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Hemingway and Women
Female Critics and the Female Voice
By Lawrence R. Broer, Gloria Holland
The University of Alabama Press Copyright © 2002 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
In Love with Papa
Linda Patterson Miller
I little imagined two decades ago how much Ernest Hemingway would take over my life. Almost all of the writing and teaching that I do, along with the day-to-day living of my life, inevitably comes back, in some way, to Hemingway. This should not surprise me, since Hemingway had already taken over my reading life as early as my sophomore year in high school. I discovered him, by chance, after I had determined to read all of the fiction in our Chicago library by working my way through the stacks alphabetically, taking them on in rows. My system shattered, however, when I had arrived at the "H's" and read A Farewell to Arms for the first time. The book so unsettled me that I could not reshelve it and move on. I can still see myself reading Farewell in my bedroom, where the afternoon sun formed neat squares on the peach wallpaper. Outside my window an early spring had exposed our lawn in brown patches, but I was already transported to Hemingway's stark white land where I could hear Catherine's and Frederic's boots squeaking as they walked. I could see Catherine matching Frederic's strides, her walking stick puncturing the crusty snow. I did not want the book to end, and when it did I knew that my life had changed. This marked the beginning of my love affair with the father of modern American prose. Recently I took comfort in Maya Angelou's confession that William Shakespeare was her "first white love." Angelou "pacified" herself about Shakespeare's "whiteness by saying that after all he had been dead so long it couldn't matter to anyone any more" (13–14). Although some today have tried to rush Hemingway's artistic death, banishing him to that authorial graveyard of dead white males, he will not go quietly. Nor should he.
A recent issue of The Missouri Review devoted to the subject of "Men" humorously highlights a resistance to Hemingway's prose that has persisted since his actual death in 1961. In Mick Steven's cartoon that heads up the issue, a man sits at a round table with four women who eye him suspiciously from behind their reading glasses. They all have their lips pursed, and one woman has her arms crossed rigidly over her chest. The man, a bemused and authoritarian discussion leader, voices the cartoon's caption. "Just what is this book-group's problem with Hemingway?" Were some of my female colleagues to answer this question, they would say — and they do — that Hemingway's world of machismo both alienates and undermines women. Accordingly, they argue that he should not be taught, either in book groups or in schools. Even my mother-in-law takes potshots, telling me that "the man was a slob." No other American writer, except for Norman Mailer, generates such venom. But what evokes the hatred? The man? The legend of the man? The Art? A little of each?
To be honest, any lover of Hemingway's art who surveys his biography feels a bit betrayed by the man. He made strong demands of his women, expecting them to remain true, even when he did not. He expected his women to anticipate and meet his needs, and he faulted them when they tried to remain independent, as did his third wife, Martha Gellhorn, herself a recognized writer. When she stood up to Hemingway, he later accused her of belligerence and mean-spiritedness. Hemingway's real life women walked a fine line, as did his fictional women. One of his women in To Have and Have Not asserts that men are not "built" to be monogamous. "They want some one new, or some one younger, or some one that they shouldn't have, or some one that looks like some one else. Or if you're dark they want a blonde. Or if you're blonde they go for a redhead. Or if you're a redhead then it's something else. A Jewish girl I guess, and if they've had really enough they want Chinese or Lesbians or goodness knows what. ... Or they just get tired, I suppose. You can't blame them if that's the way they are. ... I suppose the good ones are made to have a lot of wives but it's awfully wearing trying to be a lot of wives yourself" (244–45).
Hemingway perhaps considered himself one of the good ones since he did have a lot of wives, four to be exact; and each of his marriages unraveled when a new woman caught his eye. None of his wives, or friends, saw him as an easy man. According to Hemingway's fourth wife Mary, tension and unhappiness were inevitable with a man as "complicated and contradictory" as Hemingway, who drove women "to bitchery." She questioned why some, including herself, hung on as long as they did (qtd. in Kert 414–16). Hadley Richardson, Hemingway's first wife, gave it a softer slant. She believed that Hemingway masked his sentimental streak with an outer toughness and that his deep sensitivity and vulnerability in relationships caused him to lash out at others (Sokoloff 58). During the 1930s, and thereafter, he gained a reputation for his undue harshness to his friends, and also to his wives.
