Printer Friendly

Ernest Hemingway: A Biography.

Ernest Hemingway: A Biography. By Mary V. Dearborn. New York: Knopf, 2017. 752 pages. Cloth $35.

Mary V. Dearborn's new book represents the most thorough and authoritative one-volume biography of Hemingway since Carlos Baker's magisterial Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story in 1969. At 752 pages in bound galleys, with an index to come, it runs even longer than Baker, and for good reason. A great deal of new material has surfaced during the past half century to be taken into account, and Dearborn has been diligent both in reading what other biographers and critics have contributed and in uncovering fresh information.

She is an accomplished biographer whose subjects have included Henry Miller, Louise Bryant, Norman Mailer, and Peggy Guggenheim. But her last book, on Guggenheim, was published in 2002 and, as her preface reveals, she has been thinking about a Hemingway biography since at least the middle 1990s. The gender-bending revelations of The Garden of Eden caught her attention as did the scholarship of Carl Eby, Debra Moddelmog, Rose Marie Burwell, among others. From the beginning, Dearborn had no "investment" in the Hemingway legend of machismo. Instead she set out to discover "what formed this remarkably complex man and brilliant writer."

That took her back to Oak Park and northern Michigan and to Ernest's parents, Grace and Ed Hemingway. It's refreshing to see Dr. Hemingway so identified, inasmuch as he was almost universally known by his middle name Ed(ward) rather than by Clarence, his given first name. Dearborn is careful about that and about names in general. Only once does she lapse -- in the bound galleys -- by referring to Lady Brett rather than Lady (Brett) Ashley.

With her sensitivity to gender issues, Dearborn makes more than other biographers of the relationship between Grace Hemingway and her adoring music pupil Ruth Arnold, who as a teenager became a live-in companion to the family as early as 1906. Matters reached a crisis stage in 1919-1920 after Mrs. Hemingway determined to build Grace Cottage across Walloon Lake from the family's Windemere home in northern Michigan, presumably as an escape from her housekeeping duties but also, Dr. Hemingway believed, as a private retreat for her and Ruth. He objected angrily, but could not stop Grace from going ahead with her plan, paid for by her earnings from voice and music lessons. By and large, the six Hemingway children kept an almost total silence about Ruth. (Ernest objected to his mother's building of Grace cottage on the grounds that the money might have been better spent financing college educations for himself and his siblings.) According to Dearborn, though, as of 1920 Ed Hemingway felt sure that Ruths relationship with his wife was lesbian, and a good deal of new evidence, including loving correspondence between Grace and Ruth, supports that conclusion.

Dr. Hemingway, a hard-to-evaluate figure in the life story of his son, is humanized by way of a letter he sent Ernest after their last meeting. This took place in Oak Park in the final week of October 1928, when, Dearborn establishes, Ernest brought Pauline to the family home for a brief visit. Ernest was in good spirits, having finished the first draft of A Farewell to Arms, while his father, pale and distressed, was suffering from the diabetes and paranoia that led him to take his life a few weeks later. During that short interim, Ed Hemingway sent his son a letter that included this limerick:
I can't seem to think of a way
To say what I'd most like to say
To my very dear son
Whose book is just done
Except give him my love and "HOORAY."


These discoveries in the Hemingway family archives testify to the authors dedicated digging, and are duplicated by so many others that her book is full of surprises. She also makes effective use of sources frequently neglected in the past: Peter Thertel and William Walton, for instance. In addition, she provides detailed sketches of almost all of the minor characters -- extremely useful information often neglected by other biographers. On occasion, she favors the version of events supplied by such former friends as Robert McAlmon and Morley Callaghan to that of Hemingway himself. She fully documents Ernest's lamentable tendency to self-aggrandizement, especially in boasting about his participation in both World Wars. That habit bothered Archibald MacLeish and Buck Lanham, neither of whom could understand why their friend was moved to exaggerate the considerable courage he showed under fire.

