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Remembering Papa

One Hundred years after his birth, Ernest Hemingway's proud and painful legacy endures.

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Ernest Hemingway either had placed the double barrels of a 12-gauge English shotgun in his mouth, as he once had demonstrated for uneasy friends at his home in Cuba ("Look, this is how I'm going to do it.... The palate is the softest part of the head."); or he had put both barrels to his brow, just above his dark brown eyes.

However Hemingway had positioned the weapon (which he had bought years before at Abercrombie & Fitch and used for shooting pigeons), when he tripped both triggers early on the morning of July 2, 1961, the result was devastating: blood, brain, bone, teeth, flesh and hair, splattered all over the small, oak-paneled and tile-floored foyer of his home in Ketchum, Idaho. He simply blew away his entire cranial vault.

In doing so, Hemingway, then 19 days shy of his 62nd birthday, slew the demons of depression, insecurity and alcoholism that had tormented him for decades. And instead of just ending a life of immense literary accomplishments, admirable military and sporting exploits, and considerable personal mythmaking, Hemingway's suicide provided a tragic counterpoint to the ongoing celebration of a man acknowledged then and now as the most influential--and imitated--prose stylist of the twentieth century.

Winner of the Pulitzer and Nobel prizes, Hemingway in death also gave birth to an industry of Hemingwayana--not merely an ever-burgeoning bookcase of biographies and analyses, but multiple municipal festivals and museums in the places where he lived, as well as merchandise that trades on the marketability of his machismo. His popularity remains as powerful as ever this year, the 100th anniversary of his birth.

Books about him--and by him--continue to sell. In July, what is being called the last of Hemingway's novels, True at First Light, will be unveiled, culled from a mammoth, unfinished manuscript about his final African safari in 1953-'54. (The book has sparked a literary controversy--notably Joan Didion in The New Yorker and Jonathan Yardley in The Washington Post--questioning the propriety of the posthumous publication of an uncompleted work.)

Hemingway's sons, John, Patrick and Gregory, formed Hemingway Ltd. in 1992 to license the use of his name, image and signature. (Each son has long earned up to $100,000 a year in Hemingway-related royalties.) They came in for some heated criticism when one of the first items they authorized was a Hemingway shotgun. They protested that their father really had loved such a gun. Less controversial was the licensing of a $600 limited-edition Mont Blanc fountain pen--even though Hemingway himself wrote his books in pencil. The market for Hemingway first editions and autographs "continues to be very strong, depending on the item," says Chris Bready of the Baltimore Book Co., a dealer in rare books. Some first editions in their original dust covers command sums "well into five figures," Bready says.

In the cigar world, Tabacalera A. Fuente y Cia. has produced a Hemingway line of cigars since 1986, with different sizes carrying literary-themed names such as Short Story, Best Seller and Masterpiece.

The Cuban government reverentially maintains Hemingway's 21-acre estate, Finca VigĂ­a (Lookout Farm), situated on a hilltop 15 miles from downtown Havana, as a shrine-like museum. He lived there for 22 years--his longest residence anywhere. His birthplace in Oak Park, Illinois, also is a museum, as is the house where he lived for a decade in Key West, Florida. Competing municipal celebrations of Hemingway are held annually in Key West and Sanibel Island, southwest of Fort Meyers, Florida.

Places he visited and events he relished remain popular attractions. The running of the bulls through the streets of Pamplona, Spain, during the fiesta of San Fermin--a centuries-old ritual given international recognition in Hemingway's 1926 novel The Sun Also Rises--still draws thousands of revelers who strive each year to experience his daredevil enjoyment of it. Visitors to the Bahamas are directed to Hemingway's favorite fishing spots for giant marlin. Travel guidebooks almost always list his favorite watering holes--Harry's Bar in Venice; the Ritz Bar in Paris; Chicote's Bar in Madrid; Sloppy Joe's in Key West; El Floridita in Havana--so that untold numbers of tourists can hoist a few where so many were downed by "Papa" (the nickname he gave himself at the age of 27).

Why this fascination for where Hemingway lived and played; for what he ate and drank? What is behind the enduring power exerted by his personality and writing?

"I think it's the celebrity culture in which we live," says Kenneth S. Lynn, professor emeritus of history at the Johns Hopkins University and author of the monumental 1987 biography Hemingway.

"Hemingway was early into the field as a celebrity writer and was larger than life. A generation of college students who may never have read a line of Hemingway are all set for the Key West bar. They can't wait to get to the Floridita. That's the Hemingway they're remembering."

All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you.... If you can get so that you can give that to people, then you are a writer. --Ernest Hemingway, "Old Newsman Writes: A Letter from Cuba," 1934

It is, of course, the writing that is the foundation of Hemingway's appeal. Although he wrote prodigiously, his reputation rests on a small but extraordinary core of work: exceptional reporting about the Spanish Civil War; novels such as The Sun Also Rises; A Farewell to Arms (1929) and For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940); short stories such as "In Another Country" (1926), "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" and "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber" (both 1936); and his last great effort, the lyrical novella The Old Man and the Sea (1952)--beloved by many but scoffed at by many others.