Recently, Jamie Barlowe (-Kayes) has argued that since Hemingway's real-life women (including his four wives) became "marginalized characters" in Hemingway's personal legend, they emerge in his fiction as figures that stand "outside the action, yet implicated in it." Through her "destabilizing readings" of Hemingway's texts, Barlowe (-Kayes) challenges the prevailing Hemingway legend that has emerged both apart from and integral to Hemingway scholarship so as to "expose cultural codes and attitudes about women which continue to haunt and limit their lives" (26–27, 33). Earlier feminist critics such as Judith Fetterley have argued more one-sidedly that since Hemingway created his female characters in order to destroy them (as such, he kills off Catherine Barkley in A Farewell to Arms) women should be resistant readers of Hemingway. More recently, and with admirable balance and breadth, Rena Sanderson illuminates the "historical and biographical contexts" (as related to gender issues) that influenced but did not inhibit Hemingway's art (171). She joins with other scholars in recognizing that Hemingway's heroines reflect their cultural and literary circumstances while also emerging as believable and even archetypal figures — larger than life but no less real.
Whether or not Hemingway saw women as they were and not as he wanted — and perhaps we want — them to be, remains the key issue. As I look at the women in Hemingway's art, I ask a basic question in keeping with Hemingway's own artistic demand (as he expressed it in Death in the Afternoon) that the art be true. Are his women real? Are they viable? Does he get them "out entire" so that they have "more than one dimension and ... will last a long time?" This is how Hemingway described characterization when it is true. If the writer "has luck as well as seriousness," he said, he will "write people" and "not skillfully constructed characters." These people will be "projected from the writer's assimilated experience, from his knowledge, from his head, from his heart, and from all there is of him" (191).
I would argue that many of Hemingway's women reach that third or fourth dimension where true art lives, even though Hemingway's macho label continues to prohibit a totally unbiased reading of his art. Beyond this, some readers fail to recognize the truth of Hemingway's characters, because they do not meet the demands of Hemingway's art. They do not read between the lines and thus miss the emotional complexity of his art and of his heroines. Failing to allow for Hemingway's whittled style, they interpret what seems to be a sketchy treatment of the women as a weakness of character. With Hemingway's women especially, he discovered them more fully by giving them little to say. His women embody the 7/8 of the iceberg that is down under and carry much of the work's emotional weight accordingly.
This occurs most powerfully in his early stories. Marjorie's relatively quiet presence in "The End of Something," for example, centers the story's emotional spin. After Nick has told her that love "isn't fun any more," she gathers herself up with great solemnity and rows out onto the lake, leaving Nick lying "with his face in the blanket by the fire" where he "could hear Marjorie rowing on the water." Her rowing back to the beginning point evokes the story's opening images of a once vital life suddenly gutted and lost. Just as "the sails of the schooner filled and it moved out into the open lake, carrying with it everything that had made the mill a mill and Hortons Bay a town," Marjorie too has taken with her all of lived life's emotional heft. With the wind suddenly knocked out of his own sails, Nick feels but does not know how to deal with his unexpected loss (SS 107–11).
When Hemingway's parents responded to his early stories, including "The End of Something," as crude and immoral, Hemingway replied:
I'm trying in all my stories to get the feeling of the actual life across — not to just depict life — or criticize it — but to actually make it alive. So that when you have read something by me you actually experience the thing. You can't do this without putting in the bad and the ugly as well as what is beautiful. Because if it is all beautiful you can't believe in it. Things aren't that way. It is only by showing both sides — 3 dimensions and if possible 4 that you can write the way I want to. (SL 153)
As Hemingway concluded in his defensive 20 March 1925 letter to his father, "When you see anything of mine that you don't like remember that I'm sincere in doing it and that I'm working toward something. If I write an ugly story that might be hateful to you or to Mother the next one might be one that you would like exceedingly" (SL 153).
