Ernest (Miller) Hemingway

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Author: Scott Donaldson
Editors: A. Walton Litz and Molly Weigel
Date: 1998
Publisher: Charles Scribner's Sons
Document Type: Biography; Critical essay
Length: 15,213 words

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ERNEST Hemingway ranks as the most famous of twentieth-century American writers: like Mark Twain , Hemingway is one of those rare authors most people know about, whether they have read him or not. The difference is that Twain, with his white suit, ubiquitous cigar, and easy wit, survives in the public imagination as a basically lovable figure, while the deeply imprinted image of Hemingway as rugged and macho has been much less universally admired. For all his fame, Hemingway has been regarded less as a writer dedicated to his craft than as a man of action who happened to be afflicted with genius. When he won the Nobel Prize in 1954, Time magazine reported the news under Heroes rather than Books and went on to describe the author as "a globetrotting expert on bullfights, booze, women, wars, big game hunting, deep sea fishing, and courage." Hemingway did in fact address all those subjects in his books, and he acquired his expertise through well-reported acts of participation as well as of observation: by going to all the wars of his time, hunting and fishing for great beasts, marrying four times, occasionally getting into fistfights, drinking too much, and becoming, in the end, a worldwide celebrity recognizable for his signature beard and challenging physical pursuits.

To a considerable degree, Hemingway was complicit in the formation of his public persona. As a young man living in Chicago and bored by pretentious drawing room talk about art and artists, he rejected out of hand the role of the epicene indoor aesthete. If he were to become a writer, it was going to be at the opposite pole from Proust and his cork-lined room. Hemingway had grown up in close touch with the outdoors, and throughout his life he pursued the sports afield and astream that he had learned from his father. In doing so, Hemingway undoubtedly took some pleasure in confounding public expectations about how a writer should look and behave. The Papa Hemingway persona actually served him as a defense, protecting the more complicated person behind that mask. But once the persona took hold, it did not let go, and as a consequence Hemingway dwindled into a celebrity, which is to say a person who is famous for being famous, whose personality has been narrowed down to a few instantly recognizable trademarks. The process had the unfortunate effect of confusing Hemingway's work with his life, or rather with those parts of his life that were lived in open view; it subordinated his literary accomplishment to his personal renown.

Many readers, or would-be readers, think they dislike Hemingway before they have read a word he's written, simply because of his personal reputation. These people include those opposed to killing, whether on the battlefield or in the Gulf Stream or in the bullring. They include many women who mistrust masculine bravado. Although Hemingway is "unquestionably an artist of the first rank," Kurt Vonnegut remarked in 1990, he is also "a little hard to read nowadays...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1479001547