Review: Mary V. Dearborn’s “Ernest Hemingway”

We all know that Ernest Hemingway, 1899-1961, committed suicide. Some of us can remember learning of his death the day he died. He was in Idaho, at one of his residences, and he used a shotgun. As Mary V. Dearborn writes in her preface to her splendid biography of the man, “He changed the way we think, what we look for in literature, how we choose to lead our lives. He changed the way we think about death—how it’s experienced, how to come to terms with it—the subject he explored possibly more deeply and thoroughly than any other American writer. He changed our language. He changed how we see Paris, the American West, Spain, Africa, Key West, Cuba, northern Michigan. Even the place of his birth, Oak Park—though he rarely wrote about it, this suburb, equidistant from Chicago and the Des Plaines River, was part of what made Hemingway, and we will always see it differently for his presence.”

At the time of his death, his writing was in a state of decline, something he clearly understood. What we may not have known about is the extreme state of his physical deterioration. He was suffering physically from multiple injuries. From a plane crash alone in Africa, in 1954, he had “a wound in his scalp behind his right ear that leaked” cerebral fluid, but he also had “a dislocated shoulder, a collapsed lower intestine, two crushed lumbar vertebrae, a severely damaged liver and kidney, impairment of hearing in his right ear and of sight in his right eye. There was blood in his urine and his sphincter was paralyzed….”

From that accident until his death, his body was a mess. But he also suffered from severe mood swings, depression, paranoia, high blood pressure (measured once at 225/125), extremely high cholesterol (recorded at 380), he drank too much, and he was overweight. People who encountered him late in his life said that he looked much older than his age. So there was little surprise that he eventually succeeded in killing himself—as his father had done—after several earlier attempts. Once he tried to do so by walking into the propellers of an airplane. He didn’t want to be an old man. Months before he died, he had checked into the Mayo Clinic, using a pseudonym, where he underwent ETC therapy, and an attempt was made to reduce the number of medicines he was taking.

That was pretty much the end of a rich and troubled life.

Much of the earlier part of his life may also be unfamiliar to us. Dearborn has discovered previously unknown documents relating to him and, perhaps more importantly, she did not know him (as did his earlier biographers)—plus the element of distance. When Hemingway was still very young, his mother dressed him as a girl. Because of poor eyesight, he was denied military service, though in frequent fabrications he claimed to have fought in both of the great wars.  His parents wanted him to go to college. Instead, after a seven-month stint as a cub reporter for the Kansas City Star, he volunteered for the Red Cross ambulance service in Italy, where he was first injured and had to recover in a hospital. Afterwards, he returned to the United States, by which time he was writing short stories. Then another journalistic stint, but this time for the Toronto Star. Already he had packed a lifetime of experiences into twenty-one years, including his first of four marriages (to Elizabeth Hadley Richardson), seven years his senior.

By 1922, the two of them were in Europe, as he reported for the Toronto Star and wrote stories and poems, some of them published in The Little Review. In Paris, Hemingway made friendships with Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, and others. There were bullfights in Spain that fascinated him; he went to Constantinople for his reporting. Hadley was pregnant. By the time he published his first collection of stories, In Our Time in 1924, Hemingway had begun having manic episodes, triggered by alcohol and traumatic head injuries, and—according to his biographer—“feelings of worthlessness,” terrible depression and already talk of suicide. During these years he also had fast friendships with F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Dos Passos.

By the end of the decade he had published what some critics believe are his greatest novels: The Sun Also Rises, 1926, and A Farewell to Arms, 1929. The celebrated Scribner editor, Max Perkins, had entered his life, but unlike another of Perkins’ writers, Thomas Woolf, Hemingway’s work required little editing. Perkins helped him with structure. Hadley was out of his life; Hemingway married Pauline Pfeiffer. Dearborn describes him as “a serial monogamist who was not given to affairs.” She also mentions buried homosexuality and Hemingway’s life-long fetish with hair. In these early years his novels (typically serialized in Colliers) generated a great amount of money. He would need that because after his father’s suicide, Hemingway took care of his mother and his younger siblings—plus his increasing brood of ex-wives and children.

There were continual splats with other writers and critics. Some of his friendships abruptly ended. Max Eastman riled him by accusing him of “wearing false hair on [his] chest.” Gertrude Stein considered him a homosexual, though there is no real evidence to support this. One of Dearborn’s chapters begins with this sentence, “It was probably inevitable that Hemingway would one day talk about the size of Scott Fitzgerald’s penis.” Still, the cult of masculinity had long been established. After the publication of For Whom the Bell Tolls, in 1940, Hemingway’s subsequent work—except for several powerful short stories—was secondary to what had already been published.

