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The Importance of Being Earnest

In the current issue of The New York Review of Books, the reader is treated to yet another round of bashing Ernest Hemingway and damning him with faint praise.

The review is ostensibly about a trio of new books that are themselves ostensibly about Hemingway and it is also about the Hemingway Industry and how the seemingly never-ending production of biographies and critical studies has reached a point of gross abundance, or morbid obesity. It is also about the well tended idea that Hemingway went to great lengths to hide behind various disguises that in one way or another compromised his artistic integrity.

Of course only some of that is true because the strawman is so large and so flammable that the article should come with a bright yellow sticker that says: Danger Combustible Do Not Smoke or Start Fires in Proximity to this Material.

The first transgression is that the author of the article, Fintan O’Toole, manages to undress one piece of Fake Hemingway arcana in an attempt at biographical and then critical study honesty, yet manages the neat trick of doing so while creating yet another tall tale in the service of beating the great man over his tombstone.

We get the usual nonsense about Hemingway being full of mendacity (discussed nicely decades ago by no less a facilitator of tall tales than one of Hemingway’s great mentors, James Joyce, who said in a letter he had come recently from lunch with Hem and Ezra Pound and they had discussed a poetry prize but, said the Homer of Dublin, they are both such damnable liars I thought I should double-check) – and we say nonsense precisely because it’s neither news that Hemingway lied nor is it in anyway shocking that writers of fiction lie – but we get a brief look at the historical time-line surrounding one of Hemingway’s trips to Africa which resulted in the meta-fiction masterpiece, Green Hills of Africa.

O’Toole, expertly deconstructs the surface of Hemingway’s falsehoods and just as expertly reconstructs the accurate time-line which reveals that Hemingway was telling a large scale fabrication seemingly at the expense of his old friend, Joyce, while using it to elevate his own frail ego in contrast and comparison.

Alas for O’Toole, and the editors at the NYRoB, and countless others who have never learned how to read Hemingway and see him as one of the truly great Modernist masters of the double-blind, he utterly misses the point: Hemingway’s lie about Joyce being wobble-kneed about his own physical frailty (the same thing Joyce himself went to town on with detailed descriptions in his own work where he describes fear of thunder, physical contact, women, cows, dogs, Ireland, the church, god, the devil, sin, failure, and poverty, to name just a few) is not in the service of boosting Hemingway’s ego, frail or otherwise, but is in the service of extolling the greatness of Joyce and showing Hemingway to be a faithful disciple who has been misunderstood by nearly everyone.

As great shots always are (as he says repeatedly in Green Hill of Africa).

O’Toole does rightly acknowledge Hemingway’s Modernist bona fides, and seems to be one of the few to publicly if not knowingly give credit to the late great Hemingway scholar Robert Gajdusek, who first detailed Hemingway’s appropriation of the major Modernist tropes (from Joyce but also of course, Pound and Stein and as Ray Chandler so intelligently phrases it in a different context…from himself as well) but then gives us a piece of reheated Hemingway-as-braggart mythology: namely that Green Hills was all about Hemingway as macho poser hiding his latent homsexuality and or childhood trauma.

Versus the fact that Green Hills is full of references to Joyce as the master, the pioneer, the great shot who taught Hemingway how to hunt the truth, and that Green Hills is Hemingway operating on a multi-dimensional level in which he places himself inside the Joycean/Modernist scene as disciple and protector and not, as O’Toole and others would have us believe, braggart and exploiter and betrayer.

But all of this is just foreplay because the article is really just another in the endless line of remoras.

Yes it’s true that the Hemingway Industry like the Shakespeare Industry or countless other excuses to print money off a corpus has reached the point of absurdity and financial necrophilia, but that is in no small measure thanks to people like O’Toole, who go on, and on, and on, and then some more after that, about Hemingway as if he were an animatronic show-piece at an amusement park.

And so we are treated to the usual suspects – Hemingway’s mother, a woman Ernest described as an all American bitch with handles, his father’s suicide, his mother’s likely lesbianism, his being dressed as a girl (a cultural practice well known from detailed studies of the era in which Hemingway grew up, and a piece of evidence the otherwise seemingly erudite O’Toole neglects to mention – and which is an important fact – that early cross-dressing is not to be ignored in understanding the subject but suffers from lack of contextualization –  and is not insignificant) the drinking, the violence, the feuds, the wounds, and so on through the now well-established encyclopedia of Hemingway Studies.

