USA TODAY US Edition
Bio shows why we still can’t get enough of Hemingway
For somebody best known for writing books, Ernest Hemingway was as famous as any movie star, sports hero or rock idol you can name in the last century — or this one. That’s right. This one. It seems we still can’t stop talking about him even beyond the millennium. The April publication of Hemingway’s Brain, a forensic inquiry into the physical traumas that led to his suicide in 1961, is being followed by Mary V. Dearborn’s Ernest Hemingway (Knopf, 627 pp., eeeE out of four), the first fullfledged biography in 15 years.
It, too, is a kind of extended autopsy, not only of Hemingway’s life, but his reputations as a model of American virility and an en-- during literary figure. All of these were subject to scrutiny by scholars, journalists and skeptics even when Hemingway was a living, breathing Nobel Prize winner.
Though some may wonder whether at this late date we need 600-plus pages on one of the most written-about lives in literature, Dearborn’s contribution to the biographical corpus benefits from bringing up the rear of such a long parade. There can’t be any new facts about the man everybody started calling “Papa” when he was still in his 20s, including the lifelong fetish he had for gender-switching, dramatized in his posthumously published novel, The Garden of Eden.
But there is always room for fresh perspective. And Dearborn, who has published life stories of two other exemplars of American machismo, Henry Miller and Norman Mailer, brings a keenly dispassionate, coolly discerning tone to her narrative.
She refuses to indulge Hemingway’s odious behavioral tics. But she also persuasively explains why so many others did: “Simply put, people wanted him to like them, so he got away with more than other people did. His charis- ma protected him from the consequences of his most outrageous actions.” So the contemporary reader has to take Hemingway with all his contradictions. James Joyce on the one hand described him as “a big powerful peasant, strong as a buffalo … and ready to live the life he writes about.” Edmund Wilson, who otherwise admired Hemingway’s writing, called him “a real all-American S.O.B., mean and curmudgeonist, quarrelsome and extremely egocentric.” Dearborn’s rendition of his life makes you admire Hemingway’s headlong pursuit of authentic experience at work, at war or at play as a means to make his writing more honest. But you grow to detest the haphazard tantrums and indignities he visits upon even those, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein, who encouraged and promoted his work.
Most, if not all of Hemingway’s bad behavior had clinical explanations. Dearborn, using research that’s recently come to light, blames severe head injuries, with his fifth concussion, coming in the 1954 plane crash in Africa when the world at first believed he’d perished. If doctors had known then what they know now about chronic traumatic encephalopathy, would Hemingway have received better treatment? Dearborn says we can only speculate.
All we have, in the end, are his books, and on these, Dearborn’s assessments pretty much follow what is now accepted wisdom: That Hemingway’s short stories, his 1926 breakthrough novel, The Sun Also Rises, and everything in his subsequent novel, A Farewell to Arms, up to its flawed conclusion, are what will endure.