How the great American novelist became the literary equivalent of the Nike swoosh.
Ernest Hemingway would be aghast to see what has become of Ernest Hemingway. Against the gray obscurity that awaits most writers in death, his image, 50 years later, has become the literary equivalent of the Nike swoosh or golden arches. Who doesn’t have a mental picture of the gray beard and safari shirt? Who couldn’t vamp a Hemingway-like sentence in a pinch? In Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen’s recent Oscar favorite, Papa turned up unsmilingly in a range of Jazz Age hideaways to make pronouncements about fighting men who are “brave and true” and who write with honesty and die with grace. Other recent work has burnished this image still further. Paul Hendrickson’s book Hemingway’s Boat narrates the novelist’s middle and late years through his interaction with the cruiser he loved. The Cambridge University Press not long ago released a fresh edition of his letters, offering new insight into his decades of adventuring. The most striking new portrait of the master may be yet to come: a made-for-TV adaptation of the love affair between the writer and his third wife, Martha Gellhorn, with Clive Owen and Nicole Kidman starring. The Hemingway of Hemingway & Gellhorn, trailers suggest, is an Indiana Jones-style buckaroo raging through war zones, chasing lovely dames, and wisecracking in the spirit of Jack Paar. “How’d you learn to have fun in hell?” Kidman’s character asks him. Quoth the great American novelist: “Family vacations!”
The Hemingway of these portraits (the least absurd of them, anyway) is the Hemingway that comes through in his best-known stories: a virile, intense man of hard-living habits and a few brilliantly selected words. This character may not be one many people would want at their dinner table, or even—especially!—leading an expedition toward the peak of Kilimanjaro. But his persona is irresistible on the page. The work for which Hemingway is best-known still whistles through this country’s creative corridors like a cool breeze, tempering the literary climate and stirring the aspirations of several iconic stylists who followed. Norman Mailer drafted his first novel, The Naked and the Dead, in the thrall of Hemingway’s sentences and bravura. A middle-school Joan Didion taught herself to type by copying out paragraphs of Hemingway and never shook the sounds, the arcs, the rhythms of those phrases from her ear. J.D. Salinger hunted his hero down in Europe. John Updike wrote late in life, a bit surprisingly, that his “main debt” for his craft and diction was to Papa. Whether this was true or whether Updike just wanted to cast his own work as an heir to Hemingway’s is basically beside the point; the short, tight manuscripts the master left behind are a mountain by which many young writers set their bearings.
That’s no coincidence. Although people often assume the strongest, most enduring authors are those whose work is taught in universities, it’s actually the high-school canon that’s the best marker of cultural esteem and literary immortality. Hemingway is perhaps the one English-language writer other than Shakespeare every high-school student in this country reads. He’s also among the most widely misunderstood.
A mistake that people tend to make in reading, praising, teaching Hemingway is to assume that he was foremost a stylist. Although he was intensely concerned with his voice on the page—and although that voice became more distinctive as he aged—the Hemingway of the incantatory paragraphs and deadpan understatements (“The town was very nice and our house was very fine”) is Hemingway at his weakest. It is because we’ve come to fetishize this voice that we accept and even admire gnomic truisms like “a writer should write what he has to say”—an observation from Hemingway’s Nobel banquet speech and one of his most quoted lines—as if such raw-nut declarations came with tender insights curled inside. Most don’t. Nor was Papa, as some people (chiefly Papa) have liked to suggest, a pioneer in the craft of elision, of leaving crucial things unsaid: That tradition runs clear back at least to Henry James, a writer of a very different ilk. Instead, Hemingway’s genius rests in what he did say, in the way he used language to capture and contain a thread of experience as it wavered through time. His writing, at its best, was a way of coming to terms with disorder, with a narrative line that refused to hold.
Hemingway is due for reappraisal partly because his gamey, war-seeking, booze-quaffing corpus seems today quixotically out of sync with our twee and environmentally aware era; the Hemingway we think we know is a Zeus-hued action figurine from another time and place. Actually, though, this cultural moment is entirely resonant with Hemingway’s genius, which rose not from his bravura but from his most fragile, uncomfortable strains.
Hemingway did not begin as a prodigy. His first short stories, sent to magazines after his return from World War I, were uniformly and deservedly rejected, so he freelanced newspaper articles from Chicago, where he’d settled and fallen in love with his first wife, Hadley. He was 21. Gioia Diliberto’s Paris Without End (published in 1992 and recently reissued) focuses on these early years and offers a portrait of the young Hemingway few will recognize. Rather than the grave, macho adventurer we’ve come to know, this young hack puttered around his rooms, drinking warm milk and eating bananas when he couldn’t sleep. He wrote droll little man-about-town newspaper features on, for instance, his trepidation getting “a free shave” at a barber training school. (Meanwhile, his betrothed composed letters saying things such as “[I] watched the foliage whisked into wild shapes by the wind and smelled the drenched cool grass and let the thunder claps terrify me and the lightning cut me blind.”) People frequently speak of an apprenticeship period for artists, but it’s hard to make the case that the Hemingway of Chicago had even reached such a stage. He was a log who hadn’t yet been touched by fire.
This changed abruptly. In December 1921, Hemingway and his wife got on a transatlantic liner for what was then the distant, open, cheap city of Paris. Starting from that point, the order in Hemingway’s life and work unraveled slowly at first, and then faster. He spent his first year trying to find time to write fiction while working as a newspaper correspondent—and then lost these efforts when a valise containing the manuscripts disappeared onboard a train. He had a child, and, after a brief and unhappy stint in Toronto, quit his newspaper job to return to Paris and focus on fiction. As he struggled financially, his stories started to be published, first in magazines and then in a collection. His private life got all tangled up. Hemingway became smitten with one woman and, soon after, started sleeping with one of his wife’s good friends. He got drunk almost every night.
Nathan Heller is Slate's "Assessment" columnist. You can follow him on Twitter.