Art Means Always Having to Say You’re Sorry

To say a book about Hemingway was written in “lean, muscular prose” would stretch many kilometers beyond cliché at this point. But if the shoe fits…and Clancy Sigal’s Hemingway Lives! most certainly does.

Hemingway Lives! is not so much a biography (there’s little in it we all haven’t read or heard before) as an exegesis.  Sigal closely examines the work and the mind behind the work, using incidents from the life for reference and supporting documentation.

If anyone wonders how such a thoroughly “politically incorrect,” hyper-macho oaf as Hemingway could at the same time write some of the most robust yet exquisite prose of the century, changing not only the way Americans read and write but even speak the language, Sigal explains it here.  He also insinuates that reports of Hemingway’s machismo, bravado and boorishness have been “greatly exaggerated.”

Sigal corrects the politicos with much insight and critical analysis, but no apologies.

Let’s examine some details from the “petty life” of this literary giant.  Sigal paints a tight portrait of the nasty brutish white man that Hemingway certainly was — and just as certainly was not.

He was born and raised in Oak Park, Illinois, an upper-middle-class, all-white suburb of Chicago where anyone who was not a racist, sexist, patriotic, xenophobic, homophobic, anti-Semite was viewed with quite a bit of suspicion indeed.

Problem was, Hemingway’s mother, Grace, a former singer, was a suffragist, a free-thinking, independent (for the time) woman who was rumored, within the neighborhood, at least, to have had a lesbian affair with one of her music students.  Worse, Hemingway’s father, Dr. Clarence Hemingway, was surely no “Papa.”  He taught the young Ernest to hunt and fish and appreciate the natural environment, as did the father of Hemingway’s fictional “alter ego,” Nick Adams,  in the stories; but he was also, at least in Ernest’s eyes, dominated by his wife.  Uxorious, or “pussy whipped,” in the “parlance of our times.”  He also killed himself when Hemingway was around 30, which seemed to confirm the son’s analysis of Dr. Hemingway’s cowardice.

So young Hemingway had a chip on his shoulder, and poor-eyesight, and a rare anemic condition that caused periods of extreme exhaustion and depression.  But he did all the things privileged white American males did in the era of Theodore Roosevelt, Hemingway’s hero and in many ways the model for his life, including mandatory cello lessons insisted upon by his music-teacher mother, who had given up a promising opera career to marry Dr. Hemingway and raise a family.  He threw himself energetically into various social activities, school clubs, sports, particularly base-ball and boxing, with average success, hunted, fished, hiked, occasionally sulked when depressed, attempting to cure the blues by throwing himself with gusto and enthusiasm, however feigned, into furious activity.

Of course, he would later write about his youth, in particular his love-hate relationship with Dr. Hemingway, with a combination of guilt, nostalgia and ambiguity,  specifically in the “Nick Adams Stories,” which Sigal discusses with brevity and the wisdom of one who has lived and written through the decades since Hemingway’s life ended and experienced the changes in societal mores and general decay of the Republic to full-blown Empire that even the skeptical, seasoned Hemingway could not have conceived without experiencing them himself (as was his habit to do before writing about anything with authority).

Then came a world war — the first one.  Like most young men of his kind, brought up on lore of Teddy Roosevelt and his rough-riders, Hemingway rushed to enlist. But was rejected, due to poor eye-sight and other conditions.  So he joined the Italian Ambulance Corps and was soon off to war.  But war, specifically modern, high-tech, warfare with its bureaucratic uncertainties and machine-precision mass slaughter, can change a person’s thinking about life in general, as Kenneth Slawenski recently pointed out in his J.D. Salinger: A Life, where Hemingway and Salinger shared months of 24/7 nightmares in the Hürtgen Forrest, (Sigal also notes the poignant significance of the two writers’ meeting under fire).

Within days of arriving in Italy, Hemingway was dispatched to an Italian munitions factory which had inadvertently exploded, exposing the clean-cut American teen-ager to the scattered heads, limbs and OR Book Going Rougeviscera of dead workers, most of them female, and corpses burned and blasted beyond recognition.

Next, after volunteering to serve close to the front, he found himself on the wrong side of a bomb while distributing packages to wounded soldiers.  The explosion killed several men around him, riddling Hemingway’s own body with hundreds of shell fragments.  Nevertheless, he rose, though he claimed not to have remembered this, lifted a wounded Italian soldier on his shoulders, and carried him to safety while machine-gun fire ripped his own legs to shreds.  All he recalled was the sensation of his life or “spirit” leaving his body, then returning, a near-death-experience he would write about in A Farewell to Arms.    He regained consciousness on an operating table, overhearing the surgeons discuss whether or not they should amputate his left leg, which resembled bloody hamburger.

