Behind the Hemingway Myth: The Person Lost Inside the Testosterone Legend

From a Wall Street Journal essay by Jay Fielden headlined “The Man Behind the Hemingway Myth”:

Early next month, timed to the sixtieth anniversary of Ernest Hemingway’s death, PBS will air Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s six-hour look at this most iconic of iconic American writers. In a culture where screens have beat out paper and ink as the medium for gathering information and in so doing have turned us into scanners with atrophied attention spans, it’s something of an irony that it would take the visual experience of a documentary—full of stunning archival photos and deft commentary by the likes of Edna O’Brien and Tobias Wolff—to inspire a return to the page to experience the work of the writer who, as Mr. Wolff puts it, “changed all the furniture in the room.”

Some writers write; others alter the course of literature by the importance of the ideas they express or by the style of that expression. Hemingway did both, creating an original voice that remains one of the most influential in the English language. While still in his early 20s, as a newly married veteran of the Great War living in Paris among a group of expatriate American writers who would become known as the “Lost Generation,” he codified how to write what he called a “true” sentence—a grammatically simple shard of flint that, like the stories he told with them, distilled a potent essence.

His tone was designed as a match for the awful things he’d witnessed and that test human character—war, broken loyalty, death—and for the magnificent things that restore our souls and courage: a fine painting, true love, a winning ticket at the horse races, the smell of orange rinds in a fire. First with his short stories about growing up in the woods of northern Michigan and later with novels based on his life in Europe—“The Sun Also Rises,” “A Farewell to Arms” and “For Whom the Bell Tolls”—he became an international literary celebrity. In 1954, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature.

By then, he’d played the bearded macho-man armed with a gun and a typewriter—spoiling for danger, tough women and a stiff drink—for so long that the caricature stuck. The masculine stereotype continues to complicate our ability to see the person lost inside the testosterone legend, much less to extricate the writing from the writer….

But all you have to do to get past the legend is to read a little of his work. “If it is all beautiful you can’t believe in it,” Hemingway once wrote. “Things aren’t that way. It is only by showing both sides—three dimensions and if possible four—that you can write the way I want to.” In terms of complexity, he was essentially describing himself and his unusually eventful life….

In the pages of Life, Time, Look and Esquire, he took on as a reporter many of the same subjects he had already treated in fiction, inviting readers to wonder if the first-person narrator of his novels was the self-same journalist on assignment. If his characters were his alter-egos, you can imagine him thinking, why couldn’t he be an alter-ego of his characters?

Trying to figure out what’s not being said and why; slipping into the internal dialogue of a broken mind; asking who the I in the I really is—these are just a few of the techniques Hemingway developed that changed the boundaries of fiction and how it was written. Stripping his prose of all ornament, he wrote like a member of the Bauhaus following the dictum that “form follows function.”…Above all, as he codified in his “iceberg theory,” he recognized that what was omitted from a story outweighed in power what was left in….

“I practiced writing and studied Joyce, Dostoyevsky, Stein and Hemingway,” Ralph Ellison once said. “Especially Hemingway. I read him to learn his sentence structure and how to organize a story.”…

What’s so heartbreaking about the life of this great artist is his violent final act. On July 2, 1961, Hemingway killed himself with a shotgun; he was one of five people to commit suicide in three generations of the Hemingway family. Barely past middle age, he looked by then like an elderly, decrepit man, his hair thinning and white and his behavior paranoid and increasingly bizarre….

With what we now know about traumatic brain injuries, it is hard to imagine Hemingway wasn’t suffering from more than just clinical depression. The documentary points out that he had been prone to concussions and suffered nine brutal blows to the head in the course of his life, as well as pulverizing his brain daily with booze. In his 1937 novel “To Have and Have Not,” he describes the various ways that people commit suicide, including the tool he would end up using himself: one of “those well-constructed implements…that blast an exit from intolerable positions by the pressure of a finger.” Hemingway’s final act obliterated the man but not the myth.

Fielden, the former editor of Esquire, is a magazine and digital brand consultant.

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