Ernest Hemingway: A Biography by Mary V. Dearborn Reviewed by John Biscello
Can I believe myself as others believe me to be? Here is where these lines become a confession in the presence of my unknown and unknowable to me, unknown and unknowable for myself. Here is where I create the legend wherein I must bury myself. — Miguel de Unamuno.
Perhaps no other 20th century writer has invited more scorn, worship, lampooning, lionization, and soapbox scrutiny than Ernest Hemingway. Or rather the “legend” of Ernest Hemingway. His name became not only synonymous with American literature, and a laconic style of writing, but also with a specific he-man persona that wore its balls on its torn sleeve.
Though often regarded as a “realist,” Hemingway, at heart and in vision, was very much a Romantic, or the hard-boiled step-child of the Romantic tradition. His work, like the persona he crafted, bore a mythic timbre, and was shot through with romantic yearnings, disillusionment, idealism, and torment. You could say, in many of Hemingway’s works, Romanticism Vs. Reality, and the resulting bruises, bloodletting and scars, is the thematic undercard.
As a long-time appreciator of Hemingway’s contributions to literature, and as someone who has frequently delved into his legend and backstory with perverse fascination, I am reminded of a passage that appears in one of Anais Nin’s diaries, in which she is talking to Henry Miller:
“I said — ‘I do feel that perhaps you did not ask the correct questions of the Sphinx.’
‘What would you ask?’
“I would not be concerned with the secrets, the lies, the mysteries, the facts. I would be concerned with what makes them necessary. What fear.”
In Mary V. Dearborn’s new book, Ernest Hemingway, the first full biography of Hemingway in over fifteen years, the author launches a full-scale investigation into the secrets, the lies, the mysteries, and facts, and renders a multi-layered portrait of a charismatic, flawed, and complex human being.
Despite the countless biographies that have been penned about Hemingway over the years, this is the first written by a woman, which Dearborn touches upon in the preface, saying,
This doesn’t necessarily mean that much: mainly, I find that I am interested in different aspects of Hemingway’s life from the ones that drew his previous (male) biographers. I shrink from describing what those aspects are: I’d rather not encourage the notion that men and women see things in fundamentally different ways. By definition, studying Hemingway is about the rough opposite, the cultural construction of gender—how sex roles are determined by the forces around us rather than our genes. It is through figures like Hemingway that masculinity gets defined—even if that same cultural construction affects him in turn.
Gender identity, or the interplay between anima and animus, is one of the psychological underpinnings of the book, specifically since Hemingway’s carefully cultivated “masculine” persona is juxtaposed against the dark, soft, sensual side of its eclipsed moon.
Hemingway’s mother, Grace, a force of nature in her own right, would “twin” him and his sister, Marcelline, “For whether as girls or boys, Ernest and his older sister were dressed alike . . . Marcelline would remember that she and her brother had matching dolls and matching tea sets for their dolls, as well as matching air rifles. Grace wanted the children to feel like twins, so she encouraged them to do everything together: to fish and hike, to wheel their dolls in their dolls’ carriages, dressing them in matching outfits, including dresses and bonnets, up until grade school.”
This early childhood tidbit, as well as Grace’s obsession with hair (she loved blonde hair, yet held red hair in the highest regard) sheds psychological light on Hemingway’s fetishistic fascination with hair (color and style), which plays a significant role in both his life and his fiction, as well as his preoccupation with gender-bending and sexual identity. These ambiguities are lucidly explored in the posthumously published The Garden of Eden. While not regarded as one of his seminal works, there is a cryptic and hallucinatory quality, a thematic daring, that qualifies it as singular in Hemingway’s canon.
While Dearborn’s avidly researched book allows you to play armchair psychologist, as well as assume the role of existential detective in a Hitchcockian thriller, there are also the visceral joys of globe-trotting with Ernest and company. Vivid conjurations of Italy, Spain, Cuba, Africa, and numerous other countries alternate as backdrops and, of course, there’s the young Hemingway’s quintessential mistress: Paris in the 20s and 30s, which he would transform into an enduring literary torch song: A Moveable Feast.
Paris constitutes Hemingway’s crucible period as a writer, and it is there that he formed some of his most well-known alliances, friendships, and enmities, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Ezra Pound, Ford Madox Ford, Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Archibald MacLeish, Janet Flanner and numerous others. Hemingway, who was intensely competitive, was notorious for nursing resentments and holding grudges, which often took the form of veiled vengeance through his fiction. His complicated friendship with Scott Fitzgerald is one of the book’s seriocomic subplots, especially considering their standing as the bright literary lights representing “the Lost Generation.” Fitzgerald, in a sense, reflected Hemingway’s shadow-twin back to him, the parts that he hid away, neglected, scorned and dismissed. Fitzgerald’s blatant exposure of frailties and vulnerabilities invited Hemingway’s deepest contempt, and when Fitzgerald published his essay, “The Crack-Up,” in 1936, articulating his brokenness, his “dark night of the soul,” for all the world to read, Hemingway was mortified, as if Fitzgerald had violated an unwritten code of honor.
Honor, grace under fire, and doing things the right way, were key precepts that guided Hemingway’s line of thinking, if not always his actions. Through ritual diligence, bordering on severity, Hemingway forged a distinctive writing style and idiom that changed the course of American literature. It was a style that perhaps reached its fullest and most profound impact in his short stories, with a reverential nod to “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” “Hills Like White Elephants,” “The Killers,” and “Cat in the Rain.” You could argue that Hemingway took what Gertrude Stein, one of his mentors, was doing and simplified it, made it more engaging and accessible. In his best work, he demonstrated the talents of a saboteur, flooding the undercurrents with depth charges, cued for hidden impact.
In dramatic scope and complexity, Hemingway’s saga would be modern-day fuel for a “reality” series (it’s not hard to imagine shows like Keeping Up With The Hemingways, or The Importance of Being Ernest Hemingway). There were his four wives, the manic swings (or what he called his “black-ass moods”), his father’s suicide, the German sub-hunting operation during WW-II, the African Safaris and big-game hunting, the two plane crashes that he and his fourth wife, Mary, survived, the boxing matches, the bullfights, and the list goes on and on. By the time Hemingway took his own life in 1961, factors such as brain trauma, depression, and alcoholism had eroded his “persona” and left in its wake a frail, disturbed, and vulnerable individual.
Dearborn skillfully navigates through the spectacle and comes out the other side, delivering an even-handed, compelling, and sensitively human account of the man who once wrote, “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 happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you; the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and sorry, the people and the places and how the weather was.”
Ernest Hemingway: A Biography, by Mary V. Dearborn
Originally from Brooklyn, writer, poet, playwright and performer, John Biscello has called Taos NM home since 2001. He is the author of two novels, Broken Land, a Brooklyn Tale and Raking the Dust, as well as a collection of stories. To see more of his work, visit johnbiscello.com