount Kilimanjaro, leaving only his companion Helen. The reader has an almost indescribable sense of looking at the vast richness of life at once from within and from outside—of being dead and alive at the same time. The final lines of the story are from Helen’s point of view. “Outside the tent the hyena made the same strange noise that had awakened her. But she did not hear him for the beating of her heart.”