My interest in Hemingway was piqued when I was 19. On a whim, I picked up Aaron Hochner’s book Papa Hemingway and never looked back. The anecdotes, the gusto for life that Hemingway showed, the jokes, and the intensity of the man captured me completely. After that, I read every biography published starting with Princeton scholar Carlos Baker’s seminal work, and then went on to the original sources: the short stories, the novels and the letters.
People invariably express surprise when they find that I, a woman, am deep into Hemingway lore and literature. The most common reaction is, “Oh God, he hated women, didn’t he? And he loved bull fighting and hunting. How can you stand him?” After 35 years of reading Hemingway, here’s what I’ve concluded about why I am such a fan and why I find him so relatable.
1. Hemingway was complex. There is the surface and there is more. Just as his simple short sentences belie deeper messages, Hemingway’s persona of a bellicose he-man obscures the multi-faceted shy man beneath the facade. He was a macho icon and yet was far ahead of his time in writing about gender fluidity, women’s rights, and women as leaders. His character Pilar, a mountain woman, is a strong secondary heroine in For Whom the Bell Tolls. The 1927 short story, Hills Like White Elephants, deals with the issue of abortion with compassion and directness all without once mentioning the word and with Hemingway’s sympathies clearly resting with the woman. And in his exploratory The Garden of Eden, Hemingway wrote of gender identity and role changing, all unmentionable in his era. He was a brilliant, insecure, depressed alcoholic with mother issues, all of which made for a rich if not easy emotional stew. The man was full of contradictions and nuance—like all of us.
2. Hemingway’s subject matter moves me. I hate bullfighting, war, hunting, boxing—staples of Hemingway plots—but those are not what I see when I read his works. A Farewell to Arms is about war, but it also is about friendship, love, sacrifice, and coping with grief when all is hopeless. And while For Whom the Bell Tolls is about the Spanish Civil War, it also is about two young lovers who for one snapshot in time have it all. For one moment, they have a beauty that can never be taken from them. Hemingway created images in crafted strokes and phrases, many of which have become clichés to the point of parody because they were that good at defining a feeling and were completely fresh when penned. “Did thee feel the earth move?” “The world breaks everyone and afterward, some are stronger in the broken places.” “Never mistake motion for action.” “Grace under pressure.” At bottom, Hemingway wrote about healing, devotion to a person or cause no matter the cost, loss, and love. The ending of For Whom the Bell Tolls slays me every time.
3. Reading Hemingway reminds me that everything is about context. I mentioned bullfighting and hunting big game. Most of us hate both and view them as barbaric. However, as my history professor always said, you have to see behaviors in the context of their time. Those activities were not anathema in 1930. Eighty years from now, the consensus may be that killing animals for food is brutal, and that not having subsidized medical care for all is byzantine, and to not permit assisted suicide is cruel. Different sensibilities frame what we find unacceptable. Context is key, and Hemingway both shaped and was a product of his time like all of us.
4. And finally, all of our heroes have failings and Hemingway had his share of bad behavior—perhaps more than his share. He was jealous of his rivals due to his own insecurities. He could be a boring part-time bully, particularly when drinking. He was an inconstant husband and a mercurial father. He discarded people who helped him on the way up. And yet–-he was generous to selected friends and writers. He was kind to his animals whom he treated like family members. He was gentle and supportive personally and financially to employees of his Cuban household. He was a mimic and story-teller who presented life in technicolor to his sons. He was truly brave in both wars. He was committed to his craft and even when suffering health ravages including the after effects of two plane crashes, seven or eight serious concussions, and alcoholism, he sat down to work almost every day to write something of value, something new that had never been attempted. There is a nobility in that. Like all heroes from John F. Kennedy to Martin Luther King to Mahatma Gandhi to Winston Churchill, the warts are there along-side the accomplishments. The international braggart jostles for position next to the mid-western artist, alone and unassuming in his writing studio. The serious thinker morphs into a silly prankster in his letters to family and friends. The mean-spirited diva twists into a gracious and humble supporter of others to his own detriment in a sudden pivot. As Hemingway wrote in For Whom the Bell Tolls, “I know now there is no one thing that is true. It is all true.” It is the combination of the dark and the light of the same man that molded the whole. Hemingway was a shapeshifter, like we all are to some degree.
Archibald MacLeish once said that he only knew two men in his life who could empty the air from a room simply by entering it—Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Ernest Hemingway. He added, “Hemingway simply could not stop people from talking about him.” That continues to be true today and is part of why I love Hemingway. The well of getting to know him never runs dry.
Lawyer and author of the novel Hemingway’s Daughter
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