Like most Hemingway biographers, Dearborn occasionally expresses disapproval of her subject's behavior: his serial marriages, his harsh breaking off of friendships, and his occasional neglect of his sons. She does not, however, believe that he was frequently adulterous. Yes, he was unusually susceptible to the beauty of other women--Jane Mason and Adriana Ivancich, for example. But in Dearborn's view he tended to idealize them as inspirations to his work, as muses rather than lovers. She also reveals, by way of a suggestive note from Mary Hemingway to Adriana's brother Gianfranco in Baker's archive at Princeton (not to be opened, he specified, until after Mary's death), the likelihood that if Ernest and Adriana were not lovers Mary and Gianfranco probably were.

About two-thirds of the way through her book, Dearborn begins a chapter with a summary judgment of Ernest Hemingway's generosity. In this passage, each virtue is balanced by an accompanying vice. Hemingway could be "kind and giving," she writes, but his wives and children would probably say that he was generous "when he cared to be." He wasn't always the best father, but "would have given his children the moon" if it had been in his power to do so. He was cruel to rivals Fitzgerald and Dos Passos, but offered encouraging advice to beginning writers. He was not an easy man to figure out.

There is not much room for close reading or literary criticism in this biography. Dearborn clearly prefers the short stories to his novels. A Farewell to Arms, she concludes, is overly romantic and sentimental, lacking the strippeddown power of the stories. Frederic and Catherine take on a certain cardboard quality, as compared to "the magnificently complex characters" in Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby and Tender Is the Night. For Whom the Bell Tolls, is hampered by overuse of "thee" and "thou" (meant to render the Spanish familiar form of the English "you") and of Hemingway's favorite adverb "truly." In Across the River and into the Trees, Hemingway "seems to have had little artistic control" over his portrait of Colonel Cantwell, an implausible character "deeply identified with his creator."

Dearborn covers in detail the ups and downs of Hemingway's two longest marriages, to Pauline Pfeiffer (1927-1940) and Mary Welsh (1945-1961). Pauline is presented as a charming and witty person who invariably placed her husband above everyone else, including their sons Patrick and Gregory. "Ernest is perfect" was her mantra, and she set out to make his life as pleasant as possible and to let nothing interfere with his work. Pauline also participated in Ernest's "secret pleasures" (as had Hadley and as Mary also would) of cutting and coloring hair to resemble each other and alternating conventional male and female roles in making love. They were happily married for a decade, until Martha Gellhorn turned up in Sloppy Joe's one afternoon.

Pauline and Ernest's affair and his subsequent divorce from Hadley was not a matter that any of the principals took lightly. When initially confronted by Hadley in late April 1926, Ernest acknowledged his adultery, but suggested that they continue as before. And, according to Dearborn, soon thereafter he complained to Isabelle Simmons Godolphin that Hadley should not have said anything at all, thereby shifting the blame to the injured party. Here the biographer cites the incident as part of "a continuing and escalating pattern" of Ernest blaming others for everything that went wrong in his life, even things for which he was responsible.

Dearborn rightly criticizes Hemingway for describing Pauline in A Moveable Feast, both as originally edited by Mary Hemingway and in the revised form edited by Sean Hemingway, as one of the rich who becomes the "temporary best friend" of the wife and then "unknowingly, innocently, and unrelentingly sets out to marry" the husband. But she is not correct in asserting that neither in 1926-1927 nor in 1960-1961, when he was struggling unsuccessfully to finish his memoir about the Paris years, did Ernest "acknowledge any agency of his own in the breakup of his marriage over another woman." In fact he told most of his expatriate friends at the time that the breakup was entirely his fault. Moreover, as David Wyatt revealed in Hemingway, Style, and the Art of Emotion (2015), Ernest expressed his own guilt and remorse about the divorce in manuscript passages of A Moveable Feast that were never published.

