Hemingway in Perspective
Ernest Hemingway is to twentieth-century literature what Humphrey Bogart was to the same century’s cinema. More than any other actor, one need not have seen a single frame of any of Bogie’s films to know that he more than any other actor personified cynical, tough-guy masculinity concealing a world-weary romanticism. Likewise Hemingway; so much has been written about the man that it might seem redundant to read the literature that catapulted him to fame in the first place.
I, for one, wouldn’t recommend ignoring the crystalline prose depicting the manly pursuits of hunting, fishing, combat, and wooing that marks the best of Hemingway’s short stories, novels, and nonfiction works. In the half-century following his death, however, the legend has outlived the man and his very real accomplishments, to the extent the mere mention of the writer evokes either a polarizing sigh or yawn—mostly having more to do with the plethora of biographical post mortems of his personal shortcomings (of which there were many) than with the totality of the man and the sometimes brilliant literature he created.
That Hemingway could be a cruel and callous man is well-documented, while several biographical works unconvincingly veer toward hagiographic. Seldom, however, do these works pierce the veil of celebrity and downright iconography of the public persona to reveal the foibles and positive attributes of the man who possessed a plenitude of both.
Such is the thesis of Paul Hendrickson’s Hemingway’s Boat—a work saturated in the existing literature on the writer’s life and work, but one equally well-versed with the ample source material Hemingway left behind and bolstered by interviews with acquaintances and family members, both those with and without axes to grind. The result is perhaps the best overview of Hemingway’s life since Carlos Baker’s massive 1969 tome. Whereas Baker tackled the totality of Hemingway’s life, Hendrickson limits himself to the era bookended between his purchase of the titular Pilar in 1934 and the writer’s death in 1961. This seemingly contrived structure provides a compelling foundation upon which to investigate the personality of a deeply troubled man who alternately basked and drowned in his fame.
Hendrickson employs Pilar as a microcosm of Hemingway’s world where he exhibited the best and worst of behaviors while creating some of his most—and least—impressive prose. Along the way, Hendrickson introduces the reader to two individuals previously warranting not much more than footnotes in other biographies: Arnold Samuelson and Walter Houk. Of the two, Houk was still available for personal interviews as Hendrickson researched the book. Samuelson, an eccentric who had hitchhiked from Minnesota to Key West to meet the author and wound up working as a crew member on Pilar, had died, but Hendrickson visits with Samuelson’s daughter in Texas for a strange detour that ultimately yields its share of poignancy. Similarly, Hendrickson’s extended conversations with Houk—the man who married Hemingway’s secretary, Juanita Jensen—who remembered the writer as a flawed man but loyal friend.
What has garnered the most attention thus far for Hendrickson’s book is his sympathetic portrayal of Hemingway’s youngest son, Gregory, and the gender-identity, mental troubles, and substance-abuse issues he endured in an era when such matters didn’t guarantee immediate celebrity. Hendrickson presents a convincing argument that Papa Hemingway possessed more than a father’s love for a wayward son who consistently threatened to shame the family name with countless arrests for wearing women’s clothing and attempting to avail himself of female facilities. Hendrickson finds ample evidence in Hemingway pere’s body of work and personal life to conclude perhaps he repressed similar predilections that contributed to his own suicidal depression; this in an era even more likely to shun such behavior, especially if exhibited by the century’s most public purveyor of personal and literary machismo.
To the author’s credit, Hemingway’s Boat doesn’t dwell on the tortured-artist effect to make its point that Hemingway the man for whatever reasons could be simultaneously compassionate and brutal and Hemingway the writer could produce such brilliant works as The Old Man and the Sea even after phoning it in on Across the River and Into the Trees. True enough, Hemingway’s Boat leaves out much that has been covered extensively by other biographers in the past (including the writer’s endeavors during the Spanish Civil War), but this in no way detracts from an important, beautifully written work, which belongs on any shelf of serious twentieth-century literary scholarship, while also serving as a tonic for either the reviled or exalted status to which Ernest Hemingway and his work have been relegated by the cognoscenti.
Posted: November 25, 2011
Eugene D. Genovese
Volume 37, Number 3 (Fall 1997)