They saved the leg, and awarded him a medal for bravery.  During the months spent in recovery, the eighteen-year-old Hemingway fell in unrequited love with the nurse on whom he would base the Katherine character in a Farewell to Arms, and armistice was proclaimed. By the time he returned home, nobody was all that interested in hearing about that nasty old war anymore; yesterday’s news; let the Prohibition begin!

The War scrubbed Hemingway clean — if not of his prejudices, at least of his illusions.  Sigal is succinct and straightforward in pointing this out, and its relevance to those fighting the Empire’s War Against The World today.  Hemingway was seriously wounded, nearly killed, and millions of others died for — well, I don’t think anyone ever really figured out exactly what they died for, certainly not freedom or democracy.  Even the privileged, white male-dominated middle-America of Hemingway’s youth would never be the same.

So he left.

Living off a small endowment left to his first wife, Hadley (a practice Hemingway would repeat), the Hemingways expatriated themselves to Paris in 1921, where they moved into a small apartment within blocks of James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Sherwood Anderson and perhaps most significantly, Gertrude Stein, whose influence on his prose style and exposure to other artists and ideas cannot be underestimated.

Sigal calls Stein Hemingway’s “Jewish Mama” in Paris, referring to more than just their mentor-student relationship.  The domineering, out-spoken, Stein resembled Grace Hemingway in personality — at least as Hemingway might have viewed her — as well as charisma and physical girth.  Whether or not Hemingway’s mother did indeed sleep with women is not as important, but not negligible, given Hemingway’s “favored son” relationship to Stein (who was god-mother of his first son) and his later fascination with the subject of lesbianism, as demonstrated in his story, “A Sea Change.”

Sigal is an extremely close reader of Hemingway’s life and fiction and doesn’t miss a trick.    For instance, Hemingway didn’t just wake up one day in the middle of Modernist Paris.  He left his job as a promising reporter for the Kansas City Star the with premeditated intent of meeting the most innovative writers and painters of his time: he would learn from the best and most important writers of his time how to  become one of the best and most important writers of his time.

Faulkner created a parallel universe out of his small “postage stamp of a town,” but Hemingway was not that kind of writer, nor that kind of man.  He was far more personable, gregarious. He needed to be where the action was, to be among movers and shakers, and he could not possibly have found action, much less movers and shakers who would help him forge a unique style out of his considerable talent, if he’d remained in Kansas City.

But Hemingway’s tutelage under, then savage trashing of his lesbian “Jewish Mama,” Stein (in A Moveable Feast he painted a grotesque, possibly imaginary, “domination/submission” scenario that allegedly occurred, 40 years earlier, between Stein and Alice B. Tolklas )  is interesting for other reasons.

Hemingway tended to disparage and dismiss any writer of equal stature to himself who ever helped him out in any significant way.  He borrowed from, then mocked the prose style of Sherwood Anderson, who was his first American contact in Paris.  When the hugely famous F. Scott Fitzgerald offered to set Hemingway up with his own publisher, Knopf, and legendary editor Max Perkins, for his first novel, The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway was all too grateful.  Until the deal was done and the novel published to great acclaim.  Hemingway then did his best to disassociate himself from Fitzgerald and publicly dismiss his literary worth — and question his “manhood” in the catty, entertaining, but as Sigal himself suggests, partly fictional Paris “memoir,”  A Moveable Feast.

Thus, the vicious Antisemitism (the real, old-fashioned kind, not the revised definition, by which Antisemitism is measured in degree of one’s support, or lack thereof, for Israel) displayed in The Sun Also Rises, could be in part directed at his mentor Stein, who was not merely Jewish, but a lesbian and a domineering woman, all too reminiscent of his actual, “WASP Mama,” Grace.   Sigal does not say this directly, though it is implied in Hemingway Lives! 

Sigal does say, very directly, that the gratuitous racism against blacks, homophobia, and Antisemitism displayed in Hemingway’s first novel and some also stories is as grotesque and appalling as one might expect from a twenty-six-year old of Hemingway’s era and upbringing.  Surely not the work of an enlightened thinker, which Hemingway was not, yet.  But par for the course among white male artists of the 1920s and earlier, dating back to Shakespeare’s Shylock.  Fitzgerald fared no better, much less Ezra Pound, nor any of Hemingway’s contemporaries or predecessors save Joyce (and Stein and Kafka, for obvious reasons).

Again, Sigal makes neither apologies nor excuses for Hemingway’s gross and often gratuitous bigotry.  But he does identify Hemingway’s views as typical of a white male American of his time, class and upbringing.

But Sigal is also diligent in pointing out that, unlike many, if not most people who grow into adulthood with a certain mind-set pummeled into them constantly and consistently from early youth, Hemingway learned from experience and changed accordingly — to an extent; few are able to completely overcome early ideas that harden over time to become appendages, however useless, of their intrinsic character.

