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Mom And Papa

May 2024
6min read

Biographies of writers often disappoint. Albert Camus once described life in the literary arena with bleak accuracy: “One imagines black intrigues, vast ambitious schemings. There are nothing but vanities, satisfied with small rewards.”

In some ways, Ernest Hemingway’s tumultuous life is an exception to that rule. Everything about him—his talent as well as his rewards and vanities—was outsized. His sixty-one years were so crowded with noisy sideshows—wars, travels, feuds, safaris, fishing trips, boxing matches, bullfights, marriages, affairs, hard drinking—that it sometimes seems astonishing he found the time to write anything at all. Yet virtually all of it reappeared in his work. He was, as Alfred Kazin noted recently in this magazine, “the most extraordinary appropriator,” able to make nearly everything he saw or felt or survived part of his pages. And although a quarter of a century has now passed since he shot himself, our interest in him has never flagged. Professor Carlos Baker’s official biography, Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story , appeared in 1969; it is a solid study—scholarly, admiring, readable—but it has turned out to be only an island in the steady stream of Hemingway books, all seeking to separate what really happened to the writer from his own vivid versions of it. Memoirs have been published by old friends and old enemies, by hangers-on and members of the family; academics have picked over his syntax, quarreled over his sexual orientation, assessed and reassessed his output.

Peter Griffin’s new book, Along With Youth: Hemingway, the Early Years (Oxford University Press), is the first of a projected three volumes. It focuses on the writer’s earliest experiences—boyhood summers in upper Michigan, World War One, his romance with the nurse Agnes Kurowsky (who is shown to have been more serious about him than had previously been thought)—all of which would later inspire much of his best writing. And it includes intriguing new material: chatty but revealing letters to Bill Home, a close friend from Chicago newspaper days; love letters from Hadley; and five unpublished short stories, wildly uneven but already filled with evidence of his early determination to write about “real people, talking and saying what they think.”

But perhaps more important, it offers a few suggestive clues as to what went so terribly wrong at the end. Hemingway’s suicide stopped a long sad decline into despair and paranoia and miserable health. “What does a man care about?” he had asked a few weeks earlier. “Staying healthy. Working good. Eating and drinking with his friends. Enjoying himself in bed. I haven’t any of them.” But he had in fact been talking of ending his own life for years before he fell ill. The conventional wisdom has been that it was the example of his father’s suicide in 1928 that he had finally been unable to resist emulating. That may, in part, be true, but as Griffin reveals, Hemingway was already considering doing away with himself at the age of twenty-one, nearly a decade before his father’s death. His anxious fiancée wrote then to talk him out of it, her alarm perhaps enhanced by the memory of her own father’s suicide. “Remember,” she told him, ”… it would kill me to all intents and purposes. … You got to live first for your, and then for my happiness. … You mustn’t feel so horrible unworthwhile, dear Ern. …” Hemingway’s sister, Ursula, and his brother, Leicester, evidently came to feel similarly worthless; both of them would also commit suicide.

Common sense suggests that the cause of all this self-destruction must lie in the life Hemingway led with his parents and five siblings in the fashionable Chicago suburb of Oak Park at the century’s turn. He once joked to a young friend that there were “heaps” of skeletons in the Hemingway closet, and he threatened one day to write a novel that would reveal them all. It is a pity he’ never did, for in trying to piece together what happened to him in Oak Park we are left to guesswork. Griffin is almost too responsible a sleuth, content to amass his evidence without openly making a case. Still, thanks to his labors, our guesses are better informed than they once were.

Hemingway’s father—named Clarence but known to everyone as Ed—was a big, stolid physician, a taciturn man’s man who spent as much time as he could on his own, hunting and fishing and walking in the woods, or locked in his own turret in the attic where his collection of pickled specimens was ranged along the walls—snakes, salamanders, toads, and a human fetus, all bleached white by alcohol.

The real power in the house was Hemingway’s mother, Grace. She was tall, bosomy, overconfident, a failed artist. (She had made her debut as a contralto at Madison Square Garden, then gave up all thought of a professional career because, she said, the footlights hurt her eyes.) She found solace in strict teetotal religion and in cloying self-dramatization that bordered on madness.

