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.