Growing up, Ernest Hemingway was a hero of mine. While I’ve moved on, I believe he’s a necessary ex to have – even if I regret loving him so.
As a young adult minus a father figure (but plus on hopes to write), my middle-twenties were highlighted by a fall into the manly arms of Ernest Hemingway. It sounded like an easy, obvious choice. He was a figure that moved in anecdote. A folk figure steered by his own moral compass, an individual who lived a life beyond his fiction. Through the prism of those half-remembered or mis-told tales, he was always on the side of the good and righteous. There was the joke about him bringing a tiger to a Parisian bar to piss off snobs, there were rumours that he, while operating as a journalist in WW2, tossed a grenade into a basement full of Nazis, and there was Internet confirmation that the US government gave him heavy ordinance to hunt U-Boats in the Gulf of Mexico.
Whether it was true or not, it didn’t matter.
He was a bare-fisted brawler of note, a fisherman of game, and a drunk of the highest class. His writing was an afterthought. You could argue that his most enduring piece of work was held in six words. Here was someone who was actually living, while the rest of us pretended to do so. We were weak. All I needed, I thought, was a really good war. I could cover the hell out of that. Like Papa did. I learned that criticism should solely be doled out by the self, as Hemingway espoused, evident in the story where he travelled to the newspaper office of one critic who derided his overt manliness, a rope of logic that Papa cut by ripping open his shirt, proclaiming “how’s that for masculinity?” When I read that, I misread the irony and shook my fist at the faceless antagonistic mass. Yeah, take that, critics. Learn 2 write, git gud, scrub. Even his exit was a noble one, a very literary bow, crushed by the weight of his brilliance and the fact it had left him. He knew he “no longer had it”, and he removed himself, adding to the number of artists whose work was inexorably linked with their end. It was, as a writer, noble.
As I’m now older, I wonder what it’d be like to endure the man on a daily basis. His family was mostly irrelevant in these stories. He was forever surrounded at a bar by people only linked to fandom or the bottle. Even in the story where he inadvertently machine-gunned his own thighs while fishing (with the aforementioned armaments), he was doing it next to his very young son. An act immediately cast off as Hemingway hijinks.
To use a modern aphorism, his big dick energy endured. The four women that divorced him just couldn’t handle it. For someone seemingly unnoticed, and unheralded, one who questioned his own place in the societal jungle, his noble failings were ones to follow, his advice on life and writing (which was the same thing) was gold dust. The narrative endured, even when there was no story to tell. I’ve carried this over into my woke thirties. A woman who was interested in me at the time bought me a book on him, a tongue-in-cheek slander of his behaviour called The Heming Way, and while I kept the book, I didn’t her, in a matter befitting the man himself. The irony was lost. Particularly on this generation.
Heralding Ernest Hemingway as the be-all and the also the end-all is a fairly obvious signpost in the quest for maturity. It’s like that skating/graff phase, or feeding a ring through your derma. It’s something you pass through, but don’t stay in. Hemingway is a meaningful phase that becomes completely superfluous through the march of time. While it’s unfair to retroactively pan him in the lettering of today, it’s easy to surmise that Hemingway would probably be a Trump voter in 2018, and he would for absolutely sure be on Alex Jones. He hated fascists, sure, but he loved America. He, in the words of another notable arsehole, liked football, porno and books about war. His words on writing for writers still endure, and I still firmly believe that one should write drunk and edit sober, as do I believe that all writers should possess a shit detector of unwavering value, but I do now realise that Ernest’s teachings are to be studied, but not followed.
But what of his work? Reading it through the prism of today, he bristles. This is not to say that he has no value; that’d be reductionist, it’d be doing the man a disservice – and I might be projecting my own issues, my own reflected faux-wokeness. While my love for him dims, he taught me about subtext, and his prose is absolutely unique, and indeed, I still attempt to read Fiesta each year as my holiday reading. Yes, he’s hyper-masculine, and while he slightly subverts it – with more masculinity – even the strong female characters in his narrative, especially Lady Brett Ashley, whilst ostensibly in command of her sexuality, are a cut-out character of Hemingway’s musing. She’s a madonna-whore to Ernie. Sleeps with everyone, doesn’t stay with anyone, causes good men to fight and go to ill. And yes, while the entire narrative is a re-examining of what love, belief and monogamy are in a world stripped of the old values in the wake of institutional slaughter, I feel that’s an excuse we pay him. Because we fear him.
Similarly, Jake Barnes, Lady Brett Ashley’s love interest and Hemingway’s protagonist in The Sun Also Rises (ostensibly Hemingway in disguise) is defined literally by his lack of manhood. War took his ability to reproduce, and a generation is literally lost because of it. The Sun Also Rises is a book about a ruptured penis, and an examination of what women really want – a good dicking, and if you can’t they’ll leave, or worse, use you. This fear of Papa is continued through the works of other dorks – e.g.; this scene from Midnight in Paris where Owen Wilson (Woody Allen in disguise) recoils at the sight of a drunk Hemingway, whilst secretly wanting to be laid out by one of his literary heroes.
Even today, the spectral figure of Papa looms over vast works; as one flicks through various pages, Hemingway hangs above, daring you to find fault, then physically fighting you to prove you got it wrong. The man himself said, never confuse movement with action; I say, never confuse assuredness with validity.
Remove the man from his work, and the man from our own masculinity, and what you’re left with is a dick. He’s the lit world’s pre-eminent fuckboi. Just as every journalist wants to be Hunter S. Thompson and every Republican wants to be Ayn Rand, every entry-level writer wants to be Hemingway. You could argue that he gives us the confidence to do what he did. In many ways, he’s the person we’ve all dated. He’s of that time we once were, but he taught us about who we are now. It’d be easy to cast him off with a flick of the hand, but it’d be remiss to think that we gained nothing from him. But, like all exes, in registering the errors, we improve. We, the white male writers elevated him. White male fantasy was the pegasus we saddled for him, but some fantasies, like causes we believed in, should be best left dying underneath a tree.
Happy Birthday, Papa.