Ernest Hemingway: A Biography
By Mary V. Dearborn
738 pages, $35
“In life one must (first of all) endure,” said Ernest Hemingway (1899 – 1961).
Regrettably, the same must be said of Mary V. Dearborn’s exhausting biography of Hemingway, the first, her publisher said, in 15 years. There’s a reason for that: Hemingway’s inbox of scholarly attention has been full for some time.
I can think of at least three books I’ve reviewed in the recent past about our man: “Hemingway at War,” by Terry Mort; “Everybody Behaves Badly: The True Story Behind Hemingway’s Masterpiece, 'The Sun Also Rises,' " by Leslie M. M. Blume; and "Hotel Florida: Truth, Love, And Death In The Spanish Civil War,” by Amanda Vaill.
Earlier, Carlos Baker wrote a five-volume life of Hemingway in 1969. And, as Dearborn acknowledges in her prologue, “the efforts of most of those who followed have been impressively researched and, for the most part, insightful.”
So what’s Dearborn’s pitch? She, who received a doctorate in English and comparative literature from Columbia University, and has written biographies of Henry Miller and Norman Mailer, must have something nifty up her sleeve.
Surely it cannot be Hemingway “the man who found it difficult to give and receive love and maintain friendships, unless it was 'all for Hemingway.' ” We’ve been told this ad nauseam.
Can it be the development of his writing style? I don’t think so. We know about Mark Twain, Gustave Flaubert, Stendhal and Gertrude Stein, among others were an influence to him.
Do we care about his gender experimentation and sexual role-playing that until now have been dismissed as “gender confusion”? This has some merit and Dearborn is right to pursue it. (She says Hemingway was not gay.)
Alternately, Leslie Fiedler, a long time University at Buffalo professor, wrote in “Love and Death in the American Novel,” that “Twain and Hemingway … imagine an ennobling or redemptive love only between males in flight from women and civilization.”
Have we an interest in pursuing how Hemingway’s four marriages went sour? Dearborn illustrates how each mirrored the author’s view of himself at the particular time.
Instance: his first to Hadley Richardson, most like his mother our author relates, needed his money. His second, to Pauline Pfeiffer, who wrote for Paris' "Vogue," was a glamourpuss. His third marriage to Martha Gellhorn, the war correspondent, mirrored his interest in speaking out against fascism in Spain with the Loyalist side. (Gellhorn loathed his interest in sex.) And last, Mary Welsh became his caretaker-wife according to our author. Hemingway in his 40s was already whipped by alcohol and pills.
Most people know that Hemingway, in the end failing visibly, was almost frail.
"He selected a double-barreled Boss shotgun, put two shells in it, and took it upstairs. … There he steadied the butt of the gun on the floor, leaned over, put his forehead on the gun barrels, and pulled the trigger.” (It’s pure speculation but if you look at the cover of this book, with a young Hemingway pointing a weapon at who knows what, he looks as if he’s fully capable of turning the gun on himself.)
At this point I’m wondering: How will Dearborn summarize and conclude to validate her effort?
She makes a strong case that her book wouldn’t have been worth doing unless she was able to give more light to Hemingway’s larger story: “The giant personality, the hard-core values left behind, and the carefree childhood that carried him along until ‘everything went to hell,’ as he said, and it all blew up.”
For this reader, these apparent insights of themselves are not enough for this slog of a book.
There’s something more that gives the book its value. It’s almost inexplicable. And that is the influence that this one man and his ideas of masculinity have had on writers in America, even until now.
The book is a nuanced portrait backed up by dogged research, medical records, FBI and KGB files and family letters of that influence. It is surely not the first but it’s an academically solid portrait of “this complex American artist, whose darkness, drive, and vision of courage; whose ambition, self-control and grace under pressure, and whose eleven novels and five short story collections are still informing writing generations after his death.”
Michael D. Langan is a frequent book reviewer for The Buffalo News.