Ernest Hemingway: A Biography

Ernest Hemingway: A Biography

by Mary V. Dearborn


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The first full biography of Ernest Hemingway in more than fifteen years; the first to draw upon a wide array of never-before-used material; the first written by a woman, from the widely acclaimed biographer of Norman Mailer, Peggy Guggenheim, Henry Miller, and Louise Bryant.

A revelatory look into the life and work of Ernest Hemingway, considered in his time to be the greatest living American novelist and short-story writer, winner of the 1953 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954. Mary Dearborn's new biography gives the richest and most nuanced portrait to date of this complex, enigmatically unique American artist, whose same uncontrollable demons that inspired and drove him throughout his life undid him at the end, and whose seven novels and six-short story collections informed—and are still informing—fiction writing generations after his death.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307594679
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/16/2017
Pages: 752
Product dimensions: 6.50(w) x 9.50(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

Mary V. Dearborn received a doctorate in English and Comparative Literature from Columbia University, where she was a Mellon Fellow in the Humanities.

Tanya Eby has been a voice-over artist for over a decade. She is an Audie-nominated and AudioFile Earphones Award-winning narrator. Besides narrating, Tanya spends her time teaching creative writing classes at the collegiate level, blogging, and working on her own novels.

Read an Excerpt


One evening in the mid-1990s I attended a panel on Ernest Hemingway and his work at New York’s Mercantile Library. The Mercantile was known for lively programming arranged by its then director, Harold Augenbraum, and this evening was no exception. Hemingway had been somewhat under fire of late. A controversial 1987 biography by Kenneth Lynn had left Hemingway fans reeling with the rev- elation that Ernest had been dressed as a girl in his early years, which Lynn argued had shaped the author’s psyche and sexuality.

The previous year Hemingway’s posthumously published novel, The Garden of Eden, had revealed a writer seemingly obsessed with androgyny, its hero and heroine cutting and dyeing their hair to become identical, beyond gender—just as in the explicit sex scenes they move beyond traditionally male and female roles. At roughly the same time, Hemingway and his place in the Western literary tradition came under full-on attack, as readers, scholars, educators, and activists urgently questioned what “dead white males” like Hemingway had to say to us in a multicultural era that no longer accords them automatic priority. The so-called Hemingway code—a tough, stoic approach to life that seemingly substitutes physical courage and ideals of strength and skill for other forms of accomplishment—increasingly looked insular and tiresomely macho.

That night at the Mercantile Library, these issues were roiling the waters. Should we still read Hemingway? Are his concerns still relevant? Was Hemingway gay? (The short answer is no.) Why could he not create a complicated female heroine? Does Hemingway have anything at all to say to people of different races and ethnicities? On the plus side, does his intense feeling for the natural world take on greater significance at a time of growing environmental consciousness? If we were to continue to read Hemingway, we needed to take note of how we read him, it seemed.

The discussion after the panel was animated. The moderator called on a burly man with a peppery crew cut. I recognized him as a professor and critic who wrote about the literature of the 1920s, especially Hemingway’s friend F. Scott Fitzgerald. “I just want to say one thing,” he stood up and announced. “Hemingway made it possible for me to do what I do.”
I thought about what he said for a long time afterward. He seemed to mean something very specific and personal—something to do with read- ing literature and writing about it as a vocation. He was not talking about teaching or making money. He was talking about whether writing was an acceptable occupation for a man, both on his terms and the world’s. Hemingway, not only in his extraliterary pursuits as a marlin fisherman, a big game hunter, a boxer, and a bullfight aficionado but also in his capacity as an icon of American popular culture, was the very personification of virility—and he was a writer. Any taint of femininity or aestheticism attached to writing had been wiped clean.

I was reminded of a rather extraordinary statement made late in life by the writer Harold Loeb, the model for Robert Cohn in Hemingway’s first full-length novel, The Sun Also Rises—the lover of Lady Brett Ashley who proves himself a wet blanket during the Pamplona bullfighting fiesta. It was hardly a flattering portrayal, but Loeb had not forgotten why he, like so many others, had been drawn to Hemingway when they both were young: “I admired his combination of toughness and sensitiveness. . . . I had long suspected that one reason for the scarcity of good writers in the United States was the popular impression—that artists were not quite virile. It was a good sign that men like Hemingway were taking up writing.”

As I went on to think and write about Hemingway myself in the period following this panel, I thought I understood the critic’s remarks that evening. But I couldn’t account for the risky, emotional, and highly personal nature of his confession. What I couldn’t understand was his passion. It seemed to me that something was being said here about being a man and a writer, and it made me feel excluded.

