Hemingway: Unearthing The Man Behind The Myth

Is the Hemingway legend of booze, bull-fighting and bravado really an accurate portrayal of America's greatest ever writer?
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Is the Hemingway legend of booze, bull-fighting and bravado really an accurate portrayal of America's greatest ever writer?

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Whilst putting on the same clothes as yesterday, and the day before, I began considering my new alumni status. With three years inside the literary canon behind me, I began to dwell on who I have studied and more importantly, why have I studied them? In a loose order I’ve been to ‘Tintern Abbey’ and admired the Nightingales of the Romantics; considered the social realism and anxiety of George Eliot and the Victorians, ending with a complex walk through the streets of Joyce’s Dublin and Eliot’s ‘Wastelands’. Resting in the middle were the major American writers: Melville, Hawthorne, Poe and Faulkner. However, the one omission I find it difficult to understand, and a name that has sparsely been mentioned on what is the 52nd anniversary of his death this week, is that of Ernest Hemingway. The same man that left an indelible mark on a generation seems to be leaving the opposite on the present and the pertinent question is, why?

In the second year of my degree I had a timetable that demanded six contact hours a week. With this overwhelming amount of ‘free’ time I decided to combat my imperious bookshelf and begin a life with Hemingway. With a prerequisite image of this masculine, womanizing, bearded writer I began the book that would eventually bring him the Nobel Prize for Literature: Old Man and the Sea. I admired the economy of language and all the other traits now synonymous with the style. Like most people encountering Hemingway for the first time, it all seemed so simple and rather insignificant. Yet it is once this surface is penetrated and I appreciated his theory of omission and the Ezra Pound-like disdain for superfluities that I obliged myself to work him into my degree. With the help of Kurt Vonnegut and Billy Pilgrim I managed to force Hemingway into my studies with my final year dissertation. Through examining Nick Adams from Hemingway’s debut, In Our Time, it is clear that the Hemingway themes inherent in all his novels began at the very beginning and continued to, unfortunately for him, the very end. Masculinity, mortality, love, Fathers and war are used to examine the fragile human condition and have since left the same mark on me as he made on the readership of his own time.

However, perhaps these thematic concerns have since been to his detriment? The Hemingway archetype and style has been recycled since his death and even in his own lifetime. Rather than dissecting the realist man of the 20th century it has offered a parody of what a man should be. I’ve been to Madrid, drank cocktails at the Museo Chicote and admired the Restaurante Botín. I've visited Les Deux Magots and seen their Hemingway Filet de boeuf and gazed at Rue du Cardinal Lemoine but these Hemingway attractions are exactly that, attractions. He has become a fictional hero and the Hemingway image has grown larger than his literary works. Maybe this is why he has been ignored in the university syllabus? In the week of the anniversary of his suicide, it is perhaps more appropriate than ever to place Hemingway, the image, to the side and instead consider the literary works that came first.

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Looking at his most famous novels objectively and unblemished by the man hovering above them, they still hold up as stylist novels that changed the way novels should be both written and read. Nick Adams, Jake Barnes, Robert Jordan, and old man Santiago are characters that confront all the anxieties of the modern man head on. Each character in the their respective novels represent the unspoken post-World War crisis of masculinity that Hemingway conscientiously wished to find the antidote for. In In Our Time, The Sun Also Rises, For Whom the Bell Tolls and Old Man and the Sea the male protagonist is against either a figurative or physical struggle that is mimetic for the 20th century as a whole. It could be a character's own impotence, it could be the Spanish Civil War, the inability to fish a swamp or it could just be sharks biting at a fish on the side of an old man's boat. Nevertheless, they all endeavour to readjust man in society and unfurl, for the first time in popular literature, a male character full of latent emotion, self-reflection and empathy.

It is here that Hemingway should be remembered. Ignore the bullfighting, the suicide, his many wives, the trail of cocktail bars with black and white photographs of him on the wall and even more specifically:Hemingway & Gellhornand approach this literary leviathanwithout preconception and, like his characters, without fear. It's time to appreciate the silence left in between his sentences again instead of the life outside of the pages. Then, hopefully, Ernest Hemingway can regain a place in our time.