We even get testimony from ex-wives, who on the one hand are privy to a depth of insider-trading that is off limits to most, but who also, as we know, and understand despite O’Toole neglecting to state the important and obvious fact, are also among the least reliable of witnesses precisely because of their connection to the subject.

But all of this is still just the tip of the iceberg. What is absent in the article, and what is always absent in biographies about Hemingway and nearly every major artist, is a sense of the effect their success, their stature, their talent, had on those around them.

To put it bluntly, where are the studies in jealousy?

In other words, rather than the traditional gilding of, subject x has difficult traumatic childhood, rises from ordinary circumstances or even from hellish circumstances and defies the odds to become recognized as a genius, and who upon gaining success, turns into a monster, how about we reverse engineer this idea and say instead that in addition to those factors, contemporary industrial capitalism, and post-industrial capitalism, with its interconnected cults of personality colonized for use in the maintenance of a hierarchy of sadomasochistic exploitation, makes success a prison – a state described by another difficult personality thusly: “I wouldn’t wish what happened to me on my worst enemy”(1*)

Pablo Picasso was world famous when he said that and was living like a pasha in the South of France, with flunkies, a wife, a few ex wives, mistresses, and a few hundred million dollars in works of art.

And yet, he was miserable. And not in the dissipated life is rough in your mansion rock star manner we’re accustomed to hearing about, but in the prison of success that deprives the artist of the ability to go quietly down the street and observe or to a favorite bar or cafe to talk to friends uninterrupted by what must be called a perpetual state of surveillance which itself is a tool of the state machinery.

The fascist idea that privacy is dead and we should just accept it and get on with living in a panopticon periodically disturbed by outbursts of violence, scandal, and orchestrated post-modern high-tech Maoist show trials, where some politician or celebrity goes on television with a cheerleader for the system and confesses to their sins is just that – an idea of fascism.

Was Hemingway a brute who mistreated his friends and his wives and drank too much and told lies?

I don’t know but I am certain neither does Mr. O’Toole.

After all, plenty of people will tell you Hemingway’s some-time friend, and some-time rival F.Scott Fitzgerald drank too much but for all I know he didn’t drink enough but he did write The Great Gatsby and if I were trying to write that and I were married to Zelda, I’d probably want to know there was a bottle of something potent close at hand.

But could we please have a look at just how much a pain in the ass Scott was in relation to his relationship with Hemingway?

Have you ever had a friend with a drinking problem?

Have you ever had a friend with a drinking problem who was a genius?

But we’re not supposed to say that. We’re not supposed to say, yes they drank, but so do a lot of other people it’s just that no one is gearing up to write a multi-volume biography about your dry-cleaner, or your dentist or the cop on the corner, and we’re not supposed to say it because it would draw attention to the industry and how the sausage gets made and by whom and for how much. (and for look at how and why and for how much and the context of Hemingway within the business of writing):

The question becomes then exactly what is gained and what is lost and what is commodified by hammering away at the fact that Hemingway stretched the truth?

Exactly how was he supposed to behave in the face of the challenges before him? Or to put it another way: How is he at fault for being a successful writer in mid 20th century America?

And beyond that it raises yet another question O’Toole and no one else wants to discuss: namely what happens to an artist when they gain the reputation of being not just an observer of what is hidden, but a master observer of what is hidden – hidden in others, hidden in the fabric of the machinery of society.

It was, after all, Hemingway who said: “There are many who do not know they are fascists but will discover it when the time comes.”

It was Hemingway who wrote: ” Especially in a foreign country. The money could be arranged.”

Well now, who wants to invite Ernest to their party?