In his riveting journalism, short stories and novels, Hemingway created "a body of work that has changed the course of storytelling and given new cadences to the language," wrote critic Charles Poore in his forward to a 1953 anthology, The Hemingway Reader.

Hemingway's prose, shorn of the stylistically convoluted Victorian filigrees of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century writing, evoked an intense appreciation of life's perils--and pleasures. Few have ever equaled his skill at writing about war's horrors--or the wonders of food and drink. He "actually makes you hungry and thirsty for the fare he describes," Lynn wrote in Hemingway.

"I think he's one of the masters on all sorts of levels," Lynn adds in a telephone interview from his home in Washington, D.C. "In detective fiction and Hollywood movie private eyes, the Hemingway influence is very strong, even today. In On the Waterfront, the exchanges between [Marlon] Brando and his brother [Rod Steiger] seem very Hemingwayesque to me. That kind of dialogue in which an awful lot is packed beneath the surface of the monosyllabic prose--I think that's got Hemingway's brand on it."

Indeed, "he may be the strongest influence in literature that this age will give to posterity," Poore contended.

Yet Hemingway's personal style also inspired as many detractors as admirers--and with good reason. His charm, charisma and zest for life were immense and contagious, but his boastfulness, boorishness and bigotry were well documented. Although he could be a gracious host and generous to old friends, he cruelly disparaged writers who had been his mentors or whom he saw as rivals. He was anti-Semitic. With compulsive competitiveness, he exaggerated or lied about his athletic, amatory and wartime exploits. He often was brave, yes, but not quite as heroic as he wanted people to think.

"I thought he was a bully," says legendary New York Times theatrical caricaturist Al Hirschfeld, now 96, who knew Hemingway in Paris in the 1920s.

"I met him in 1924. There was a little gym where a lot of the artists and writers used to come, and Hemingway was there and he was boxing all the time. And he would always pick some fellow about half his size and knock him down," Hirschfeld recalls with a chuckle. "He was a kind of sadist in many ways, I thought. I never saw him box anybody his own size.

"I don't want to denigrate him in any way, but that was my first impression of him in that boxing ring. I wasn't unfriendly with him, but I just had no regard for him, except as a writer. I didn't think he was very much as a human being."

Within a few years of his death, much of Hemingway's work fell out of fashion. His suicide cast doubt on the stoicism he had championed; his overblown masculinity rang hollow; his passion for blood sports struck a sour note.

Yet the impact of Hemingway's best writing remains undeniable; and controversial though it was, the exhaustive biography by Lynn showed that Hemingway's personality and life were just as complex as his supposedly simple sentences. In many ways, he was a tormented man, a tragic figure who overcame enormous personal problems to produce literature that will last.

We are all bitched from the start and you especially have to be hurt like hell before you can write seriously. But when you get the damned hurt use it--don't cheat with it. Be as faithful to it as a scientist. --Ernest Hemingway, May 28, 1934, letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald

Hemingway hurt like hell, either psychologically or physically, for most of his life. He was wounded in wartime and accident-prone in peace, suffering numerous concussions and other injuries that were exacerbated by his alcoholism. His major emotional wounds he obliquely but decisively attributed to his mother, Grace Hall Hemingway. Novelist John Dos Passos, once a close friend, would later say that Hemingway was the only man he knew who genuinely hated his mother. Evidently he had ample reason.

It also is clear that Hemingway often suffered from clinical depression and found comfort in the bottle. (In For Whom the Bell Tolls, the character of Anselmo says of drink: "That is what kills the worm that haunts us.") His capacity for liquor was gargantuan, but eventually--inevitably--he became what he often disparaged, "a rummy," although he always fiercely denied being an alcoholic.

Hemingway was born on July 21, 1899, in Oak Park, Illinois. His father, Dr. Clarence Edwards "Ed" Hemingway, was an obstetrician who may have suffered from manic depression. Ultimately, in 1928, Ed Hemingway placed his own father's Civil War revolver to his temple and put a bullet through his brain.

The suicide of his father haunted Hemingway until the day he followed his example. Indeed, depression and suicide plagued the Hemingway family: two of Ernest's sisters and his only brother also killed themselves; two of his three sons received electroshock therapy for emotional turmoil; his granddaughter Margaux, a supermodel and sister of actress Mariel Hemingway, died in July 1996 in what was deemed a depression-related accident. (Margaux and Mariel's father, Hemingway's eldest son John, now 75, has said with grim humor: "My brothers and I are determined to see just how long a Hemingway can live.")

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 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."

Dale Siemon May 6, 2011 11:32am ET
...well written, nicely done...

thanks to the author and editors

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