We gave it an A-
Ernest Hemingway casts the largest shadow in American literature. The achievements of contemporaries like William Faulkner or F. Scott Fitzgerald notwithstanding, no writer so dominated the imagination of his time. From the 1926 publication of The Sun Also Rises until his suicide in 1961, Hemingway personified the American novelist to millions of readers — as much a celebrity as Babe Ruth, with a carefully cultivated image as a two-fisted, hard-drinking man of action. Indeed, so vivid was that public persona — not to mention, as James R. Mellow’s fine new biography, Hemingway: A Life Without Consequences, shows, the difficult and enigmatic personality that lay behind it — that critics and ordinary readers alike have had trouble separating the author from his characters. Ultimately, Mellow argues, Hemingway did as well — much to the detriment of his later work.
Maybe so. After all, it’s not for nothing that the romantic artist destroyed by the seductions of fame has become one of the more familiar stories of our time. Asked what ”actual, concrete things harm a writer,” Hemingway responded half-jokingly: ”Politics, women, drink, money, ambition. And the lack of politics, women, drink, money, and ambition.” Mellow’s own characterization of the author can’t help partaking of the paradox too. Capable of great sensitivity and delicacy of feeling, Hemingway could also be a bully and a boor; an extraordinarily loyal and generous friend, and a touchy, self-aggrandizing horse’s ass. Something of a womanizer and outwardly given to accusing other men (particularly rival writers) of being ”fairies,” Hemingway cultivated the friendship of lesbian women and wrote scenes of unmistakable sexual ambiguity. Having stood up bravely — even heroically — under fire as a volunteer ambulance driver in World War I, as a journalist during the Spanish civil war and World War II, as well as to charging lions and rhinos on his African safaris, Hemingway once sat up all night with a gun in a Mississippi hotel for fear that Faulkner (unaware of his presence) would send somebody to kill him.
Or at least Hemingway told the critic Edmund Wilson he did. As Mellow shows, not everything the novelist told people — whether in interviews, letters, nonfiction memoirs like A Moveable Feast, or above all in his novels — necessarily happened, much less as Hemingway described it. ”The past,” Mellow notes, ”despite Hemingway’s disclaimers, would become for him a no-man’s-land between dream and reality, where distinctions blurred and enemies, friends, lovers moved at risk.” The author of well-received biographies of Gertrude Stein and Fitzgerald, both intimate friends who fell victim to the Hemingway method of self-mythologizing, Mellow labors mightily to sort out the truth. Sometimes a bit too mightily. Does it really matter by now whether or not Hemingway and Agnes von Kurowsky — the World War I nurse who served as the model for Catherine Barkley in A Farewell to Arms — actually consummated their passion? After all, Von Kurowsky didn’t die in childbirth, either. She lived on to be quizzed by professors and embarrassed by the novel’s frank sexuality.
A fine scholar with the ability to blend enormous amounts of personal, cultural, and political history into an absorbing narrative, Mellow nevertheless seems at times absolutely flabbergasted to find himself dealing with a fiction writer who actually made things up. But that’s a cavil. Under the spell of Hemingway’s personality, previous biographers took far too much at face value. Without his rigor, Mellow would not have been able to restore Hemingway as he does, a native American genius in all his exasperating, exhilarating glory. A-