But he continued to write fiction and work as a journalist. The Spanish Civil War and the threat of fascism had developed his political consciousness more than any other event. By the time he was covering the war as a correspondent, he had met the woman who would become his third wife, Martha Gellhorn, another journalist. Certain personal habits had detiorated. When Martha introduced Hemingway to her family, they found him “a large, dirty man in somewhat soiled white shorts and shirt….” Dearborn embellishes that remark by noting that Martha called Hemingway “Pig,” meant to be regarded fondly. And Dearborn adds, “Ernest seldom bathed, relying instead on alcohol sponge baths” and the swimming pool to cleanse himself. He drank too much, had problems with impotence, and was usually overweight.

Cuba had become important for him also, where Hemingway purchased a large house, requiring major renovations, but overlooking Havana. Dearborn states that he would often walk into the city barefoot. “By the end of the war, Ernest was becoming someone who could make his friends recoil.” Mary Walsh Monks, his fourth wife, had moved with him to the estate in Cuba and subsequently realized that her own journalistic career would come to an end. They were happy when she became pregnant, hopeful that the child would be a girl since all his other children were boys.

During that final marriage, there were way too many unsettling events in his life that would have destroyed most men. Mary lost the baby and almost died herself. Greg—one of his sons who was fifteen—was discovered wearing women’s clothes, something that would continue into his adult life. Accounts of his father’s response are that he “went berserk.” Patrick, another son, became psychotic and needed shock treatment. And then Max Perkins, his editor—one of the most important figures in his life—suddenly died. Works such as Across the River and into the Trees (1950) brought Hemingway additional income but little critical praise. Then his mother died, followed by Pauline, his second wife, by which time Hemingway had entered another manic period. According to Dearborn, Hemingway “plunged into mania to cheat death. Over the next year or so he told enormous lies; he spent outrageous amounts of money, he got into terrible fights, some physical; he displayed outsize egotism and delusions of grandeur; his moods fluctuated wildly, commented on by almost everyone who knew him; he made bad decisions; he fell in love with an inappropriate woman; he seemed to have inexhaustible supplies of energy that fueled all sorts of complicated schemes and projects.”

The Old Man and the Sea was published in Life magazine in May of 1952, bringing him renewed success. Dearborn states that Hemingway was touchy about critical works that were beginning to be published about him. With Mary, there were trips to Africa (including the plane crash), but he had lost his skills as a big game hunter. Not even the Nobel Prize, in 1954, could fix his messed-up life. There were multiple writing projects begun but not finished (some were published after his death.) Mary and Hemingway were largely at war with one another, but she stuck it out through the final awful years, including when they were advised to leave Cuba because of Castro’s takeover.

What did it all add up to? Perhaps an observation that Hemingway made about fiction, and its relationship to truth: “Writers of fiction are only super-liars who if they know enough and are disciplined can make their lies truer than the truth. If you have fought and diced and served at court and gone to the wars and know navigation, sea-manship, the bad world and the great world and the different countries and other things then you have good knowledge to lie out of. That is all a writer of fiction is.”

In the Preface to her definitive account of Ernest Hemingway’s tragic life, Mary V. Dearborn explains her several reasons for undertaking a biography of such a super-masculine figure. This is the most important one: “There has not yet been a biography written by a woman.” Then she adds, “I’d rather not encourage the notion that men and women see things in fundamentally different ways. By definition, studying Hemingway is about the rough experience, the cultural construction of gender—how sex roles are determined by the forces around us rather than our genes. It is through figures like Hemingway that masculinity gets defined—even if that same cultural construction affects him in turn.” That’s a wonderful observation that Dearborn has exhaustively implemented in her brilliant account of Hemingway’s life. Hopefully, she will start a trend, encouraging other women to write biographies of male writers and perhaps continue the work herself. I want to cheer her on and hope that her next biography will be of another twentieth-century American icon: William Faulkner.

NOTE: Besides dozens of photographs spread throughout the text, the cover shows Hemingway seated and holding a gun, pointed at you (in this case, the reader).  Make of that what you will.

Mary V. Dearborn: Ernest Hemingway
Knopf, 738 pp., $35


Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = Twitter @LarsonChuck.