Under Kilimanjaro--truthiness at late light: or would Oprah kick Hemingway out of her book club.
One example of textual variation must suffice here. On the first page of Under Kilimanjaro Hemingway describes Keiti, the old man who is the "head man of this outfit": "His religion was absolute but I never knew how much of it was snobbishness and a desire for a special ritual and how much was true belief. There were very many things I did not know. There were more every day" (1). Because the book is centrally concerned with religion and ritual, truth and belief, things that are known and unknown, one may well wonder why this opening passage did not appear in True at First Light. Aside from its telling characterization of the old "head man," the passage establishes the narrator's truth-seeking character, the fundamental humility of Hemingway's stance as a deracinated outsider who yearns to understand, to observe accurately, and finally to merge with the Deus Loci of his corner of Africa, where he knows the people and the animals individually, where he will practice the special rituals of place to support his candidacy for tribal membership, and where he will try to sort out "how much was true belief." But this key passage, and scores of others, disappear from the brief and much diminished first published version of Hemingway's narrative.
All during the month of January 2006 my meditations on the two versions of Hemingway's 1953-54 safari "memoir" were invaded on a daily basis by the media brouhaha over the fictionalization of events in James Frey's best-selling "memoir"--A Million Little Pieces. Was there a single day in January 2006 that the print and broadcast media did not make some pronouncement on truth and fiction, on fictionalized memoirs? I started to keep a file on all this, many clippings, many scrawled notes, thinking it might be instructive to place Hemingway's "fictional memoir" of Africa in this contemporary context. I took careful notes on memoir-related media occurrences of the word "truthiness," which the American Dialect Society had voted the "2005 Word of the Year." I kept trying to fit Patrick Hemingway's observation, in his introduction to True at First Light, about how "ambiguous counterpoint between fiction and truth" (9) was at the heart of his father's African "memoir" into the contexts of the season's literary sensation. I did the same with the careful statements about truth and "fictional elements" made by Lewis and Fleming in their introduction; and I took copious notes regarding what Hemingway had to say in this narrative about truth, lies, and writing, and how these statements related to earlier observations he had made on the subject, going all the way back to the deleted conclusion of "Big Two-Hearted River" (published as "On Writing"). I had just about decided that my desire to Oprah-contextualize Hemingway's fictionalized memoir should be abandoned because, as always, the quest for contemporaneity would lead only to banality, when three things happened in a 24-hour period in late January: 1) an English major said in my class that Hemingway's memoirs, especially A Moveable Feast, were (like James Frey's) full of lies; I replied: "Are you saying that Hemingway's memoirs are French-Freyed Lies" (at least half the class laughed, deepening my suspicion that more of them had read Frey than had read Hemingway); 2) Oprah said on TV that James Frey had "betrayed millions of readers," the New York Times ran a story headlined "Author is Kicked Out of Oprah Winfrey's Book Club" (27 January 2006), and literature, as it were, upstaged all other news of the world in radio and television commentary for several news cycles; 3) rereading certain crucial passages of Under Kilimanjaro late at night, I fell asleep somewhere between Hemingway's observations about the "mystical countries" (UK 23) we visit in dreams and his meditation on what "Scott Fitzgerald had written that in the something something of the soul something something it is always three o'clock in the morning" and how he finally remembered the Fitzgerald quotation: "In a real dark night of the soul it is always three o'clock in the morning"(219). That night I dreamed of James Frey, whom I have no intention of reading, although many of my students are doing so; and Oprah, whose TV show I have never seen, although everybody else seems to have watched it since birth. I dreamed I was sinking, drowning in some Dark Night Nada of the Book Club's Soul, and the dream's headline read: "Hemingway is Kicked Out of Oprah's Book Club."
