One Hundred years after his birth, Ernest Hemingway's proud and painful legacy endures.
Neil A. Grauer
From the Print Edition:
Ernest Hemingway, Jul/Aug 99
(continued from page 3)
The residents of Oak Park a century ago might not have witnessed Ed Hemingway's mood swings, but they could see that he was henpecked. Grace Hemingway was a melodramatic, extravagantly self-indulgent person. In Lynn's words, she was "the dark queen of Hemingway's inner world."
Shortly after Hemingway's birth, his mother began acting out a bizarre fantasy that her new baby boy actually was the "twin" of his 18-month-old sister, Marcelline. She alternately let their hair grow long and dressed them as girls--with flowery hats and dresses--or closely cropped their hair and dressed them as boys, putting them in overalls. In one family scrapbook, she put the caption "summer girl" beside a photo of the two-year-old Ernest, dressed in a little girl's gown and flower-covered hat. It was not until he was six that Hemingway's mother at last let him be shorn for good of his girlishly long hair.
With what Lynn calls her "baffling inconsistency," Grace Hemingway also delighted in Ernest's early feats of masculinity, such as his skill at hunting and fishing with his father. She proudly wrote in her diary that if she asked him as a toddler if he was afraid of anything, he'd shout defiantly "fraid a nothing!" Yet she also noted that right before Christmas in 1902, Ernest "was quite fearful...as to whether Santa Claus would know he was a boy, because he wore just the same kind of clothes as [his] sister."
As Lynn pointedly observed: "Caught between his mother's wish to conceal his masculinity and her eagerness to encourage it, was it any wonder that he was anxious and insecure?" He would spend the rest of his life desperately "showing the world how manly he was." And yet his writing, for all of its tough masculinity, often features a sensitivity to the feminine viewpoint and a curiosity about androgyny. It is far from laden with the unalloyed misogyny of which Hemingway often is accused.
Hemingway's immense charm counterbalanced his often overbearing egotism. Friends from his teenage years recalled his infectious enthusiasm for baseball, boxing and books; his wit and humor. As an adult, the force of his personality was such that it heightened the impact of his physical presence. Darkly handsome, broad-shouldered and muscular, he always impressed people as being taller than he was. Actually 5 feet, 11 inches, he often was described as being a "huge man, over six feet tall."
Graduating from Oak Park High School, Hemingway landed a job as a cub reporter on the Kansas City Star. He was forced to write short, spare sentences, absent almost all adjectives. "Those were the best rules I ever learned for the business of writing. I've never forgotten them," he told an interviewer in 1940. "No man with any talent, who feels and writes truly about the thing he is trying to say, can fail to write well if he abides by them."
Hemingway quickly became an excellent reporter, but when the United States entered the First World War in 1917, he was determined to experience its drama--if not, perhaps, trench warfare. He volunteered for rescue service with the American Red Cross and was assigned to an ambulance unit in Italy, which was an ally of the United States in that conflict. His experiences there and his subsequent writings about them turned him into one of the century's great chroniclers of war. And the tall tales he told about his own exploits became the foundation of the personal mythmaking that established his celebrity. He always insisted that he knew more about war than any other reporter; that he could outbox, outfish, outhunt, outdrink, outscrew any rival. Eventually, his need to live up to those myths--and his growing alcoholism--hampered his ability to write.
On July 8, 1918, while handing out chocolate to Italian soldiers in a dugout, Hemingway was severely wounded when a mortar shell exploded a few feet from him. Hot shrapnel fragments tore into both of his legs and he was knocked down by the blast, badly injuring his head. He nevertheless gallantly pulled himself across the ground to try to help a mortally wounded soldier before being placed on a stretcher and carried off the battlefield. The Italian government awarded him the Silver Medal of Military Valor.
Courageous as he had been and wounded though he was, Hemingway began embellishing the story of what had happened within a week of the incident. He claimed that he had gotten up following the mortar blast, shouldered a wounded soldier, carried him more than 150 yards while being fired upon, and was hit twice in the legs by machine gun bullets. He later would claim that he subsequently enlisted in the Italian army, fought with its fabled shock troops, the Arditi, and had an aluminum kneecap as a souvenir of his service with them.
Hemingway's exaggerations of his military exploits went unchallenged by journalists and biographers for decades. He added to them in his writings; expanded on them during the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War; and allowed others to inflate his image with more myths later on.
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Dale Siemon — May 6, 2011 11:32am ET
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