Ernest Hemingway. The life of an indomitable writer, seen with a Freudian eye
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.
``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.''
(That is: Hemingway's style was so spare because his understanding of himself was so spare. Shall we say something similar of Picasso's move from realism to abstraction?)
But for me such an approach to Hemingway's life leaves the essence of this great spirit unexplained - his boundless energy and creativity, the quality of his writings - among them ``classic'' short stories and novels - and the literary awards, including the Nobel Prize.
This leads to broader questions: Are biography and literary criticism to remain forever in the kingdom of Freud? Is artistic creativity always the sublimation of frustrations and emotions? And doesn't the acceptance of this ``given'' inevitably shadow much that a biographer or critic observes and writes about? Isn't it a reductio ad absurdum explanation for the roots of creative endeavor?
Yet in ``Hemingway,'' concerning the writing of ``A Moveable Feast,'' we find:
``Once again, it seemed, he had beaten his disabilities and his furies, exorcising them in the act of writing and in therapeutic recall of the streets, the caf'es, the good food and wine, the friends, the wife, and the long hours of work that made Paris in the years between 1921 and 1926 a symbol for him of the man he once was.''
Here the creative process is reduced to a form of therapy, even of exorcism. With the same Freudian approach Lynn fuels the concept of a childhood that somehow warped Hemingway's psyche. But the upper-middle-class environment Lynn depicts sounds relatively normal and packed with parental interest:
``... twice a year [Hemingway's father] liked to take his children to see the Ringling Brothers Circus at the Coliseum, and on weekends he sometimes escorted them to the Field Museum of Natural History ... [His mother] shepherded all six of them up the grand staircase of the Art Institute ... On other occasions she bought them tickets to concerts at Orchestra Hall ...''
Specifically, Lynn makes a major point of the fact that on occasion in his early childhood and for a period longer than customary, Hemingway had long curls and was put in dresses. But my family pictures of the same era indicate that before World War I this was not unusual for young boys. I have a great shot of my father in similar garb.
Starting with such events in Hemingway's life, Lynn posits a psychological androgyny in the author. Then he proceeds to find evidence in Hemingway's life and works to support the thesis.
Maybe so, maybe so, but let's remember this can be a perilous - and facile - path because any great author like Hemingway must, by definition, have the skill to identify with and write about many things - including the feelings, hopes, and disappointments of members of the opposite sex.
To sum up - a biographer tends inevitably to be influenced by his own attitudes and beliefs, and tends to shape his subject more or less to them. When we're dealing with a largely Freudian biographical interpretation like Lynn's, the degree of shaping can be high. For all a scholar's meticulous research, as in Lynn's book, there is a risk of half-truth or distortion. That's why I feel future scholars may look at ``Hemingway'' as part of an outmoded genre.
J. Denis Glover is on the Monitor's staff.