Hemingway has a good deal to say about truth and lies in Under Kilimanjaro, much of it in connection with the act of writing. "All a writer of fiction is," Hemingway writes, "is a congenital liar who invents from his own knowledge or that of other men. I am a writer of fiction and so I am a liar too and invent from what I know" (UK 113). The passage goes on to characterize Lawrence as "a sensitive journalist sightseeing in Indian country" who could "write beautifully" but whose "cerebral mysticism" got in the way, and Hemingway could not believe Lawrence had ever slept with an Indian girl (114). This sounds like a standard against which Hemingway invites the reader to measure his African narrative: is he more than a "sensitive journalist"? Do we believe he slept with Debba? In another truth-facts-lies passage Hemingway tells the interpreter who needs "to know the truth" that there "is very little of it in books"; he has "sought it all [his] life and had to be content with facts, coordinates" (341). In another scene, Hemingway, lying in bed, remembers pleasurably "great and respected liars" he has known. Again, writing is linked with lying: "Ford Madox Ford was perhaps the greatest liar I had known in civil life." At first, Hemingway remembers, he was "shocked and, puritanically, offended" by Ford's lies but after Ezra Pound assured him that Ford "only lies when he is very tired," as "a way of relaxing," Hemingway's puritanical sense of shock at Ford's lies may be somewhat diminished. What matters most to Hemingway is that "a self-confessed master of English prose...lied so badly" (385).
What does all this add up to in the contexts of the current controversy over fictionalized or false memoirs? Does it mean that writers are always primarily concerned with "truthiness," that word of the year defined by the American Dialect Society as referring satirically "to the quality of preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true" (www.americandialect.org)? Facts matter a great deal at first light; and they may be lies by noon; late at night, however, truthiness--which, after all, is a word that has been around a long time (at least since 1824--OED) and means simply truthfulness--is what matters most. "Nobody knows the night," Keiti tells Hemingway, who wants very badly "to learn it" (379). And to learn the night, "certain lies were truer than the truth and they were a necessity to any form of religion" (282). Taken together, his meditations on fact, truth, and lies in Under Kilimanjaro would probably get Hemingway kicked out of Oprah's Book Club.
But then, memoir, the debased solipsistic form of memoir that occupies center-stage in the current debates over the betrayal of truth, is not the genre Hemingway practices, in this book or anywhere else. He is, first and last, a storyteller, and a storyteller's job is to perfect the verisimilitude of the lies that tell the truth. I know, for example, that the actual Ernest Hemingway never sacked a city but I accept Hemingway-the-storyteller's narrative claim that he did (UK 358). I doubt that the actual Ernest Hemingway ever slept with an African girl, and I feel certain he did not believe that held "the most chances of happiness" of any day in his life (355); it is only necessary for the reader to accept this as the truth of the narrative moment. Yet who knows, since Hemingway's name is at last beginning to appear in the great "false memoir" debate (e.g., Nancy Milford "The False Memoir" Washington Post 12 February 2006), even now there may be truth-investigators at work in Africa; and some day soon, I may watch the Oprah show for the first time and see Debba discussing her relationship with Hemingway--she would be about my age now, a perfect age to write a memoir.
In sum, then, any reader with an interest in any of the following rubrics will have to read and reread Under Kilimanjaro carefully: 1) Hemingway on Writers and Writing; 2) Hemingway and Religion; 3) Hemingway and Humor; 4) Hemingway and Hunting (and what Derek Walcott calls Hemingway's "Franciscan" "tenderness towards animals" 11); 5) Hemingway and Africa (obviously--but more generally Hemingway and the Spirit of Place); 6) Hemingway and the Deracinated American Quest for Autochthonous Tribal Identity (from Cooper to Twain and Scores of Local Colorists and Regionalists through Faulkner and beyond). If the storyteller's voice seems a bit windy in Under Kilimanjaro, if the style has evolved from what Derek Walcott calls an early "chivalric hermetic solitude" that has now "grown garrulous," and become "a loquacity that turn [s] his readers into members of a privileged club" (7), we all remember In Our Time and what the narrative voice would not say then because it was risky to try to say it, what a 25-year old writer could intuit, hint at, and omit; we all remember our initiation into that "privileged club," and we still pay our dues because there isn't any better club--certainly no better book club--to belong to.
Hemingway, Ernest. True at First Light. New York: Scribner's, 1999.
--. Under Kilimanjaro. Ed. Robert W. Lewis and Robert Fleming. Kent, OH: Kent State UP, 1995.
Walcott, Derek. "Hemingway Now." North Dakota Quarterly 68:2 and 3 (2001): 5-13.
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|Title Annotation:||Oprah Winfrey, Ernest Hemingway|
|Publication:||The Hemingway Review|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2006|
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