If Hemingway was understandably defensive in his letter to his parents, I must confess to my own defensiveness of Hemingway and his art over the past two decades. I had entered the profession at a time when women seemingly found it easier to dismiss Hemingway than to read him, and only a handful of female scholars wrote about, talked about, or read (or admitted to reading) Hemingway. When I was invited as a female scholar to speak about Hemingway and his women at the 1985 Year of Hemingway Conference (Boise State University), I suspected that the invitation came primarily by default. I also suspected that the conference organizers assumed I would castigate rather than praise the artist and his art. So, on an unseasonably hot spring morning in Idaho, I stood before a crowd of academics and some locals, including one man who said he had "come down from the mountain" in Hemingway's honor. Jack (Bumby) Hemingway, Hemingway's oldest son, sat before me in the first row, and a poster image of Hemingway, inflated the size of the wall, looked over my shoulder from behind urging caution. Refusing to feel cowed, I defended Hemingway against his detractors. "My father usually gets short-changed in these academic discussions about his life and art," Jack Hemingway told me later. "Thank you for the balanced portrait." Another female professor, herself an invited speaker at the conference, revealed that she too loved Hemingway's art but that her colleagues would not let her teach him. We acknowledged together that other women — closet readers of Hemingway — undoubtedly existed. They just needed to be heard.
"So, what is it you do when you, as a woman, 'read' Hemingway?" Jim Hinkle asked. We were at the Second International Hemingway Conference in Lignano, Italy, in 1986, and I had just finished talking on Hemingway's women, a follow-up to my talk in Idaho the previous year. "Is this some new kind of literary stance?" he asked, as we both settled into the cushioned seats that lined the tiered meeting room. The conference hall, on pilings, jutted out over the Adriatic Sea. Only a glass wall at the upper rear of the room separated us from that arc of water. Hinkle had arrived at Hemingway scholarship late in his career at San Diego State University, and he pursued with almost fanatical zeal the truth of Hemingway's art. He was not interested in theories but in the words on the page, the artistic flow. He thought that if he could memorize Hemingway's work he might "get" it whole. He told me that he had memorized, among other works, the entirety of The Sun Also Rises. I believed him.
Jim proceeded to tell me that he and Jack Benson were organizing a Hemingway conference to be held at San Diego State in spring, 1987. They were interested in hearing how Hemingway scholars variously approached their reading of Hemingway, and he outlined to me in a letter of 13 December 1986 the goals for the conference. "Our idea," Jim wrote, "is for each speaker to make explicit what it is he thinks he is doing in his work on Hemingway — where he is going, how he tries to get there, why he does what he does in the way he does it — and then to give a sample (or a group of brief samples) of his method in operation." Seemingly unaware of his exclusionary language when it came to defining Hemingway scholars as men only, Jim added that he and Benson had "tried to select people who take widely different approaches in their work on Hemingway" and who represented "a balance between those who are regular Hemingway meeting-goers" and those outside the field. He reiterated that he did not understand how someone might read Hemingway based on gender but that the idea intrigued him.
The twenty-one invited speakers at the "Approaches to Hemingway Conference" (27–28 March 1987) included four women (Claudia Brodsky, Barbara Lounsberry, Sandra Spanier, and myself). My talk, "'It's Harder to Do about Women': Rereading Hemingway's Heroines," reiterated my belief that Hemingway's art had been unjustly maligned for its maleness. In particular, I questioned why Hemingway criticism had repeatedly dismissed Hemingway's women as narrowly drawn, both morally and artistically. "I am a teacher, a writer, a woman," I began. "I am a woman who reads Hemingway. Women, I am told, do not read Hemingway, nor do they argue for the emotional truthfulness of his art, particularly when it comes to his women." I concluded that a misreading of Hemingway's women became almost inevitable when people failed to separate the man — or the idea of the man — from the work. Furthermore, beyond failing to allow for Hemingway's whittled style and misinterpreting a sketchy treatment of the women as a weakness of character, I suggested that misguided perceptions about his heroines have something to do with setting as well as narrative form. Many of his works build around war, which distorts and intensifies human behavior, sometimes to the point of hysteria. Herein, Hemingway's females become stereotyped as hysterics. In addition, he often writes about male/female love in its early stages, evoking the heady distortions — the giddiness — of falling in love. These women-in-love might seem superficial, exaggerated, or silly if separated from the contexts of their thematic environment. Finally, I concluded that Hemingway scholarship was only beginning to reassess Hemingway's supposed heroic code and the macho world associated with it — ideas instilled early on by Philip Young and others.
Excerpted from Hemingway and Women by Lawrence R. Broer, Gloria Holland. Copyright © 2002 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
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