The folly of Hemingway.

It appears that the guys over at Art of Manliness have a series case of infatuation with Ernest Hemingway. I myself was a Hemingway devotee for many years. I read all of his work, articles included. I read every book written about the man, even a book about his boat of all things. When I lived in Italy I retraced his steps in Venice and I drank at the same bars and ate at the restaurants where he had once enjoyed a plate of pasta.

Yeah, I had a serious case of the man crushes. But that was because I was in the process of making myself as a man and I needed examples, and God only knows these days that good examples are thin on the ground. So I get it; I understand the Hemingway infatuation. And there are many positives to take from his life but it is important to keep in mind a few things about the man.

First of all, his politics were absurd. The man was a committed socialist in a time when socialism was really actually very good at getting rid of lots and lots of people. Not only that but he saw the struggles up close in Spain and then in Cuba. Somehow in spite of this he remained committed to the socialist ideal all the way to the end which casts an almighty long shadow over everything else that he achieved. As prescient as he was about the human condition at a personal level, how can this be balanced with being so obtuse on the same subject when cast in a general sense?

He was also a bully, and a cruel one at that. There is no doubt that he created an image of himself, a mystique if you like, that went a long way to selling his books. But somewhere along the way he fell in love with this image and almost all of his subsequent efforts went into propagating his great sense of alphaness. To this end he began surrounding himself with weak men and sycophants. You had to agree with Papa above all things; no other behavior would be tolerated. And even if you were obsequious enough, go overboard just a little bit and maybe he would pick you out for special group humiliation.

All of his subsequent praise for F. Scott Fitzgerald never came close to making up for how he treated the man in real life.

But for me the real failure of Hemingway was in the final years of his life. He became so addicted to his alpha image that he was not able to make the transition to old age. He was stuck in middle age where he was still a strong bull, the center of attention and biggest consumer of wine, women, and song. In Hotchner’s biography of Hemingway he recounts a fishing trip off Cuba in the 1950s. Hemingway is at the peak of his powers and he shows off his physical prowess in many different ways. Barely a year later and they repeat the trip only to discover that Papa is a shadow of his former self, unable to repeat the feats of the previous year in even the most basic of ways.

When you base your life on an image and you finally arrive at a point where the image no longer holds up, you’re going to find yourself in a world of personal anguish.

In Cicero’s wonderful treatise of the human condition, How to Grow Old, he describes the four stages of life and the crucial importance in transitioning correctly between the various stages. Hemingway never achieved this final step. He could not let go of the image that he had been but no longer was. He became deeply unhappy as a result and I have no doubt that this was the reason that he took his own life. The guys at Art of Manliness talk around why he committed suicide but they never actually nail down the real reason for his dramatic decline.

There are many important lessons that can be learned from the life of Ernest Hemingway, both good and poor, but the lessons should be balanced between the two sides. Lionizing the man leaves little scope for understanding the demons that plagued him in later life. Ultimately Hemingway chose to live for the outside world, and if that is your path then you will always remain a slave to what everyone else thinks of you.

13 thoughts on “The folly of Hemingway.

  1. Klaus

    I once read a biography of him as well and one of your points stuck in my mind. Without saying so directly, the authour indicated that Hemingway could your best friend…until you disagreed with him.

    Then you were dirt. That took, for me, a lot of the lustre away.

    Good friends are SUPPOSED to be able to criticise/disagree with you, for heavens sake.


  2. The Phantom

    I never understood the fascination with Hemingway. He was a pretender. When I read The Sun Also Rises, I identified with Robert Cohn – the outsider who is trying to make something of himself. I found Hemingway’s character to be an asshole and liked the part when Cohn (who was a boxer in the book) punched him.
    The fundamental flaw with Cohn is his oneitis with Lady whatshername. As a wealthy in-shape American, he should have been banging Senoritas by the gross and left the Lady to have her hangup on the impotent Hemingway character.


  3. Bobster

    Quite enjoyed Netflix’s “Papa: Hemmingway in Cuba” with my opinion as to its quality bolstered by the Rotten Tomatoes morons’ eight (8) per cent approval rating. A lot filmed at the old boy’s actual residence.


  4. Never a fan of Hemingway’s writing, so I never got into the infatuation.

    But I can understand why he could be so alpha and still cotton to socialism. There are two brands of socialism: the white-guy-patriotic-union-rowdy-crack-heads-for-larger wages type, and the wussy-feminine-soy-boy-hug-it-out type.

    We only know the second type these days. The first type is largely dead in America these days, but during the last half of the 19th and most of the 20th Century, the first type was alive and thriving. Hard men yoked together to fight off rapacious bosses and make a living wage for their families in tough, masculine jobs. This is the socialism or near-socialism that manly men could like. It’s no wonder guys like Orwell and Hemingway liked it; to them, it was just the masculine underdog rightfully negotiating for what he was owed. That’s not excusing it at all, but it is to say that the allure of socialism is that it often had a few decent ideas (strong unions, patriotism) mixed up with all its bad stuff.


  5. The numerous blows on the head he sustained over his lifetimes didn’t help his mental stability much …

    Also, the fact he signed up with the Soviet NKVD in the 40s could have caused paranoia in the cold war 50s.


  6. “Hard men yoked together to fight off rapacious bosses and make a living wage for their families in tough, masculine jobs. This is the socialism or near-socialism that manly men could like.”

    Of course then there’s the part where they smash the heads of people who don’t agree with them and don’t want to join their socialist utopia.


  7. Carl-Edward

    Hemingway’s books are – to my mind – third-rate. The way one turns a third-rate writer into a genius, is by writing around his work. The critics, I think, have effectively managed that.


  8. Melmoth

    Could it be that Hemingway was the first figure in America’s shift from thought to image? Neal Postman wrote a lot about this. We went from taking in the news and culture from the written word to taking in news/culture via a series of images. As technology advanced, images started to overtake writing, iow logic. Writing must be logical. Images are far more immediate and shallow, of course; easier to own. And then today, oh boy. Just look at how we are communicating through instagram. Even facebook loses its lustre with those pesky sentences here and there.

    So Hemingway was the first to manipulate image for his own gain. The fact that he was a writer, while confusing the issue, also makes some sense in terms of the transition. So it was the image of Hemingway that bolstered his mediocre writing. Take away the photos of the man and his calculated media self, and what do you have? How many people love Hemingway because of the cool hats, safari photos, drinks in exotic locales, the beard etc? They love the image that they’d like to have for themselves. The books were just a souvenir of the image. Take it all away (media images) and how great of a figure/writer is he? Joseph Conrad was far superior but no one recognized that because he came just before images were able to be so widespread via media technology.


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