Whenever time allows, I’m sitting down with another Hemingway biography. This one, written by Michael Reynolds, spans Hemingway’s life from the 1930s to that fateful day in 1961 in Ketchum, Idaho. With my sincere apologies to those who admire his work, I’ve never been a fan of Hemingway’s novels. While his style is celebrated for its economy of language, I find it somewhat flat. Although I find his novels tedious (again, sorry), I think his short stories are fantastic.
Although the Reynolds book is proving to be a great read, it’s also a difficult one. The reason has nothing to do with the writing, which is excellent, but the fact one has to spend 600 pages in Hemingway’s company. The man was an insecure, petulant, boorish braggart who treated friends and loved ones, including his four wives, terribly. He presented to the world an image of ultra-masculinity—hunting, fishing, going to wars, fighting—but in private was as fragile as a wilting flower. He seems to have spent most of his time raging against critics who dared question his work, friends who aggrieved him even slightly, his publisher for not doing enough to promote his books, and other authors who challenged his dominance in the literary world.
Looking back, there is something vulgar in Hemingway’s need to kill every sort of animal. This, of course, may no doubt be a view that’s distilled through today’s conservation efforts. On an African safari in 1934, he pouted like a child whenever another member of his party killed a larger animal or scored a better shot. Even more dispicable was his penchant for exaggerating his war service. Injured as a Red Cross worker in Italy during the First World War, he later told people he led elite Italian troops in battle. Following his stint as a correspondent in World War II, he felt the need to lie about his adventures in France, claiming at one point to have killed 126 Germans. He burned through three marriages before meeting Mary Welsh, who stuck with him until the end. She gave up her career as a journalist to be with him, as “Papa” did not like women who did not make his priorities their own. As Mary wrote in her journal one evening:
He has been truculent, brutal, abusive, and extremely childish . . . Last night with six at table, I declined to bet with one of our guests on a pigeon shooting match . . . So Ernest denounced me several times as a “cobarde” (coward) . . . At table his favorite and frequent means of protesting any word, glance, gesture or food he doesn’t like is to put his full, freshly served plate on the floor. The other day he dumped the entire plate of bread and crackers on top of my plate . . . he has called me, and repeated the names . . . whore, bitch, liar, moron. On several occasions I have called him a shit . . . it looks like the disintegration of a personality to me.
It’s hard to fathom why someone would treat another person this way. Just because the guy was one of the most influential authors of the twentieth century doesn’t excuse him from treating his wife in such an atrocious manner. In the end, regardless of the man’s contribution to American letters, and to quote Harold Robbins, “Hemingway was a jerk.”