Sigal writes of Hemingway in the 1920s, “Disliking Jews was common currency.  At the same time, many of Hemingway’s expatriate personal friends were black, gay, Jewish or female.  But deep-dug prejudices die slowly. Hemingway’s racial bias would change significantly only when he met and fought alongside Jewish and African-American volunteers on the Loyalist side of the Spanish Civil War.  In the stress of war in Madrid he became a close friend of the black, gay writer Langston Hughes.  But that was ten years in the future.”

Not ten years in the future were  the alleged misogyny implicit in his work and the “macho” ethic, born in equal parts of his hunting-and-fishing childhood, his vision of his father as a “coward,” and the child-hood influence of “everyone’s hero,” Teddy Roosevelt, all over-blown to a preposterous caricature of reality by media. Later in life,  Hemingway pathetically helped propagate the media fantasy of the self he no longer recognized.  After WWII his body, then his mind began to fail to the point at which any image must have been preferable to the one in the mirror: that of an ailing, prematurely aged alcoholic hounded by the agents of a far more dangerous, virulent homophobe, J. Edgar Hoover (beset by his own wickedly ironic demons).

“Papa” succumbed to alcoholism, diabetes, high-blood-pressure, depression and a series of “therapeutic” shock-treatments that literally blew his mind.

Again, Sigal makes no apologies for Hemingway to the “pee-cee” crowd, merely investigates the who, what, when, where, how and most importantly, if, of any and all allegations.  While there are elements of truth to Hemingway the “man’s man,” exaggerated by media to the extent that, even while still sturdy and at the “top of his game,” he could barely distinguish himself from his public persona,  this identity evolved from an ethic Hemingway deliberately created for himself during the post-WWI era, when ethics of any sort were in short supply.

He created his vision of how life should be lived, complete with the blood aesthetic of bull-fighting, and attempted to live by it, and write by it, until as he learned along with Salinger in the Hürtgen Forrest, and the blinding flashes of insight over Hiroshima and Nagasaki that short-circuited the collective human consciousness, this ethic too no longer applied.

But was this DYI “ethic” equivalent to misogyny?  Not according to Sigal, who uses the best evidence available: the work itself.

Was Shakespeare “Hamlet” or “Ophelia?” Or Hamlet’s mother? Or ghostly father?  He was all of them, according to Keats, whose definition of “negative capability” applies to all great artists.

Think of The Sun Also Rises heroine, Lady Brett Ashley, a 34-year-old, aging (at the time), alcoholic beauty, who lost her love and love of life in The War, whose only human connection is Jake Barnes, who lost his own “ability to properly love a woman” in the War.  They cannot not love — each other.  So Lady Brett cashes in on the remainder of her beauty or “talent” while she still can, before she joins the dead soldiers and war-widows and mentally and/or physically damaged War casualties and — oh, whoever else Ronald Reagan wouldn’t have liked — on the fabled “ash-heap of history.”

Sound familiar?  Like perhaps the narrator of “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” who at a similar age ponders his lost youth and wasted talent?  What is nostalgia, really, but fear of the future?  The Past, no matter how grim, is always better, simply because you survived. The Future holds no such guarantee.

Think of A Farewell to Arms  heroine, Katherine, devoted nurse to maimed soldiers, bearing the burden of her own loss, suddenly a fugitive from the War,  during the War,  pregnant by and on the run with a deserter of the War.

Think of the heroine of “Kilimanjaro,” saddled with a dying, alcoholic has-been writer who married her for her money and nothing but, and who now depends on her hunting and foraging ability for food and survival – at least, during the few days left for him to live and torture her with nastiness, self-pity and the stink of his gangrenous leg.

Think too of the heroine of the  infamously (and allegedly) misogynistic “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.” Another fading, has-been “talent,” who married Francis for his money and only that, faced with the sudden resurgence of his “manhood” and looking forward to countless women born around the time she took her own wedding vows, in the seemingly distant past, with the youth, “talent” and ambition to usurp her.

Think of the real women in Hemingway’s life.  Sigal doesn’t say much about Hemingway’s first wife, and benefactor, Hadley, but Pauline (formerly Hadley’s best friend) is a complex figure, inextricably entwined with the male and female protagonists of Hemingway’s African stories as both the literal “angel” funding his adventures, exerting power over him in one sense, and the “demon” target of his self-contempt, all the while enduring the threat of rebellion power must always contend with.

