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A man can be destroyed but not defeated.
? Ernest Hemingway
Fifty years ago, Ernest Hemingway, writer, sportsman, big-game hunter, soldier, poseur, genius and Nobel Prize winner shot himself with his favorite Boss doublebarrel shotgun at his home in Ketchum, Idaho. His wife Mary at first pretended it was an accident, but nobody bought that fairy tale. He’d been suffering almost every imaginable physical and some mental problems, including writer’s block and, so it is said, impotence.
In previous months, he had submitted to more than 15 punishing ECT (electroshock convulsive) treatments at the Mayo clinic, due, in part, to his fear that the FBI was shadowing him. Paranoia? In fact, the FBI’s director J Edgar Hoover hated him as a “Communist” for raising money for ambulances to the antifascist loyalist side of the Spanish civil war and sheltering anti-Franco refugees. Hoover kept a 124-page file on Hemingway, and had ordered his agents to trail the writer’s movements. His doctors, family and friends saw Hemingway’s anxiety as proof of his mental instability requiring shock treatment.
Since his death, it’s been chic to spitefully pick over his moldering bones to psychoanalyse and thus not-so-subtly degrade Hemingway’s work and life. A much-quoted secondhand “psychological autopsy” of Hemingway’s suicide by an American shrink, who never met the writer, finds him guilty of “narcissistic personality traits” and ? of course! ? “bipolar disorder”. And ? predictably ? “an Oedipal desire to kill his father”. To add to this bill of indictment, an English literary critic recently slammed Hemingway’s “psychotic self-dramatisation”.
There’s a lot there to pick apart in the man: the bluster, exaggerated machismo, mood swings, four marriages, alcoholism, death-wooing in the bullring, at the D-Day landing, and in bed. No small ego there. But, in all the fancy analytical footwork, it’s sometimes forgotten that, like Captain Kirk of the Starship Enterprise, Hemingway explored “strange new worlds ? to boldly go where no man has gone before”. His powerfully insinuating prose practically took over the style of many young writers, including me, as did Salinger’s for a later generation. Some of Hemingway’s novels, and many beautiful short stories like “Big Two Hearted River” and “In Another Country”, will live as long as literature.
To read Hemingway afresh is to be reminded of Goya’s “The Disasters of War” aquatints and Picasso’s “Guernica”, but also of some of the great writers of the natural world like Turgenev (whom he admired) and even the gentler poets like Keats and, yes, Emily Dickinson. His physical observation of rivers, mountains, trees, animals ? our place in nature ? is keen, fresh and now, severely disciplined and celebratory at the same time. Despite his boastful “primitivism” ? he talked to bears and claimed they talked back ? and love of shooting, today he’d be on the side of the eco-angels.
After a 1935 Katrina-like hurricane killed 400 jobless, mentally-ill war veterans in a Key West, Florida work camp, where they’d been sent by President Roosevelt to rid Washington, DC of potentially radical elements, Hemingway wrote a raging “Who Murdered the Vets?” article, demanding, “Whom did (the vets) annoy and to whom was their possible presences a political danger?” Given his feeling for ordinary soldiers, I can imagine him doing the same thing today for veterans shortchanged by the military bureaucracies.
I always feel a bit defensive about my love of Hemingway. His man’s man pose may not go down well in today’s gay and feminist influenced culture. It tends to be a guy thing. His women ? Lady Brett in The Sun Also Rises, Catherine Barkley in A Farewell to Arms ? are stoical, long-suffering, loyal and sexy. I can’t imagine any of them having a life separate and autonomous from Jake Barnes, Lt Henry or Robert Jordan at the bridge.
And it’s true that, especially as he grew older, his machismo could be absurd and self-parodying. But to love a writer is to embrace all of him, cruel and sensitive, brave and bitchy. For some of us, his sudden death was like a punch in the gut, the loss of an alpha-male family member, almost a father. People usually remember exactly where they were when John F Kennedy was murdered or when the 19 jihadists flew into the World Trade Centre on 9/11. When we heard the news of Hemingway’s death, I was in a Bayswater pub, having a drink with another writer, who was, like Hemingway, a wounded soldier; he simply said, “Jesus, he finally found the bullet that had chased him all his life.” Or, according to the shrinks, that he’d been chasing since childhood in a suicide-prone, dysfunctional Chicago family.
Up to the very end, Hemingway put up a tremendous battle to stay alive as a writer, despite severe wounds that never healed from air crashes, boat accidents and large living. The Garden of Eden, his last, unfinished book, published posthumously, was a daring, heroic attempt at a summing up on a grand scale. It experimented with androgyny, and sex reversals, and clearly was a painful effort to demasculinise and broaden his writing. It’s a crime that the published novel compared to the unfinished original is a cartoonish cut-and-paste job. (I’m indebted to the literary archaeological digging of the New York writer Barbara Probst Solomon, who tracked down Hemingway’s original draft in a Boston library.)He’d worked on this magnum opus for 20 years, and if anything killed him, his Promethean struggles with The Garden of Eden did.
Remember the times ? and our own. He grew up with terror. His father shot himself, and other family members also committed suicide, including his actor niece, Margaux. The miserable Italian campaign of the first world war, where, as a Red Cross volunteer, he saved a soldier’s life and almost lost a mortar-shattered leg to a surgeon’s knife; the following “small wars” in Europe and Asia Minor, and his boisterous joining the 4th Infantry division for its liberating drive to Paris, were no picnics. From the start, most poignantly in the Spanish civil war, he threw himself body and soul into the “struggle against fascism”. Some psychosis.
Clancy Sigal is a novelist and screenwriter in Los Angeles. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org