Consider that it is one of his problematic ex-wives (well, his widow, Mary) who said that when he entered a room, he could instantly tell the nature of the relationships between the people in the room. (We submit that the story is true but like an iceberg that does not show all of its mass there is more to it – namely that while Hemingway’s genius allowed him a near instantaneous glimpse into the heart of another, it was, exactly as we have outlined, his persona that prompted the tell by the other people in the room. Confronted by the power of celebrity, and a celebrity who was a Byronic man of action in that he was an intellectual invited, for example, by Sartre, Camus and De Beauvoir to attend conferences, befriended by Joyce and Stein and Picasso, but also a kind of proletariat in that he fished and ate and hunted and maintained – was able to maintain – relationships with people for whom writing was either abstract or functional – a kind of tool used for achieving a specific result like a hammer or a wrench. Thus the issue is not Hemingway’s psychological condition as is always the default setting of the critics but the fact that the critics have a psychological default setting that is antagonistic to Hemingway).

We are talking about a genius with genius level perceptive abilities and an acute sensitivity to what lies below the surface in the fast moving streams of life. Wrap that emotional weather vane in success, charisma, imposing physical presence, money, and the paraphernalia of fame, and you have a recipe for catastrophe – and not just because he was combustible, but precisely because America eats its own, and people participate in a ritualized cannibalization of those who are successful.

But don’t look behind the curtain.

It has been more than three decades and change since the government admitted it was spying on him(*2) and nearly every other major American author of the same generation, and yet, to date there have been no serious studies about Hemingway and any number of people or organizations that would have wished him ill, no studies of the effects of being the first American novelist taken seriously as auteur and popular, and of course no studies of the endless studies because Foucault is dead and was French and in America we don’t go in for self-examination but instead pretend we’re self-aware by subscribing to Goop or whatever is the latest self-help fad.

For example, O’Toole does not mention that Hemingway’s ex brother-in-law, Hadley’s brother, was not only a spy for the British, but that during and after the Spanish Civil War, he was tasked with spying on Hemingway.

Paranoid much?

Or, just because you’re paranoid it doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.

Is it possible that having reached the point of a morbidly obese Hemingway Studies Industry, we might begin to turn the critical lens around and take a look at asking what is it we talk about when we talk about Hemingway?

I’d say yes but, we’re not stupid or optimistic because,

This is America.


1* Goethe was driven to a state of perpetual anxiety by the success of the Sorrows of Young Werther. He cursed his fame and the cult of personality that enveloped him. This was, of course, in the latter part of the 18th century and among the effects of the cult were the habitat of depressed and or existentially noble young men shooting themselves while sitting before a desk on which lay Goethe’s book, open to the page where, Werther kills himself.

2* For a look at the government’s assault on Hemingway see the following:

A.E. Hotchner’s: Hemingway Hounded by the Feds, July 1, 20011, The New York Times.

The Ink is pleased to report that it recently came across an old article from The London Review of Books by Christian Lorentzen. The review is of a short story collection by Don Delillo. What is of interest to us though is the following:

“Around noon, he preaches to a crowd outside the Hotel Metropole and is mocked by a ‘Negro boy’ who compares the Trinity to ‘Purity, Body and Flavor’, the advertising slogan for Ballantine beer. ”

It is no accident that Hemingway chose to do print ads for Ballantine Beer. It is no accident and more importantly it is not the “sell-out” or compromise it has been portrayed as by any number of critics. It is, in keeping with the dionysian structure of a Moveable Feast with its opening to ancient Greek goat-song, in keeping with how A Farewell to Arms opens with soldiers marching to their deaths while looking like pregnant women and ending with a pregnant woman who dies while giving birth and is herself named for the martyred Saint Catherine who was crushed on a wheel, and it is in keeping with every other Judeo-Christian Modernist, Pagan, neo-Pagan trope he used in his oeuvre.

“Purity, Body and Flavor” are indeed a trinity and a play on the Christian Passion Play and no self-respecting disciple of Stein-Pound-Joyce would have missed the reference, the opportunity for a pun, and an in-joke among those, in-the-know, and Hemingway, as far from the shallow end of O’Toole’s critical frog pond, would have been laughing all the way to the nearest bar for a drink.

Decades after his execution Hemingway still has tricks to reveal and reveals himself yet again as one of the great Modernist Masters. Having stolen a march on his critics, having lapped the so-called competition, he still amazes.*

*We also note that, in keeping with Modernist tradition, and in keeping with his appreciation for Hemingway, Hunter S. Thompson mentions drinking Ballantine Beer in Chapter 12 of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.



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