The African stories, in particular “Macomber” and “Kilimanjaro,” seem to indicate that Hemingway’s indulgence in boozy hunting safaris, at Pauline’s financial and emotional expense, was making him sick.  His pursuit of “the wild” in Africa would on one hand find later expression in “anarcho-primitivist” writers such as Lewis Mumford and Derrick Jensen, yet this was only the 1930s,  still a “white man’s world.”  The pursuit of African wild-life could only exist as a Teddy Roosevelt fantasy, a white-man’s playground where the natives and rightful inhabitants are not, could not be, anything but scenery.

Unless they rebelled.  Like the Spanish Anarchists.

The War in Spain and Hemingway’s participation in it, officially as a correspondent, though he allegedly took up arms on occasion, more than any other event in his life defined who Hemingway was.  While The Sun Also Rises focused on the prevailing disillusionment with “politics,” and A Farewell to Arms expressed revulsion not at war itself so much as a war without purpose, the Loyalist uprising appealed to everything Hemingway stood for, or wanted to stand for, as surely as the war between Greece and Turkey inspired Byron, Hemingway’s Romantic predecessor, in 1824.

“His passion for the Loyalists was the logical outcome of where he’d been heading since that mortar fragment shattered his leg and his psyche. In Spain, he became a committed “fellow traveler,” an adherent supporter of, but not a slave to, the Communist line of the fight against fascism wherever it reared its ugly head,” writes Sigal.

Hemingway had called Mussolini and Hitler for what they were as early as the 1920s.   They were not what he was for, which was ultimately, freedom from the modern bureaucratic machines of authority that defined the century.  His sympathy for the underdog and contempt for abusive power threw him in with the Jews, blacks, gays and women he was so famous for disparaging.   In particular, one woman, Martha Gellhorn,  a fierce, intelligent, courageous journalist and committed leftist, inspired him to “do the right thing,” fight the good fight, for there was at last one worthy of fighting — and writing about.

Gellhorn, who was half Jewish, became his third wife, colleague, rival.   Out of their side-by-side on-the-ground coverage of Spain would come his last great novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls.

But putting himself in league with the Lincoln Brigade did not endear Hemingway to J. Edgar Hoover.  He was now a “communist sympathizer,” and the FBI dossier on Hemingway grew thick, even as Hemingway himself grew increasingly unable to keep up with Gellhorn’s rugged journalism, his own physical ailments, his drinking.

His experience in the Hürtgen Forrest, an assignment he literally stole from his wife, only to find himself in the kind of hell even a WWI veteran could scarce imagine, was the end of something.  It was there that he met Salinger and “passed the torch.”  It was there that any vestiges of machismo were blown apart by high-tech artillery.

After experiencing his second world carnage, he turned, or tried to turn, inward.  His fourth marriage, to Mary Welsh, also a journalist/author, also fierce, intelligent and unimpressed by his fame, was not a happy one.   He tried to work, according to Sigal, on a series of novels that would be his masterpiece.   There is indeed greatness in the thousands of pages he left behind, according to Sigal, but these pages were posthumously edited into books far inferior than what Hemingway himself might have completed, revised and published had he lived.

He suffered many physical maladies and accidents, including two plane crashes, and his alcoholism progressed.  He claimed to have been followed by government agents.  One alleged “cure” for such “delusions” at the time, was shock-treatment, of which he received a dozen.

Decades later, when documents revealed that Hemingway really was being tailed by G-men his friend and biographer, A.E. Hotchner, lamented that they hadn’t taken his claims more seriously.   But then, once you’re on a government list, you’re on the list, whether you’re Ernest Hemingway or Joseph K.

Ultimately, Sigal’s point is that Hemingway does indeed “live,” regardless of the hundreds of he-said/she-said books and television movies and Hemingway brand sports-wear (and shotguns!) because he was simply one of the great prose writers in of the English language, and a great artist in any language.   The work itself, stands and will stand as great art does, while various Administrations and Empires rise and fall – unless and until the final Empire collapses on our heads.   This longevity, this endurance, speaks of something in the work that is beyond the arguments of even the post politically correct of “critics,” regardless of what politics are deemed correct at any particular time; regardless of whatever Hemingway myth is fashionable any particular time; regardless of anything but the sentences he wrote and rewrote and published himself, for all time.

Clancy Sigal, a PEN Lifetime Achievement Award winner, is the author of Weekend in Dimlock, Going Away (a National Book Award runner-up), Zone of the Interior, The Secret Defector and A Woman of Uncertain Character. He co-wrote the 2002 feature film Frida, starring Salma Hayek and Alfred Molina. He lives in Los Angeles.

Adam Engel was awarded the Nobel Prize but accidentally turned it down.  Upon receiving “the phone call,” he mistook the Chair of the Nobel Committee for a crank caller doing what Engel referred to as “a piss-poor imitation of the Swedish Chef” from the Muppet Show.  Oops. The Committee was not amused, and took their prize-money elsewhere. Hey, shit happens.