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Ernest Hemingway. The life of an indomitable writer, seen with a Freudian eye

By J. Denis Glover / September 4, 1987

Hemingway, by Kenneth S. Lynn. New York: Simon & Schuster. 702 pp. $24.95. HAVE you ever noticed in a biography how often the biographer comes out on top? It's happened once again with the hefty new biography of Ernest Hemingway by noted scholar Kenneth Lynn, professor of history at Johns Hopkins.

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``Hemingway'' combines biography with literary criticism, psychology, history - and personal opinion. Rich in detail, fresh material, exhaustive interpretation, footnotes, bibliography, index - and abundant photographs - it takes top spot as one of the scholarly biographical studies for students of literature to deal with if they want their term papers or theses taken seriously.

Readers will soon notice, however, that Lynn takes a largely psychoanalytic approach to Hemingway and his writings and characterizes his life as a ``sickness unto death.'' Much in the biography is presented in that vein, including the subject's indomitability. To me, if Hemingway was justifiably anything, he was ``indomitable,'' yet even this quality is undermined and used to serve Lynn's theme.

For example, in Africa - during a few weeks in January and February 1954 - Hemingway crash-landed, battered his way out of the flaming plane with his head, was driven a hundred miles with serious internal injuries, wrote 15,000 words - and fell into the flames of a brushfire.

Time magazine incorrectly reported that Hemingway had climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro after the second crash. What he actually did was about as spectacular, if not more so, but Lynn comments in this rather condescending tone:

``The true story of his indomitability was less impressive but heartrending ... [he] flew to a beach camp on the Kenyan coast, where he had been scheduled to do some fishing ... but was in too much pain to go out on the water more than two or three times. Nevertheless, when a serious brushfire broke out near the camp he tried to demonstrate that he was still a good man to have around in a crisis ... he insisted on lending a hand, only to lose his balance and fall into the flames.''

Tone can be a hard concept to document, but the sense of condescension here about circumstances that clearly took an extraordinary level of courage is the kind of attitude that tends to undermine this biographer's believability and sympathy for his subject. As is the near-sarcasm of ``he tried to demonstrate that he was still a good man to have around in a crisis ....''

Well, in this instance Hemingway has my vote. He still seems a pretty good man to have around - ``indomitability'' enough for me.

Whatever the reason, Hemingway, neck and neck with Mark Twain (and heavily influenced by him), may be the stylist and narrator around whom much of modern American fiction pivots. For many - correctly or incorrectly - he has come to mark the end of what might loosely be called ``Victorian style.''

You can give others the credit. You can see Hemingway style as the natural evolution of this or that, from this writer or that.

You can perhaps even take Lynn's view: ``To be forced to practice the most severe economy in your attempts to `render' your life artistically, because your capital of self-understanding was too small to permit you to be expansive and your fear of exposure too powerful.''