There is no shortage of Ernest Hemingway biographies—one of them runs to five volumes. His first biographer, Carlos Baker, set the bar in 1969, and the efforts of most of those who followed have been impres- sively researched and, for the most part, insightful. There has not yet been a biography written by a woman. This doesn’t necessarily mean that much; mainly, I find that I am interested in different aspects of Hemingway’s life from the ones that drew his previous (male) biographers. I shrink from describing what aspects those are: I’d rather not encourage the notion that men and women see things in fundamentally different ways. By definition, studying Hemingway is about the rough opposite, the cultural construction of gender—how sex roles are determined by the forces around us rather than our genes. It is through figures like Hemingway that masculinity gets defined—even if that same cultural construction affects him in turn.

Before turning to Hemingway, I wrote biographies of two major writers who also helped define American masculinity through both their lives and their fiction: Henry Miller and Norman Mailer. Himself a (later) expatriate in Paris. Miller curiously never spoke of Hemingway, though Miller, like Hemingway, lived—from the outside, that is—a life that is the stuff of many a male fantasy. Mailer was a great admirer of both Miller and Hemingway; while he may have enjoyed Miller’s work more, he considered Hemingway easily “America’s greatest living writer.” Yet he seemed to recognize that somewhere along the way, Hemingway’s work and life became one—that without Hemingway’s image of a ruggedly physical man of action, the work would not be the same. Mailer asked us to acknowledge how “silly” A Farewell to Arms or Death in the Afternoon “would be if . . . written by a man who was five-four, wore glasses, spoke in a shrill voice, and was a physical coward.” A valid point, perhaps, but how useful is this really?

As I began to consider writing my own biography of Hemingway, I asked myself whether a woman could bring something to the subject that previous biographers had not. But perhaps the point was what I did not bring in tow.

I have no investment in the Hemingway legend. No doubt I come to him with my own baggage, but I cannot see what the legend has to offer to a female reader. I am not interested in the issue of who said what about whose hair on whose chest, the occasion for some thrown punches between Hemingway and Max Eastman in the Scribner’s offices in 1937. I think we should look away from what feeds into the legend and consider what formed this remarkably complex man and brilliant writer.
*    *    *

I thought once that I might begin to understand Hemingway if I understood what it was like to know him when he was beginning his career in Paris in the 1920s, before we knew what we now know, before he was enveloped in the cloak of fame. I came up with a way to think about him that worked for me: I imagined a handsome young man who came out of nowhere and was dropped into Greenwich Village, perhaps, or, more likely these days, into Williamsburg or Bushwick or Red Hook, probably living over a very interesting shop or other workplace. This young man would be rangy and darkly handsome, his presence so arresting that heads would turn when he walked into a room. He would always have a sheaf of manuscripts in his inside coat pocket, which he would pull out in cafés and scribble on—but he would always spring up if you came over to his table, ever happy to see you, happy to make time for you. The word would be that he had a book out, printed on a little hand press in Brooklyn, and that a big New York publisher had picked it up and was soon to release it. He would have a whole new way of writing—stunningly simple, seemingly effortless. Of course there would be a book party—an enchanted evening, an occasion everyone would remember.
He would be madly in love with his wife too, a beautiful, serene-looking redhead who put you at ease instantly, whom you felt you could talk to about anything, who plainly adored her husband. As a couple they would glow. Everyone would be drawn to this young man—eager to be part of his energy field. He would be more curious than anyone you’d met. The life before him would seem to take on the outlines of a great adventure. It would be intoxicating to know him. Then, as part of my effort to understand my subject better, I picked this dazzling writer up and dropped him mentally into Montparnasse in the early 1920s, with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, John Dos Passos, Ezra Pound for companions.

Imagined this way, Hemingway’s life took on the animation it must have if I were to see it clearly. The landscape he occupied gained color and dimension, and it seemed as if the world did not stop noticing him—even after his tragic death in 1961. He became, willy-nilly, a symbol of male potentiality, man as it seemed he always had been and was made to be. (The culture demanded no less; it was as if he filled a need that no one knew existed.) Ever since he first appeared, grinning devilishly and waving a crutch from his hospital ward during World War I, in an early newsreel shown on movie screens across the country, Hemingway captured the public imagination. Yet always, it seemed, a different Hemingway. The callow, lanky chronicler of the Lost Generation gave way to the mustachioed and virile Hemingway of the 1930s, as people read of his exploits in the bull-ring, on the deep seas, and in the African bush. He morphed yet again, into the politically engaged reporter of the Spanish Civil War, then into the intrepid, fighting journalist of World War II, and finally into “Papa,” the bearded, white-haired living legend of the postwar Cuban years. He published a string of novels and stories that made readers see the world, because of him, as a different place, more vibrant, more alive, more elemental, and at the same time more romantic.

