Hemingway Revisited

Who should wear the crown of America’s greatest writer? Reputations wax and wane, and today’s opinion makers would undoubtedly choose from a different set of names than the critics of 50 years ago. For much of the 20th Century Huckleberry Finn was regarded as The Great American Novel and Mark Twain as its greatest writer. Then the forces of political correctness weighed in calling Twain’s portrayal of Jim racist and the reputation of both novel and author plummeted. School libraries questioned its suitability for inclusion. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye ascended for awhile but suffered the same fate for different, more puritanical, reasons.

Between Twain and Salinger, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald stand out as writers whose stylistic innovations changed the way novels are written. Other writers have claimed our attention – Saul Bellow, John Updike, William Styron, Joseph Heller, Phillip Roth, Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace – but none have succeeded in holding it the way Hemingway and Fitzgerald have done. The Great Gatsby is now widely regarded as America’s greatest novel, and while it deserves its place in the canon of American literature it’s difficult to elevate Fitzgerald over Hemingway when the standard is lifetime contribution.

Both writers continue to command our attention. Both fell from grace for non-literary reasons, Fitzgerald was a drunk who squandered his gifts in Hollywood and Hemingway like a character in one of his own novels, grew old, impotent, and terminally depressed. Both reputations have suffered at the hands of political correctness.

In spite of their flaws I find greatness in many of these writers but I’m especially drawn to Hemingway – to his importance as a literary rainmaker and to the complicated personality behind the literary figure.

Hemingway MemorialIn the fall of 1939 Hemingway wrote these words as part of a eulogy written about a friend who was accidentally killed on a Snake River hunting trip. Later the eulogy was abridged and after Ernest’s death in 1961 the words were incorporated in the Hemingway Memorial on Trail Creek Road in Sun Valley. It is difficult to imagine a more moving paragraph than this one carved in stone on Trail Creek. I’ve been to the Memorial more than once with “leaves floating on the trout streams and above the hills the high blue windless skies.” It is a magical place and fitting tribute to one of America’s greatest but most controversial writers

It’s not easy to write about Hemingway – the man, the myth, or the work – so much has already been written. Despite criticism of the man I’m an admiring fan. Today his reputation and Nobel-worthy achievements are often conflated with the boorish macho behavior that has become a lightning rod for critics who would rather diminish the man than celebrate the writer. He is, after all, a writer who transformed American, indeed world, literature.

I confess that I‘m as confused by the two Hemingways as any critic, but I feel connected in some way that’s difficult to explain. Though he was older than I was his son, Jack, and I were friends until Jack’s death in 2000. We met through a mutual friend in Ketchum and played tennis at his place or mine several times. I knew his wife, “Puck,” and after her death his second wife, Angela. I knew all three of his daughters and when Mariel married Stephen Crisman, Jack brought them regularly to my restaurant for lunch.

Recently, on a trip to Key West I visited the Hemingway House and Museum.  The estate is still its largest residential property, and its limestone house and wall are built of stone quarried on the property. At 16’ above sea level it is the highest spot on the island. Asa Tift, who made a fortune in the marine salvage business, built the house in 1851. Ernest and Pauline, his second wife, purchased the estate for $8000, the amount owed in back property taxes. The lovely stone house and dark surrounding wall are unlike anything else in Key West where almost all the structures are made of wood. Entering the gate into the palm-shaded grounds is to enter into a very different space from the brightly sunlit one outside, and even though the house and grounds are a museum they are still inhabited by 40+ descendants of the polydactyl (6 toed) cats Hemingway loved. It’s easy to imagine what it was like when he was there. I found it profoundly affecting and it renewed my appetite for Hemingway lore and history.

Hemingway House

The years in Key West were Hemingway’s most productive. He had published The Sun Also Rises in 1926 and was working on A Farewell to Arms when he and Pauline returned from Paris to purchase the Key West estate. He settled into a writing routine with the solitude and relative anonymity he needed as well as the excitement and camaraderie of big game fishing nearby. He built a writing studio above the kitchen outbuilding and soon ordered the Pilar, a deep-sea fishing boat,from a Long Island New York boat builder. During the Key West period, from 1927 to 1937, he published A Farewell to Arms, To Have and Have Not, Men Without Women, Winner Take Nothing, In Our Time, Death in the Afternoon, and Green Hills of Africa, an extraordinary output for 10 years.

In 1937 he left Key West to cover the Spanish Civil War as a journalist and the experience there provided material for his next novel, For Whom The Bell Tolls. While he could be charming he could also be boorish and bullying. The film Hemingway and Gellhorn (Martha Gellhorn, the war correspondent, was his third wife) makes this abundantly clear. His contradictions are many and the things that led to his hyper-masculine, macho behavior are some of the same things that provided core material for his fiction. The quest for adventure in WWI gave us A Farewell to Arms. Big game hunting in Africa gave us The Snows of Kilimanjaro. Deep-sea fishing provided source material for The Old Man and the Sea. Boxing was the background for The Killers. He was a complicated character like many of the fictional characters he created.

His end was not pretty. As his health deteriorated his creative gift dried up too. Today’s diagnosis would be bi-polar. Earlier it was called manic-depressive behavior. Whatever you call it, it was his curse. He experienced the world as few of us have and he produced more great literature than almost anyone in American letters but at a terrible cost to himself and his family. I am full of admiration for his sense of adventure and his literary accomplishments but equally aware of the costs.

Was he a nice man? Probably not, though he managed to maintain a coterie of close personal friends. In hindsight his behavior was likely not within his control. The family is cursed with hereditary mental illness. According to his granddaughter, Mariel, who has had to deal with her own mental health issues, seven members of the Hemingway family committed suicide, including her grandfather, great grandfather and sister, Margaux. Her other sister Joan (aka Muffett) lives in with a caregiver as she continues to struggle with her mental illness. In 2013 Mariel produced a documentary about the family, called Running From Crazy that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. She remains a tireless advocate for mental health awareness, treatment, and support and has lent her voice to the work of my friend, Lucinda Jewell, at the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance.

Whatever his personal demons, there can be no doubt that Ernest Hemingway is among the greatest and most prolific of American writers. Like Mark Twain before him his gifts extend across the writing spectrum – newspaper reporter, magazine columnist, war correspondent, travel writer, playwright, non-fiction author, novelist and arguably the best short story writer in American literature. Before my recent trip to Key West I started Paul Hendrickson’s excellent 2011 book, Hemingway’s Boat, and on the trip I saw a replica of the boat, Pilar, in a fishing store in Islamorada. The timing enhanced my curiosity and renewed my interest in the man and his work.

The Key West years were his most prolific and among his most stable personally. Last year I spent time with Jon and Leslie Maksik, two friends from Ketchum, who were staying in the apartment at 74 Rue du Cardinal Lemoine where Hemingway lived during the years recounted in A Moveable Feast. That experience felt strangely personal as I climbed the stairs to his apartment and sat in the room where he, Hadley and Bumby (Jack’s childhood nickname) had lived. This year I feel lucky to have completed the pilgrimage to another key (no pun intended) location in the Hemingway story. That leaves Havana, where the Pilar rests and rots in the yard of his former home, the Finca Vigia. Maybe that’s the next station on my pilgrimage, the next getaway in my effort to escape Surviving Seattle’s November rains. I’ll have to think about it. In the meantime there’s a monsoon brewing outside, the winds are gusting, and the lights just went out. Maybe it won’t be a hard decision. Havana sounds great.

Hemingway's Pilar



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