Punching Papa

On this day in 1903 the Canadian novelist and short story writer Morley Callaghan was born. Though prolific and successful in his home country, Callaghan was so overlooked even in his lifetime that Edmund Wilson thought him “the most unjustly neglected writer in the English language.” Much of the international attention that Callaghan did receive was not for his twenty novels and story collections but for That Summer in Paris (1963), a memoir of his Lost Generation days among “a very small, backbiting, gossipy neighborhood” of Latin Quarter expatriates — Ford Madox Ford, Robert McAlmon, Joyce, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, etc. Callaghan’s account of his boxing matches with Hemingway especially raised eyebrows: “For the first time one has the confidence that an eyewitness has been able to cut a bonafide trail through the charm, the mystery, and the curious perversity of Hemingway’s personality” (Norman Mailer in “Punching Papa”). 

Callaghan and Hemingway had been friends since their newspaper days in Toronto, and both liked to box. Callaghan was considerably shorter and lighter but more experienced, and in an early sparring session he had “worked out a routine, darting in and out with fast lefts to the head,” while Hemingway “waited for a chance to nail me solidly”:

It must have been exasperating to him that my left was always beating him to the punch. His mouth began to bleed…. His tongue kept curling along his lip, wiping off blood…. Suddenly he spat at me; he spat a mouthful of blood; he spat in my face.

When Callaghan stepped back in shock, Hemingway explained, “That’s what the bullfighters do when they’re wounded…. It’s a way of showing contempt.” At a later session, F. Scott Fitzgerald was volunteered as timekeeper, charged with regulating one-minute rounds with two-minute rests between. Fitzgerald became so enthralled with the boxing that he forgot the clock — until the out-of-gas Hemingway made a desperate lunge at Callaghan and got knocked on his back by a hard cross to the jaw. When Fitzgerald cried out, “Oh, my God! I let the round go four minutes!” Hemingway spat his contempt in a new direction: “All right, Scott…if you want to see me getting the shit kicked out of me, just say so. Only don’t say you made a mistake.”

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.