Until just recently, Ernest Hemingway was generally perceived as a boastful, sexist, macho ``hero'' whose once-high literary reputation belonged to a more innocent age. Yet there's increasing evidence that the writer -- whom his most recent biographer, Jeffrey Meyers, calls ``the most important American novelist of the 20th century''-- still has power to fascinate. Now we see a spate of books that suggest the maturity of a new interest in Hemingway. There is Norberto Fuentes's Hemingway in Cuba (Lyle Stuart; $22.50) and Arnold Samuelson's With Hemingway (Holt, Rinehart & Winston; $7.95 paper). The latter is the lively memoir of a self-appointed disciple who spent some time (in 1934) with his master and his entourage during ``Papa's'' Key West period. There are recent and current reissues of Anthony Burgess's short critical biography, Ernest Hemingway and His World (Scribner's; $10.95), and Bernice Kert's interesting special study, The Hemingway Women (Norton; $9.95).
Hemingway's book on Spanish bullfighting, The Dangerous Summer, has appeared in full for the first time (Scribner's; $17.95), and there is also Dateline Toronto (Scribner's; $19.95), a collection of journalistic pieces the young Hemingway contributed (from 1920-1924) to the Toronto Star. Next month we'll see The Garden of Eden (Scribners; $18.95) a previously unpublished, uncompleted novel from the 1950s (of which, biographers' assessments suggest, we probably shouldn't expect too much).
Three new biographies most notably suggest the power that the legend of Hemingway still holds for us. Two focus on Hemingway's early years, while the third is a full account of his life and career, meant to supplant the previous standard biography, Carlos Baker's Ernest Hemingway (1969).
Peter Griffin's Along With Youth (Oxford; $17.95) offers a detailed picture of the young Hemingway from birth (1899) through his (first) marriage to Hadley Richardson in 1921, and up to his imminent return to the Europe he had experienced earlier as a Red Cross hospital corpsman during World War I. The book -- the first of a projected three volumes -- is an ingenious patchwork which draws on the previously published memoirs and miscellaneous papers of Hemingway family members and friends as well as the products of Mr. Griffin's own original research and interviews. It includes four mostly pedestrian, unpublished stories, one of which -- ``The Current'' -- surmounts its period mannerisms and displays its author's remarkable gift for lucid action writing.
The major objects of Griffin's scrutiny are Hemingway's childhood and youth in Illinois and his days as an outdoorsman ``up in Michigan''; his wartime experiences, including the unfortunate romance with nurse Agnes von Kurowsky (the model for Catherine in A Farewell to Arms) and the wounding that sent him home a hero; the Midwestern years as an increasingly accomplished journalist and fledgling fiction writer; and his passionate, funny, lively correspondence with Hadley Richardson, whose vivid and engaging letters to him (they are Griffin's real discovery) have almost as much color and energy as do Hemingway's own writings.
What this book sets out to prove -- and does, to my satisfaction -- is that the celebrated terse, unpretentious Hemingway style derives basically from his Midwest background and upbringing, and not solely from his later years of apprenticeship in Paris. But it also skillfully documents the early emergence of qualities like egoism and pettiness that foreshadowed the aging Hemingway's megalomania and cruelty. Best of all, it provides a wonderful picture of the attractive and fascinating Hadley. It's sad, in retrospect, to realize how much energy and affection fueled their mutual devotion -- and to know they would eventually separate.
``Along with Youth'' is blemished by Griffin's frequent efforts to imitate Hemingway's prose. Furthermore, he gets bogged down later in the book with European trip- and wedding-preparation trivia. These minor flaws aside, this is an illuminating book; its sources and notes are themselves fascinatingly detailed, and should be read in full.
Michael Reynolds' The Young Hemingway (Basil Blackwell; $19.95) is an even stronger delineation of its subject's personal and artistic development. Reynolds concentrates on the years 1919-1921, and offers a wealth of documented observation and convincing speculation about the varied sources of Hemingway's complex personality. His determination to be accepted as both adventurer and sophisticated intellectual replicates Oak Park's complacent self-image as a former frontier town that has become a success-oriented small city. His difficult and depressive emotional nature is shown to be deeply rooted in the conflict between his troubled parents, each of whom is powerfully and unforgettably characterized in these pages.
This is also an absorbing literary study. Reynolds skillfully summarizes and analyzes Hemingway's early writings, pointing out the crucial influences of such examples and mentors as Rudyard Kipling, Joseph Conrad, Sherwood Anderson, and Theodore Roosevelt. Reynolds bluntly discloses the romantic fantasies and distortions that were part of Hemingway's ``self-creation,'' but he understands and fairly judges the human failings of ``a middle-class urban boy who longed for adventures,'' and told the stories he wished he had lived.
Jeffrey Meyers's Hemingway: A Biography (Harper and Row; $27.50) blends an absorbing narrative history together with a welcome elucidation of the subject's literary consequence and relations with other literary and artistic figures.
Mr. Meyers's evocative depictions of the places (Spain, Key West, Fla., Kenya, Havana) that Hemingway practically made his own, his informative discussion of ``Papa's'' espionage activities (``sub hunting'') during World War II and ``conflict with the FBI'' thereafter, and the unforgettably harrowing account -- far franker than Carlos Baker's -- of the ``period of disintegration'' that was Hemingway's last decade, ending with his suicide in 1961, all contribute to the feeling that this biography will establish itself as the definitive one for some time to come.
Of equal interest, though, are Meyers's judicious analyses of Hemingway's early writings (including the journalism), his relationship with Gertrude Stein, and his indebtedness to Rudyard Kipling. Meyers is especially interesting when portraying the peers and rivals (James Joyce, Wyndham Lewis, Ford Madox Ford, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Dos Passos) whose paths crossed Hemingway's, and also when comparing the fictional heroines with those real women -- wives, lovers, flirtation partners, ``daughters'' -- who populated, and haunted, his life.