By Wayne Allensworth
Like a lot of bookish boys of my generation who were raised in a culture in which hunting, fishing, and shooting were commonplace and masculine competence was prized, I admired Hemingway from the time I first took notice of him. His values, expressed as “grace under pressure,” and stoicism in the face of an often harsh and unforgiving world, were part and parcel of the Hemingway mystique as I understood it. In his best writing, the clarity of his direct, stripped down prose brought home a strange and wondrous truth: reading could be a kind of experience. I came to understand what the great writer meant when he said that “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: the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was. If you can get so that you can give that to people, then you are a writer.” Hemingway made me want to be a writer.
I wanted to write like him, and I tried to write about fishing, but I did not really like it, which was somewhat disappointing. I liked the boats and the water, but I didn’t much like the fish. I had hunted and could shoot, so writing about that was not so hard, and the hunting stories were more successful than the fishing stuff, though I never advanced from deer to Cape Buffalo. It was pleasing to me to think that maybe I was more like Nick Adams than I had thought. Thankfully, none of those boyish efforts, scrawled with a pencil on notebook paper, have survived.
The young enthusiast would learn later in life that Hemingway was a tragically flawed man whose dedication to his art trumped all else, and whose mental health issues and alcoholism wreaked havoc not only on himself, but on all the people around him, chiefly his own family. That would be harder to assimilate. That, and the realization that it may not be possible to separate the energy and creativity of the great writer from his self-destructive impulses, or from the requisite ruthlessness needed to make art, to make something new.
By then, I had learned that there were no unblemished people, and the people we admired and the people we loved were made of the same clay as the rest of us. Once that realization was made, it was harder to say that I admired the man, but it was also hard to separate his great sins from his great achievements. Defending Hemingway from the often hateful criticisms of his detractors was second nature, though I knew full well that his blustery personality was exactly the kind of pose that a near-sighted, bookish man who had admired Teddy Roosevelt would likely assume. He had tried too hard at times, too hard not to be the artsy book worm that he was by assuming the larger-than-life persona he created for himself (“Papa”). Yet he was brave. He displayed physical prowess and skill in living a full and adventurous life. Both sides of the man were real. Both were true, as is often the case with such an overwhelming personality.
Hemingway was a bully and a braggart. He could be a good father and he could be a bad one. He was a devoted husband who would discard a wife when he felt she was no longer acting as his muse and helpmate, or, at his worst, his enabler. He was a brilliant artist who remade the language we wrote and read and even spoke. When his writing was bad, it was very bad, indeed. His competitive nature–or perhaps insecurity about his own undisputed skills–prompted him to make unkind attacks on his peers. Hemingway could be a loyal friend, but he also perversely attacked some of the people who had helped advance his career. He was all those things, living proof that opposites are often both true. He needed and relished extreme experience as the material he drew on to make art. And his manic qualities, as inseparable as they were from his creative powers, may also have been inseparable from his descent into a paranoid, alcoholic haze.
His art came first and always would, until numerous debilitating head injuries (Hemingway not only took lots of risks, he was also an extremely accident prone bull-in-a-china-closet) and heavy drinking destroyed his health and his ability to write, and that loss finally destroyed him. Mental illness was apparently inherent in his family, and he blamed his controlling mother for the suicide of his father, a man he had considered weak until “Papa” himself suffered enough to understand something of his father’s experience.
As he declined, Hemingway began to rehearse his own suicide with unloaded weapons for the amusement of his cronies. After two plane crashes in Africa, he was left an empty shell of the man he had once been, old and worn out at 61 when he shot himself.
I don’t know how, really, to judge him, except to ask a simple question–was the cost of his art worth it? As a book person, I have to say yes. As a husband, father, son, and friend, I wonder. We can admire his writing, but should take his self-destructive life, with all the pain he inflicted on others, as a cautionary tale. Hemingway was a creative dynamo who had to pursue what called him. Perhaps we should think of such artistic masters as sacrificing themselves for us, those who can appreciate what he achieved and have led fuller lives because of it. I don’t know what to say about the pain and suffering he caused his family and friends. Some of them were apparently aware that they, too, were making a sacrifice for art’s sake, especially several of his wives. His sons had to live with that.
Hemingway’s personal valleys were as low as they come, but we can only admire and envy his peaks, when he was at his best. Throughout his writing life, he had been focused on–some would say obsessed with–the question of danger and death, and how to face them. He penned his valedictory years before his death in 1961 in this wonderful passage from The Snows of Kilimanjaro:
“Then they began to climb and they were going to the East it seemed, and then it darkened and they were in a storm, the rain so thick it seemed like flying through a waterfall, and then they were out and Compie turned his head and grinned and pointed and there, ahead, all he could see, as wide as all the world, great, high, and unbelievably white in the sun, was the square top of Kilimanjaro. And then he knew that there was where he was going.”
In Green Hills of Africa, Hemingway wrote that a country finally erodes and the dust is blown away. The people die, too, but those who practiced the arts have some permanent importance for posterity. “A thousand years,” he wrote, “makes economics silly,” but “a work of art endures forever.”
Chronicles contributor Wayne Allensworth is the author of The Russian Question: Nationalism, Modernization, and Post-Communist Russia, and a novel, Field of Blood.