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Hemingway's Christian name.

Born in 1899, at the very end of the Victorian era, Hemingway was named after his maternal grandfather and always hated his Christian name (there is no St. Ernest). He considered it bourgeois, expressionless and unimaginative, and associated it with the naive, even foolish hero of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest (1895). In Wilde's play Gwendolen, addicted to the very name of Ernest, marries Jack Worthing, whose real name (it turns out) is Ernest. In 1897, two years before Hemingway was born, Wilde, the antithesis of earnest, was released from prison for homosexual offenses.

Hemingway hated not only his first name, but also the whole tradition of moral earnestness, the dominant characteristic of the Victorian age and object of Wilde's sparkling and rather precious satire. Its major prophets were the Anglican church, the dissident low-church Evangelical and high-church Oxford Movements, the hortatory writings of Thomas Carlyle and the muscular Christianity of Thomas Arnold, headmaster of Rugby school and father of the poet Matthew Arnold. As Walter Houghton wrote in The Victorian Frame of Mind: "The prophets of earnestness were attacking a casual, easy-going, superficial, or frivolous attitude, whether in intellectual or in moral life; and demanding that men should think and men should live with a high and serious purpose.... The importance of being earnest was first recognized about 1830--on the threshold of the Victorian era ... [when] people had begun to feel a danger or an evil in not being earnest" (New Haven: Yale UP, 1957, pp. 222, 218). The Victorians particularly disliked any mockery of grave or sacred subjects.

Longfellow's "A Psalm of Life" (1838) marked the beginning of this moral tradition by announcing, "Life is real! Life is earnest!," and Samuel Butler drove the final nails into its coffin. In The Way of All Flesh (1903) the father of Ernest Pontifex (like Hemingway's mother) believed, "The word 'earnest' was just beginning to come into fashion, and he thought the possession of such a name might ... have a permanent effect upon the boy's character, and influence him for good during the more critical periods of his life" (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1993, p. 81). At about the same time Butler was composing this posthumously published time-bomb of a novel, he also blasted the literary entombment, in massive but all-too-discreet biographies, of eminent Victorians and praised readers who were sickened by such works. Echoing Genesis 6:9, he wrote: "the word [earnestness] has for some time been discarded entirely by all reputable people. Truly, if there is one who cannot find himself in the same room with the life and letters of an earnest person without being made instantly unwell, the same is a just man and perfect in all his ways" (Life and Habit, London: Fifield, 1878, p. 28).

Hemingway's unfortunate name came at the fag end of this moral tradition. Writers like E.T.A. Hoffmann and W.E. Henley had hidden Ernst and Ernest beneath their initials; and Hemingway's father Clarence, who had an equally sissyish name, was called the more manly "Ed." So Hemingway gave himself--and all his friends, wives and children--facetious nicknames and everyone in his circle had to surrender his real name. He was Wemedge, Taty, Stein, Hemingstein, and even Ernie Hemorrhoid (the poor man's Ernie Pyle). Agnes von Kurowsky, the nurse he fell in love with during World War I in Italy, was one of the few allowed to call him Ernie (she could call him whatever she liked). He was first called Papa by his three sons; and Jack (nicknamed Bumby) announced, with more French charm than grammar, "la vie est beau avec Papa." In the early Thirties, when Hemingway's public persona was first displayed in Death in the Afternoon and Green Hills of Africa, he finally became, even to his older friends, the patriarchal Papa.

Hemingway's whole boisterous life was a reaction against his parents' religion, moral and even musical values. Early on, he renounced the church choir and the cello. He rebelled against suburban Oak Park and the Congregational church, against provinciality, respectability, conformity, sobriety, monogamy and fidelity--though he could not escape a guilty conscience. All four of his marriages ended badly. On July 24, 1920, soon after he returned wounded and traumatized from the Great War, his moralistic mother attempted to snatch her wayward son from the hellfire that surely awaited him. She castigated him for his idleness, hedonism, parasitism, selfishness, wantonness, irreligion and corruption. Grace told him that unless you "come to yourself; cease your lazy loafing and pleasure seeking, stop trying to graft a living off anybody and everybody; spending all your earnings lavishly and wastefully on luxuries for yourself; stop trading on your handsome face to fool little gullible girls, and neglecting your duties to God and your Savior ... there is nothing before you but moral bankruptcy" (Jeffrey Meyers, Hemingway: A Biography, [NY: Harper & Row, 1985]: 54).

In "Soldier's Home" (1925), the best account of Hemingway's postwar feelings, the hero is made instantly unwell by his mother's sentimental and stifling emotions: "'Don't you love your mother, dear boy?' 'No.... I don't love anybody.' ... 'I'm your mother,' she said. 'I held you next to my heart when you were a tiny baby.' Krebs felt sick and vaguely nauseated" (Short Stories, NY: Scribner's, 1938, pp. 151-152). Hemingway shocked John Dos Passos by exclaiming that he hated his mother.

When Hemingway's early book in our time (1924) arrived in Oak Park, his father refused to tolerate such filth in his house, and destroyed all his rare and now precious copies. Hemingway, refusing to mend his ways, later wrote blasphemous stories that horrified his parents. In "Today is Friday" (1926) three Roman soldiers callously discuss the crucifixion in modern slang. In "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" (1933) he portrayed his loss of religious faith by parodying the Lord's Prayer: "Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name" (Short Stories, p. 383). It took Hemingway several decades to work off the effects of his sententious, good-goody first name. In the end, he made Hemingwaves and no one was less earnest than Ernest.

Jeffrey Meyers, Berkeley, California
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Title Annotation:Ernest Hemingway
Author:Meyers, Jeffrey
Publication:Notes on Contemporary Literature
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2011
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