Hemingway: A Life Without Consequences
By James R. Mellow
Hodder & Stoughton, 1994. 704 pp., $29.95 (pb)
Reviewed by Phil Shannon
Ernest Hemingway: a splendid storyteller, but a pity about the politics. After reading Mellow's biography of Hemingway, this judgment, with some qualifications, is still the most valid summary of Hemingway's strengths and weaknesses.
Born in Chicago in 1899, Hemingway learned his unique literary style as an 18-year-old cub reporter — "Use short sentences. Use short paragraphs. Use vigorous English." His no-frills style certainly aided his popularity but so did his subject choice, and the honesty of his treatment of war in particular.
Hemingway did not shirk graphic portrayals of the barbarities of war. In what he regarded as his best novel, A Farewell to Arms, he did not glorify the first world war, but he did hold war propaganda to account against the ugliness of death in the trenches, and left to speak for itself the damning picture of an Italian army retreat in which well-fed generals fled in staff cars ahead of starving, wounded conscripts whilst firing squads killed deserters in droves.
His other favourite novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls, is written from a position of support for the Spanish Republic against the fascists during the Spanish Civil War.
But Hemingway lowers his colours in other respects. His male characters are hunky he-men, reflecting Hemingway's own red-blooded masculinity. Hemingway fought bulls in Spain (as part of a "self-hardening" process), did a bit of boxing (at one time settling a literary dispute with the former Trotskyist, Max Eastman, with his fists), fell out of airplanes, hunted marlin and other big fish and shot everything that moved, from quail and prairie chickens to leopards and rhino.
Despite his critical portrayal of war, the smell of battle still attracted him for its adventure as much as its politics. Spain initially moved him as an escape from "the soft life" of a wealthy author in the Florida Keys. It was the radical journalist and soon-to-be wife, Martha Gellhorn, who aroused Hemingway's liberal humanitarian instincts over Spain.
The anti-fascist war there was, she said, "the only time in his life when he was not the most important thing there was. He really cared about the Republic." Yet for all that, For Whom the Bell Tolls is as much about "brave men in battle" and individual heroics as the Spanish people's political struggle against fascism. Hemingway veered constantly towards the boys' own adventure story.
But there was no deviance amongst Hemingway's boys. He despised homosexuality, seeing it as a threat to maleness; and, as Zelda Fitzgerald said, he "disliked women heartily — except for sex". Hemingway was never able to create a woman character who was not fawning, passive and abjectly submissive to the male hero. His young, nubile women are always on the lookout for a red-blooded man to give their lives some meaning.
As Hemingway wrote during his early infatuation with Mussolini, "the crowd loves strong men. The crowd is like a woman." Hemingway was to shed the first belief but never the second. This spoiled his novels for Virginia Woolf, who was turned off by Hemingway's "display of self-conscious virility" that made all his characters, male and female alike, "as flat as cardboard" because of the sex-role stereotyping.
If feminists like Woolf found Hemingway grating, socialists were rubbed the wrong way, too. Hemingway's rudimentary humanitarianism and peripheral awareness of class inequalities were often submerged by his swampy individualism. Whether as an ambulance driver surrounded by the carnage of war, or as a lone saboteur fighting fascism in Spain, the individual faces a lonely, hopeless struggle against powers beyond control — as one perceptive critic wrote, Hemingway's books are about "the end of love, the end of life, the end of hope".
The "powers" that Hemingway's heroes confronted were not produced by, nor resolvable by, class struggle; for a liberal like Hemingway, these "powers" are the products of "fate", "destiny" or whatever woolly word they use to describe what drives the world and against which the individual is helpless. In the end we are left with a (quality) adventure story but not one that contributes greatly towards changing consciousness or the world.
When Hemingway blew his head off with a shotgun at age 62, impotent and no longer able to write, this was a tragic consequence of his individualism. Alienated from society, detached from political collectivity, unable to relate to women except through physical sex, Hemingway had no identity outside his own ego. If ever there was an example of how sexism and individualism can cripple a man, then Hemingway's lonely suicide should be it.
And if there is an example of how a biography can miss the point, the Mellow's is it. Mellow's 700-page shelf-buckler could have taken one leaf from Hemingway — brevity. Mellow is a liberal individualist too, and liberal to excess with wordiness, papering over Hemingway's lack of depth of understanding of women and society, which compromised his great talent and ended his life too soon.