Hemingway: America's flawed genius

Hemingway: America's flawed genius
john van becay - 07/01/2021

Sixty years ago tomorrow, July 2, 1961, Ernest Hemingway, America’s premier author, took his own life at his home in Ketchum, Idaho. He was 61 and for the previous 10 years had been in ill health, not only physically, but mentally. Hemingway suffered nearly a dozen major concussions, and, as a boxer, took many blows to the head. It is practically certain he had chronic traumatic encephalopathy – CTE – the same brain injury suffered by many NFL players. CTE was recognized only in “punch drunk” boxers back then, but its probability in Hemingway perfectly fits his increasingly erratic behavior. CTE coupled with Hemingway’s consumption of alcohol and unsupervised prescription medicines, and his belief he would never write again, stoked the deep depression that finally drove him to suicide.  

In April, Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s PBS documentary, “Hemingway,” triggered another cycle of Hemingway interest – and scorn. Hemingway’s life does not play well to modern sensibilities. Hemingway – the he-man – is well known. He glorified big game hunting, drinking, brawling and chauvinism. But privately, his character was far more flawed. He betrayed friend after friend including all four of his wives. His three sons severed contact with him. He invented a public persona that glanced only occasionally off the truth. Then he felt driven to live up to his own myth. Fueled by his heavy drinking, he could be casually cruel and a bully. He was obsessed with fame. In later years, his outsized ego could turn his boorish behavior into self-caricature.  Hemingway was the poster boy for toxic masculinity long before that term was coined. He would be easy to dismiss or deride in our enlightened age except for the one thing that does not fade away: the jaw-dropping talent of his timeless literature. Hemingway was a master of the short story. He wrote classic novels; even the second-tier ones are memorable. He frequently appeared in the nation’s magazines. He invented a new form of non-fiction and was a widely read war correspondent. He participated in three wars: WWI, the Spanish Civil War and WWII. He was the rock star of writers in the first half of the 20th century, with charisma to burn; known and adored wherever he went. And he ate it up.    

Hemingway was a man’s man until you scratched the surface. Beneath the bravado, he was insecure, sensitive and deeply aware of pain in others. He knew his own wounds, and he could agonize over the wounds he inflicted on others. Beneath the macho shell was the artist’s artist. His writing was exquisitely honed, delicate and minimalist. He called it “the iceberg theory” of writing – what he left out was as important as what he put in. Hemingway was generous to those less fortunate and often opened his home to others.   

How much of Hemingway’s talent is tarnished by his failings? Humility and genius rarely go hand in hand, but genius does not justify cruelty. Each reader must make up their own mind. There is no Hemingway School of Writing because he cannot be parsed from modern literature. There was pre-Hemingway and now there is post-Hemingway. All American writers after Hemingway show his influence. Every writer since has felt his touch. Hemingway stumbled often and hard, but he was doing some heavy lifting. Do yourself a favor and pick up some Hemingway for your summer reading. You will be transported to another time and place and life. Be prepared though. You will not return the same.