Yet something began to go wrong. The potential for this eventuality was there all along—it was in his genes, and in his childhood in the eccentric Hemingway household. Perhaps the times or the public asked too much of him. Maybe he shut out the critical voices he needed to hear to produce his best work. At some point in the unfolding of his brilliant career, a tragedy began to take shape.
Ernest seemed to find it difficult to give and receive love, to be a faithful friend, and, perhaps most tragically, to tell the truth, even to himself. By the end of World War II, and while still in his forties, he had done himself out of many of the rewards of the good life: he had three failed marriages behind him, had few good friends, was not writing well, and had surrounded himself with flunkies and sycophants. He was burdened by serious physical injuries, including several concussions—which we would today call traumatic brain injuries, whose scope and variety are only beginning to be understood. The dangers of retrospective diagnosis duly acknowledged, it seems probable that Hemingway also suffered from mental illness that included mania and depression so severe it became at times psychotic. The son of a doctor, Hemingway was drinking too much and taking varying cocktails of prescribed pills, and he refused to follow his doctors’ orders. His habits of mind, the limitations of the psychopharmacology of his day, and the desire to avoid embarrassing himself as a public figure made it impossible for him to get the help he needed. His later fiction indicated a persistent confusion about gender identity or, to put it more positively and progressively, an openness to fluidity in gender boundaries.

Worse, by the 1950s his talent was befuddling him. Even at his peak, sentimentality and a garrulous streak sometimes crept into his writing. He began to run repeatedly into dead ends with ambitious projects like The Garden of Eden and so published very little: even the most acclaimed works, like The Old Man and the Sea, lacked the ambition and passion of his earlier work. Things got worse, and his world shrank to the grounds of the Finca Vigía in Cuba, the property that became his own private fiefdom. Then, after it became virtually impossible to remain in Castro’s Cuba, he took refuge in a big concrete house in Idaho. Soon, no longer able to get the enormous pleasure he had once taken from life, no longer believing in his ability to write, he took his own life.

What happened to Hemingway was a tragedy for him; a tragedy for his family, who had to endure it and were often damaged in the process; and a tragedy for us. It does no good to read (or write) his biography anew if we simply shine up the legend and find more ways to admire it—or if we reflexively debunk a literary legacy that has proved durably fascinating and inspiring for nearly a century. We need to understand what happened, in part because what was lost is incalculable. Hemingway was without question one of the greatest American prose writers. He changed the way we think, what we look for in literature, how we choose to lead our lives. He changed our language. He changed how we see Paris, the American West, Spain, Africa, Key West, Cuba, northern Michigan. Even his place of birth, Oak Park—though he very rarely wrote about it, this suburb, equidistant from Chicago and the wilderness of the Des Plaines River, was part of what made Hemingway, and we will always see it differently for his presence.

If we are to understand all of this, it is important that we look at how it unfolded, how his unique gift came into full flower, how he came undone, even if the spectacle is one from which we might prefer to look away. It is painful to contemplate how Hemingway ceased engaging with a world he made new for us, so that even following the corrida circuit in the last years of his life became a nightmarish palimpsest of what it had been when he was young.

Because he died so young, we have been left to imagine what Hemingway, if he had regained his full powers and denied the suicidal impulse, would have made of, say, the domestic upheavals of the 1950s and 1960s in the U.S., the revolutions that swept the so-called Third World, feminism, environmentalism, Watergate, Reagan. The New Journalism. His beloved Spain after Franco.

Harry, the narrator in one of Hemingway’s most powerful stories, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” is himself a writer who reviews his life and his career and who, while slowly dying, recognizes his failed mission. “There was so much to write,” Harry thinks. “He had seen the world change. . . . He had been in it and he had watched it and it was his duty to write of it, but now he never would.” Hemingway acknowledged that he, like Harry, had at times been derelict in his “duty” as a writer—perhaps an impossible standard. Indeed, it’s hard to argue that a writer “failed” when he revealed to us so much about war and violence, nature, relations between men and women, trauma, the creative life.

There’s something else. As the heated discussion that mid-1990s evening in the Mercantile Library began to deflate and cool, someone got the attention of the moderator and stood up to add something. Echoing the professor who had said earlier that Hemingway made it possible for him to do what he did, this person said, “I just want to say that Hemingway made it possible for me to be who I am.” And sat down. It was difficult to determine the speaker’s gender, only that it appeared to have recently changed.

In the years to come, I would learn, in my study of Hemingway’s life, what she or he meant.

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