Jan 28, 2010


Here’s one of the tour guides at the Hemingway house in Key West. I liked her a lot. She had probably memorized most or all of her talk, and was forcing the rise and fall in her inflection, just a little. Yet her delivery sounded fairly fresh, as if she were interested in her own material. It was all enhanced by her chipped front tooth and soft southern accent, features I found appealing.

Here are a few facts or “facts” I’d forgotten or never learned about Hemingway.

There were four wives. I remembered only the last one by name, Mary, who stayed with him for 16 years, until his death.

He got the fine Key West house—one of the largest and, at 16 feet above sea level, Key West's highest house—as a wedding present from the family of his second wife, Pauline, who replaced the ceiling fans with overwrought chandeliers and had a $20,000 swimming pool built for a house that cost a small fraction of that, expensive though it was. When Hemingway fell for a journalist who came to interview him, he and Pauline divorced, but the house went to him after her death.

There were multiple cats, most of them six-toed, apparently. Their six-toed descendants remain on the property, visited weekly by a vet.

The study where he wrote was in an attached building and contained a typewriter—with paper in it—on a table that served as a desk. I’d read once that he wrote standing at a lectern, but I guess that was wrong, or in a different place, different time. However, the guide confirmed what I'd read earlier: he worked from 6:00 a.m. to about noon, producing about 300 words per day.

I think the head that looked out from a wall over two bookcases was an antelope trophy.

Hemingway was bipolar. I’d read “back in the day” that his suicide by shotgun, in Idaho, was the consequence of his trying to live up to the Hemingway code: boxing, dozens of shrapnel wounds from his days as a World War I ambulance driver in Italy, deep sea fishing, bull fights, big game hunting, and heavy drinking.

Those chickens had come home to roost by 1961, shortly before he turned 62; he could no longer be the man or person he believed in, and despair overtook him. Or so I read a few decades ago.

So, yes, we can reduce all that to the label, “bipolar.” Doctors must engage in such reduction to treat the disease, if not empathize with the human. Hemingway’s father and a brother also committed suicide, so, even as a layman, I find the diagnosis of a genetic component very plausible.

But the old explanation paints a clearer picture of Hemingway, the human. It’s easy to over-romanticize it, but I hope it has some accuracy and remains in the literature about him. His code was extreme, maybe silly, and almost certainly permitted sexist, racist, and anti-Semitic thinking. But it’s also true that many of his war wounds were received when, already full of shrapnel, he stopped halfway across a field to try to get a fallen soldier to the ambulance. In that effort, Hemingway was hit by machine gun fire.

I’ve never been to a bullfight or a boxing match or gone deep sea fishing (I get motion sickness, and I'm not especially interested anyway). But at least with the matadors and the boxing, I can accept that Hemingway saw art and philosophy in it, as well as the brutality. I don't see what's wrong with urging "grace under pressure." As for living close to death in order to live intensely, I've often joked that if that's what it takes to get me to live intensely, then I should get out my parachute and head for a small airport. (I don't).

When it comes to boxing, by the way, Joyce Carol Oates also has seen the art and philosophy in it and has written eloquently about it. Isn't boxing the sport that relies the least on external forces? Unless there's a fix or a bad ref, the better boxer wins. Ditto for chess. Not so for team sports, where there are too many variables.

Of the few major Hemingway novels and several stories I’ve read, The Sun Also Rises is by far his best work. I won’t spoil anything by admiring again its brutally effective last few lines, which conclude with, “Isn’t it pretty to think so.” For anyone, that should explain a lot about a lot, don’t you think?

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PJ said...

I have a Hemingway-ish cat, her nom de plume is Miss Digit. You can see her big feets on my Tin Roof Sky blog. She's a sweetie.

A few years ago I read Bruce Chatwin's biography and it was excruciatingly painful for me because it was so obvious to me that he was what we like to call "ADHD & Gifted". He flourished at a time (and because of his gender) when he could use his tendencies to his advantage and still be thought a great romantic. He died a horrible death from AIDS but left a great legacy and I feel the same way about Hemingway. I love The Sun Also Rises but A Moveable Feast was the first thing of his I ever read and it was a kind of introduction to the complexities of adult life. I was in middle school or early high school and it was quite an eye opener, especially the passage about the pain he felt for being unfaithful to his wife. Now that you mention it, I think I've always felt that in some ways he was a very feminine man, at least in the way he could express his feelings. Extraordinary, really.
By the way, I mentioned your blog on my blog a couple of days ago.

Banjo52 said...

Paula, as usual, your comments go right to the heart of the matter(s). Thank you.

After I was away from the computer, I realized I'd forgotten to mention A Moveable Feast, which I loved in my late 20s, and would like to read again sometime. Can't believe you read it so young!

Thanks for the plug on Pensacola Daily Photo, where there's always good stuff, including cookies and inventive cat names.

Jeff M said...

A Moveable Feast is his best --- that's my opinion. The Sun Also Rises always struck me as a bit lofty; a good expatriate novel is Tropic of Cancer, which is basically the same premise but with a little more salt and pepper. Everyone always goes to Hemingway's house... Why don't people go to Faulkner's house? Well, the ocean helps, I guess. A good insight work is The Garden of Eden, which I think best illustrates his feelings toward females.

Jeff M said...
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Anonymous said...

The Sun Also Rises is probably the only book of his with which I connected, and perhaps that's because I read it at 18.

Meaty post. Worth a couple of read-throughs. Interesting to me personally because of the Florida connection. I'm reading Cross Creek and appreciating some elegant, elegant phrasing and rhythms.

PJ said...

I wish I could be more subtle.

Banjo52 said...

Jeff, for what it's worth, I've been to Oxford, Miss. a couple of times. It was a major awakening to see the traffic going around the circle in the center of town and then to imagine it going the wrong way, horrifying Benjy early in The Sound and the Fury.

Yesterday, that led me to the (pointless) thought, whose achievement was greater, Faulkner's or Hemingway's? I've always thought Faulkner, but he was working "with" Proust, Virginia Woolf, and Joyce as context, whether or not he was influenced by them or they by him.

Who was Hemingway's ally or school of thought when he began to holler for simplification and making it journalistic? And as far as I know, he had no successor till Raymond Carver came along (and begat other minimalists, like Amy Hempel, who's sometimes admirable in her own right).

So maybe it's harder to boil it down than fluff it up? I'm just wondering out loud.

Banjo52 said...

AH, another precocious Hemingway-phile? That's what happens when you don't watch sports on TV (see Altadenahiker's latest post).

I suppose we have to remember that Hemingway was not a Florida native and lived in a few places in adulthood. But any language similarities with Cross Creek would be fascinating.

In fact, am I being dense, or did Hemingway never even set anything in Florida?

I've been surprised by the number of southern accents here. I guess it's not entirely transplanted New Yorkers.

Paula, "more subtle"???

Banjo52 said...

Jeff, Wikipedia says a film version of The Garden of Eden is expected this year. I know nothing about the MS or the film.

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