The fourth marriage, to Mary Welsh, was contentious from the start and became progressively more combative over its sixteen years. As Dearborn summarized their relationship, Mary knew about Ernest's bouts of depression, "his drinking, his inability to be alone, his temper, his insistence on getting his way, and his massive, blinkered egotism." But she knew as well that he could be tender and loving, and valued his "unalloyed enjoyment of life, the excitement of his companionship, his vulnerability, and his shy sexual secrets." She'd made her bargain by marrying him, and was determined -- no matter how difficult it was -- to remain his final wife.

The story of Ernest's declining health is painful to read about, and in his last years Mary served as a caretaker to a paranoid and alcoholic partner beset by garrulousness both in conversation and writing. Near the end, Hemingway could not finish anything. He left The Garden of Eden and Islands in the Stream incomplete. He gave up on A Moveable Feast, leaving it for others to shape it into a book after his death. He contracted with Life to tell the story of the mano a mano bullfights of Antonio Ordonez and Luis Miguel Dominguin in the summer of 1959. Once he started writing, though, Ernest could not stop, and the agreed-upon 10,000 reached 100,000 words before A. E. Hotchner was summoned to help him make deep cuts on The Dangerous Summer.

Dearborn meticulously documents Hemingway's medical history, making excellent use of the Mayo Clinic records. Carlos Baker believed that Hemingway had never been the same after the two African plane crashes in January 1954, and undoubtedly the injuries he underwent then were permanently debilitating. Dearborn, however, traces the beginning of his mental deterioration to another accident a decade earlier. In May 1944, Ernest was a passenger in a car in blacked-out London when it ran into a steel water pipe. His head smashed into the windshield, leaving a deep wound in his scalp that took fifty-seven stitches to sew up and a headache that would bother him for months. It was regarded, at the time, as a severe concussion, and by no means Hemingway's first or last. Dearborn argues convincingly, however, that he suffered a traumatic brain injury that had disastrous long-term effects on his mental and psychological health. In so doing, she arrives at much the same conclusion as Dr. Andrew Farah in his first-rate Hemingway's Brain (2017), a forensic psychiatric examination of the author's several head wounds published only a few months before Dearborn's.

After the series of shock treatments at Mayo failed to cure his depression, Ernest succumbed to the paranoid fantasies that were part of his family heritage. The IRS was after him. So was the FBI. So was the Immigration and Naturalization Service. He lost weight. He lost strength. He lost the enthusiasm that used to wake him every dawn eager for the day ahead. Worst of all, he lost his ability to write. But he could still manage to kill himself. Early in the morning of July 2, 1961, he stole downstairs, found the key to the arsenal of guns in the basement, loaded the Boss shotgun, propped the weapon against his forehead, and tripped both barrels.

Dearborn ends with two of Hemingway's lyrical descriptions of the arrival of the fall season. The first was written for the funeral of his Idaho friend Gene Van Guilder in 1939 and is now inscribed on a Hemingway memorial in Ketchum.
Best of all he loved the fall
The leaves yellow on the cottonwoods
Leaves floating on the trout stream
And above the hills
The high blue windless skies...
Now he will be a part of them forever.


The second, about fall in Paris, he wrote in A Moveable Feast.
You expected to be sad in the fall. Part of you died each year when the
leaves fell from the trees and their branches were bare against the
wind and the cold, wintery light... You knew there would always be the
spring, as you knew the river would flow again after it was frozen.


The west in the late 1930s and Paris in the mid 1920s: two of the best of times. And another, on the Gulf Stream in 1933, is evoked by the striking photograph on the cover of Ernest Hemingway: A Biography. He is shown, in a polo shirt and shorts, sighting a revolver directly at the viewer. A reminder, to be sure, of the tremendous pleasure he took in the outdoor life of hunting and fishing, and also, just as surely, of how it would end.

Scott Donaldson

College of William and Mary, Emeritus
COPYRIGHT 2017 Ernest Hemingway Foundation
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2017 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Donaldson, Scott
Publication:The Hemingway Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2017
Words:2247
Previous Article:Hemingway's "Now I Lay Me," Prayer, and The Fisher King.
Next Article:Ernest Hemingway: A New Life.
Topics:

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters