The Hemingway Myth: A Review of the Literature


“Do you like Hemingway?” he asked.

“Not at all. Why do you like him?”

“Oh, I hate him in some ways.”

-Matthew Asprey, Red Hills of Africa (2009)

Ernest Hemingway attracts a rare breed of readership, in that contrary to many authors, his readers have the strange capacity to both love and loathe the man simultaneously. Of late my doctoral thesis has taken me away from reading assorted literary fiction and pushed me toward more scholarly sources, and as I plan to present a paper on Hemingway later in the year, I thought it fitting to go through the various works dedicated to demystifying (or indeed further provoking the myth of) Hemingway, especially as Sydney has reverted to its characteristic rainy weather.

Perhaps the greatest known work on Hemingway was by his notable biographer Carlos Baker, Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story (1969). While regarded as a classic biography, Hemingway’s third wife Martha Gellhorn was said to have disputed much of what was written about her affair with Hemingway. A Life Story, alongside Baker’s Hemingway: The Artist as Writer (1972) reveals the re-emergence of the individual throughout twentieth century theory. With readers often more taken with the figure than the actual works, Baker offers not only an insight into perhaps the last great celebrity author, but also rivals his subject in terms of prose and articulation. And despite whatever criticisms are shed over the work, it is an invaluable addition to the Hemingway-biography oeuvre.


Another reputable Hemingway scholar is Scott Donaldson, the author behind The Cambridge Companion to Hemingway (1996), and By Force of Will: The Life and Art of Ernest Hemingway (1977). The latter I found was a more informative study that has a greater flow, though this is most likely due to it being penned by only Donaldson himself, rather than an edited collection. What the former therefore offers, as many Cambridge Companions do, is varied perspective. Though, By Force of Will is more useful as a tool for insightful deliberation since it is, after all, a biography, whereas the Companion focuses mainly on Hemingway’s works. Moreover, Donaldson divides By Force of Will into sections related to various issues including Fame, Money, Politics, War, Love, Death, Sex, etc. It thus makes for a broad but intimate portrayal of Hemingway.

Much is written about Hemingway’s relationship to his celebrity; prominent Hemingway scholar Suzanne del Gizzo writes that Hemingway felt that his persona was hijacked by his readers, and that he felt imprisoned by the dynamics of his fame. For Gizzo, Under Kilimanjaro (1961) and Green Hills of Africa (1935) represent the most potent works of Hemingway’s distrust of fame, though also of his hypocritical nature as a celebrity author: ‘[Under Kilimanjaro] emerges as a study of the contradictions of commodity culture that are the hallmark of Hemingway’s career’. But it is John Raeburn’s hard-to-come-by Fame became of Him: Hemingway as Public Writer (1984) that explores Hemingway’s relationship to his fame on a more profound level. He writes that ‘there was something compelling in Hemingway’s personality that encouraged myth-making and defeated even the most scrupulous efforts to tell the truth.’ The Hemingway Myth then becomes a more attractive way in which to communicate the ideas and life of the author. One need only watch Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris to appreciate the complexity of depiction in Hemingway’s character: on the one hand we are given a rather cliché construction of the writer in which his famous minimalist prose in injected into the author’s speech, contrasted with a more brutish interpretation in which Hemingway indulges in the mannerisms of tarnished masculinity.

What is enjoyable about reading biographical texts on Hemingway is the often ambivalent approach to the Hemingway myth; many writers wish to dismember it but at the same time find it difficult to do so, considering that many aspects of Hemingway correlate to the constructed image. The womaniser, the drinker and the big game-hunter—many of these somewhat unfavourable attributes actually ironically serve to enhance the myth. But it does not elude all; though many are said to have disliked the man, Zelda Fitzgerald’s hatred on the author is widely understood, even appreciated in certain circumstances. As Nancy Milford wrote in her 1971 biography, Zelda: A Biography, ‘In an anecdote which has become a part of the Fitzgerald-Hemingway canon, Ernest upon meeting Zelda for the first time is supposed to have drawn Scott aside and told him that Zelda was crazy. Zelda’s reaction to Hemingway on the other hand was no more complimentary, for she considered him “bogus.” Scott had hoped that Zelda would be as taken with Ernest as he himself was, and he was both puzzled and disappointed in their mutual distrust.’

While many avid readers and theorists of the author attempt to defend Hemingway’s celebrity and the myth surrounding him— which accentuates the author’s sense of bravado— Hemingway certainly did not do himself any favours by injecting himself into his work in a distinctly self-congratulatory manner, as seen in the early pages of The Dangerous Summer (1985), in which an official scanning the author’s passport recognises him and professes his great admiration for the author. In this way, as in many others via advertising for Ballantine Ale and Pan American airlines, Hemingway was as much a creator of his myth as his many biographers and, most especially, his readers were.

Some of the literature is more tongue-in-cheek but nevertheless aims to illuminate the concept that is Hemingway’s machismo. Marty Beckerman’s 2012 work The Heming Way: How to Unleash the Booze-Inhaling, Animal-Slaughtering, War-Glorifying, Hairy-Chested Retro-Sexual Legend Within, Just Like Papa!, does more than just offer crude guidelines to turn the average man into a brute, though relies on the irony of Hemingway’s persona.

More recent biographies seem bereft of the kind of intimacy that made older counter-parts invaluable. Granted, Baker had the advantage of being a close friend to Hemingway, yet recent tributes seem to approach Hemingway from a safe haven while avoiding critical discussion.  A work that attempts to shine a more authentic light on Hemingway, however, is Paul Hendrickson’s Hemingway’s Boat: Everything he loved in life, and lost 1934-1961 (2012). Hendrickson writes how Hemingway’s fame was the cause of the author’s undoing, claiming that Hemingway’s ‘insides were eaten out by the diseases of fame’. A similar thesis is reached in Gizzo’s essay Glow in the Dark Authors, through the scathing critique of theorist Daniel J. Boorstin: ‘According to Boorstin, Hemingway had become a casualty of this system’s metastasis into other areas of American culture; he argued that by the time the shot rang out in Ketchum, Hemingway was a writer known not for the significance of his literary contribution, but for his “well-knowness”.’ Scott Donaldson argues against this assumption, claiming simply that ‘Twain had survived his celebrity, as will Hemingway, and for the same reason: they wrote some wonderful books.’ And this is perhaps the key thing to take away amidst the influx of biographies and critics: that while the Hemingway Myth was exactly that—a myth—that irrespective of these analyses Hemingway’s work substantially fills in the doubt surrounding his talent as a writer. More than once I’ve gotten into an argument with someone over the status of Hemingway’s character, the extent of which tends to illuminate the mythology associated with Hemingway’s authorship, but almost always returns to Hemingway as a writer more than any of his other roles. The persistence of this myth, which again I hope to address later this year at a conference, is arguably the most coveted concept in literary studies besides Thomas Pynchon’s identity.



Filed under Uncategorized

3 responses to “The Hemingway Myth: A Review of the Literature

  1. Excellent review. Are you familiar with A.E. Hotchner’s Papa Hemingway?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s