She seems to have loved her eldest son precisely as long as she could control all that he did, could see him as a projection of herself. Her big leatherbound “Memory Book” of his first years is filled with examples of how devoted he is to her: “He sleeps with Mama and lunches all night. … He is so strong and well and loves his Mama so tenderly … and cries with such heart broken sorrow when we all put on our things in the morning.” One of his favorite games, she noted, was “‘Kitty’ where Mama be the Mama kitty and strokes him and purrs.”

But when he broke away from her and began to act on his own—and especially when he coupled that natural desire for independence with a lively interest in girls and a gift for writing as undeniable as it was all-consuming—her love seems to have been transformed into something very like hatred.

Here she explains to her son on the occasion of his twenty-first birthday just what he must do to win back her love: “The account [of maternal feeling which she says he has overdrawn] needs some deposits. … Interest in Mother’s ideas and affairs. Little comforts provided for the home. A desire to favor any of Mother’s peculiar prejudices, on no account to outrage her ideal. Flowers, fruit, candy or something to wear, brought home to Mother with a kiss and a squeeze. The unfailing desire to make much of her feeble efforts, to praise her cooking, back up her little schemes. A real interest in hearing her sing or play the piano, or tell the stories that she loves to tell—a surreptitious paying of bills, just to get them off Mother’s mind.

“A thoughtful remembrance and celebration of her birthday and Mother’s Day—the sweet letter accompanying the gift of flowers, she treasures it most of all. These are merely a few of the deposits which keep the account in good standing.”

That account would never be reopened. Hemingway’s fame only depleted it further. His mother loathed his writing; it seemed to her “a doubtful honor,” she told him when The Sun Also Rises first appeared, to have written “one of the filthiest books of the year.”

Personal success for Hemingway was tainted, then, from the first. The better he did, the more ungrateful he was made to seem, the more “unworthwhile” he was made to feel. He dutifully supported his mother after his father’s death—an event for which he believed she was mostly to blame—and he even tried to remember to write her on her birthday and to praise her for the mediocre paintings she turned out as an old lady in the vain hope of building an artistic reputation of her own. But he could not stand to visit her. And she never grew less envious of him. “Some critics and professors consider Ernest’s books among the finest of our times,” she told an interviewer in 1951, the last year of her life, “but I think the essays he wrote as a schoolboy were better.” Those essays, of course, had been written under Grace Hemingway’s own fierce and unforgiving guidance.

When Hemingway broke away from his ferociously devoted mother to act on his own, her love seems to have been transformed into something very like hatred.

A little over a year ago, I wrote a column trying to puzzle out why British historical dramas for television are so often better than our own. The brilliant Jewel in the Crown series about the final days of the British Raj provided the pretext. Conscience and patriotism now require me to point out that the British also sometimes muck things up. Lord Mountbatten: The Last Viceroy , just starting its six-part run on PBS, should be good. Again the subject is the end of the British Empire’s rule in India, and there are few more dramatic tales: the overnight division of one-fifth of the world’s people into two new nations—India and Pakistan—accompanied by the slaughter of perhaps half a million and the forced uprooting of some fourteen million more. Then, too, the Indian government was eager to aid the film makers, opening up the splendid viceroyal palace in New Delhi, now the home of the president of India and still so large that servants must use bicyles to move from one end of the cellar to the other.

But nothing about this series works. The script is wooden and didactic; someone is forever lecturing us on what’s about to happen, and several times each episode a howling mob of religious zealots falls upon some peaceful village or tranquil neighborhood, cutting throats and torching huts with such choreographed efficiency that the effect becomes comic rather than tragic. All the crowd scenes seem oddly thin and listless despite the authentic grandeur of the settings, and even the acting, usually the mainstay of British productions, is ordinary. Nicol Williamson, for example, is merely bluff and affable as the glamorous viceroy. (This may be the only time in television history that a TV actor is less handsome and magnetic than the historic personage he plays.)

Worse still, from the point of view of accurate history, is the series’ romantic view of Britain’s role in granting freedom. The Indians portrayed are, by turns, deceitful, infuriating, hopelessly inept; even Mahatma Gandhi is initially played for laughs. If the British did not create the religious hatreds that ravaged the subcontinent as they fled from it, they had done little to dull them during their long rule. In this version they emerge as spotless as the blinding uniforms Lord Louis so loved to wear.

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