Rethinking Hemingway 50 years after his death
Boozy, boorish and self-besotted, the world-famous writer in Woody Allen’s current hit film, “Midnight in Paris,” is kind of a clown. And, as played by actor Corey Stoll, he’s an instantly recognizable replica of the author of “The Sun Also Rises” and “The Old Man and the Sea.”
He is, of course, Ernest Hemingway. Or rather, he’s the Hemingway caricature handed down to posterity: a hard-drinking, womanizing, big-game trophy-hunting, fame-craving blowhard who pushed his obsession about writing in a lean, mean prose style to the point of self-parody.
But exactly 50 years after the Nobel Prize-winning writer committed suicide at his home in Ketchum, Idaho, on July 2, 1961, there’s another, more serious and respectable Hemingway still duking it out with this comic imposter in the ring of public perception. Marty Beckerman says that he had both Hemingways in mind while writing his just-published book, “The Heming Way,” a combination of loving tribute and tongue-in-cheek how-to guide for what Beckerman, 28, sees as today’s Facebook generation of timid metrosexual males.
“I think that everybody knows the Hemingway cartoon character, even guys who’ve never read ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ and ‘Farewell to Arms,’ ” says Beckerman, a writer for Esquire magazine whose book is subtitled, “How to Unleash the Booze-Inhaling, Animal-Slaughtering, War-Glorifying, Hairy-Chested, Retro-Sexual Legend Within... Just Like Papa!”
But Beckerman also wanted his book to remind people of the other Hemingway: intrepid war correspondent, colorful bohemian and virile man of action, whose muscular short stories and novels define modern writing the way Picasso’s paintings define modern art.
“I think there’s a lot of lessons that Hemingway taught that definitely could apply to modern guys,” Beckerman says. “I think that guys today aren’t really living on our own terms and have lost a certain passion. Everything we know comes from Wikipedia, and everything Hemingway knew came from adventure. Get off your iPad and get off your smartphone and go slaughter some bulls and some lions!”
With this year’s anniversary of Hemingway’s death, the latest round of reappraisals is underway. Paula McLain’s novel “The Paris Wife,” published earlier this year, offers a fictionalized portrait of Hadley Richardson, the long-suffering first of Hemingway’s four spouses. A new HBO film, “Hemingway & Gellhorn,” starring Clive Owen and Nicole Kidman as Hemingway’s third wife, the writer Martha Gellhorn, is scheduled to air in coming months.
But the tussle over Hemingway’s reputation, which has divided generations of academics, critics and general readers, is nothing new. The two dueling Ernests have been present practically from the moment Hemingway published his first novel, “The Sun Also Rises,” in 1926. While some hailed the work as a masterpiece, others denounced its narcissistic characters, laconic attitude and casually blunt depictions of sexual relationships. Hemingway’s own mother called it “one of the filthiest books of the year.”
Nancy R. Comley, a Hemingway scholar and English professor at Queens College, City University of New York, says that Hemingway bears much responsibility for engendering the comic-book version of his macho-celebrity persona, which he carefully cultivated and tried to cash in on.
“I don’t think that’s going to go away soon. I think we’re pretty much stuck with that,” Comley says. “Because he did try to create this kind of persona, consciously. … He was trying to sell himself.”
Even during Hemingway’s lifetime, some American men who’d previously worshipped him began turning against his brawling, outdoorsy values. The birth of Playboy magazine, in 1953, posited a space-age bachelor-pad “philosophy” in which the male archetype of the sweaty sportsman like Hemingway gave way to the new ideal of the dapper urban sophisticate. With the advent of the sexual revolution and the women’s liberation movement in the 1960s, Hemingway’s manly posturing seemed increasingly passé.
In a dialogue published in the June 1986 edition of Esquire, the writers Ken Kesey and Robert Stone cited Hemingway’s suicide as a critical blow to the American male psyche, which led some men to embrace an alternative ideal of masculinity. “He tricked us into following his mode, and then he conked out and shot himself,” Kesey says of Hemingway.
Suddenly, African safaris and Parisian bistros were out. Beat poetry, experimental drugs, Eastern mysticism and the sexual ambiguity personified by rock ‘n’ roll idols like Mick Jagger was in.
Today, although Hemingway’s books still are taught in high school and college classrooms, his literary idolaters and imitators have dwindled. Author Sebastian Junger, whose nonfiction writings (“The Perfect Storm,” “War”) have been favorably compared to Hemingway’s, says in a recent interview that he has undergone a conversion since first reading Hemingway as an adolescent.
“He can tell a hell of a story,” Junger says. “ ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ is an amazing war story. You’re not going to outdo it. But also I’ve read him recently, and what I’ve realized is that he is equally brilliant and kind of limited also.”
Yet over the past quarter-century, a curious sea change has improved Hemingway’s image by altering the perception of one of his darker sides: his putative sexism and misogyny. Prior to the 1980s, few women scholars bothered with Hemingway, Comley says.
That changed with the posthumous publication of his novel “The Garden of Eden” in 1986. Hemingway’s sensitive, nuanced depiction of the book’s central love triangle involving two women and a man, and his exploration of sexual androgyny and gender role-playing, prompted a rethinking by male and female scholars of Hemingway’s work, particularly his depiction of alpha-female characters like Brett Ashley in “The Sun Also Rises.”
Jesse Kavadlo, an associate professor of English at Maryville University in Missouri, says that Hemingway’s influence still helps shape the popular image of how American male authors are supposed to behave: cocksure, opinionated, ready to take on all comers. “American male authorship is still in thrall to this macho posturing,” he says.
But Kavadlo thinks that contemporary writers like Chuck Palahniuk (“Fight Club”), whose fiction at first glance might appear to hail from the Hemingway tough-guy school, actually are expressing a desire among men to find deeper forms of connection and communication than, say, staging fistfights or firing shotguns.
That’s also, Kavadlo thinks, what Hemingway, under all the bluster, was trying to convey. “ ‘Farewell to Arms’ is such a deeply moving, emotional book,” Kavadlo says.
For now, like the character in Allen’s film, Hemingway may be stuck in a kind of time warp of shifting tastes and cultural attitudes. Even those who acknowledge Papa’s long shadow don’t necessarily want to step into it.
Author Junot Díaz says that Hemingway’s 1936 short story “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” “helped shape some of the early bones” of Díaz’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 2007 novel “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.” Nevertheless, Díaz wrote in an email, “I was never a huge fan of Hemingway’s work in general.”
Yet, Díaz continued, “even someone like me who didn’t operate consciously under Hemingway’s shadow was still somewhat touched by Hemingway’s shadow. He had an enormous influence on male writing in America, and his echoes, I suspect, are to be found almost everywhere.”
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