The humanity as well as the horror in Hemingway's tortured soul
Published 18/03/2012 | 08:00
Ernest Hemingway, who liked to be called Papa, was just 19 days short of his 62nd birthday when he took his own life in July, 1961.
He had periods of psychiatric treatment, including shock therapy, in the Mayo Clinic; apart from diagnosed depression, he was prematurely old (he looks closer to 80 than 60 in photographs), delusional, slurring his words and prone to weeping fits over his inability to write.
Suicide ran through the Hemingway family like a plague. Hemingway's father, a doctor and puritanical martinet who beat his children for trivial offences, shot himself with a pistol in 1928; Ernest's only brother, Leicester, shot himself in 1982; at least one sister took her own life (there's doubt about the cause of death in a second sister).
And much later, Margaux Hemingway, actress and model, daughter of Ernest's oldest son Jack, ended her life with an overdose of drugs at 42.
There is almost certainly no writer in America who has had more books devoted to his colourful life and career than Ernest Miller Hemingway. The first biography, published in 1969, was an exhaustive but non-controversial study by Carlos Baker. There have since been a number of stout biographies, some offering more or less hostile views, one by Michael Reynolds, running to five volumes - probably the one most respected by the aficionados.
Two sons, a grandson, at least one sister and his brother, Leicester, wrote books about Papa, as well as his fourth and last wife, Mary Welsh. In a six-page bibliography in Hemingway's Boat, Paul Hendrickson lists at least 10 full biographies as well as numerous academic or memoir-type publications. (The reviewer, prowling around his shelves, can find a mere eight or nine books on the endlessly fascinating Papa.)
So why is Hendrickson, a former Washington Post writer, giving us yet another book on this complex figure who spent much of his life presenting a largely fallacious version of himself to the world? Is it any good? Has Hendrickson brought anything new to the already overladen table?
Well, if we're tired of all the simplistic portrayals of Hemingway as a noisy, boorish figure who loved to kill animals and boasted that he could get in the ring with Flaubert or Turgenev; if we're weary of all the macho stuff (that he largely brought on himself); if we're unwilling to accept the notion that he was nothing more than a vulgar publicity-seeker, yes, happily, there is a new perspective here.
We get Ernest Hemingway the dedicated, perfectionist writer who sank to the depths of anguish as his gift faded. We see Papa, the expansive and generous host who empathised with many kinds of people (though he fell out with every other writer he met), and whose (probable) last piece of writing was a profoundly sympathetic and eloquent letter to the dying nine-year-old son of a friend. The central symbol of this likeable book is, as the title indicates, Hemingway's boat, the Pilar, representing not only Papa's love of the sea, but also his capacity for joie de vivre, a vital part of his turbulent spirit for most of his life, lost only in the last decade.