Flotsam & Jetsam: Ernest Hemingway

Sam Smith – Reading a review of a new biography of Ernest Hemingway by Mary V Dearborn in the Nation, I found myself resenting, but not denying, the information provided. It wasn’t the first time Hemingway’s story has not been a happy or encouraging one.

But then fiction authors are not meant to be role models but rather they roll out models of life as it is, as it should be, could be, or shouldn’t be. And Ernest Hemingway served that purpose magnificently for this then teenage guy living in a dysfunctional family in the 1950s. As I wrote later of the time:

I took naturally to the skepticism of the social critics, for I had found much of my world not to my liking but had not realized that one could make a living saying so. And I devoured Ernest Hemingway because his stories were tough and melancholic and he didn’t gush adjectives, metaphors and similes like so many of the writers we were meant to admire. In The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber, he said that some things lose their meaning when they get all mouthed up. I appreciated the way he didn’t use words as much as the way he did.

Hemingway’s books – not the man himself – helped set my life on a path of independence and more courage than it otherwise might have had . As the author himself put it:

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.

As for the author himself, Greg Lawrence, a contributing writer for the Idler,  predecessor of the Progressive Review,  interviewed his son Pat in Tanzania during a world hiking tour and wrote that

[Pat] Hemingway said that one demand his father made of the family was that there would be no lying. “It was a question of justice really, and this was deep in him. His mother lied to him and she lied to me when she was 83 years old. She was a domineering woman. She made my grandfather unhappy and I think she made my father unhappy. I’ve always felt that many writers spend part of their lives getting the sense of fraud and injustice they ‘re dealt in youth out of their system. The best preparation for a writer is an unhappy childhood, and my father had that preparation.

So whatever flaws he had, I remain forever grateful for having read Hemingway when I was young and having learned from him something about living as well as about writing.

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