People tend to either love or hate Hemingway. Even while he was alive, an entire mythos rose around him: A journalist-turned-fiction-writer known for his sparse prose, he served on the Italian front during WWI, published his first book (a collection of short stories called In Our Time) at the age of 26 and his first novel (The Sun Also Rises) at 27; he published steadily throughout his life and won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954 before committing suicide in 1961. He lived as an American ex-pat in Paris in his twenties, developed a penchant for big game hunting in Africa in his thirties, and later moved to Cuba, where he was a big supporter of Castro. He was an alcoholic who was married several times and his hobbies included gambling at the racetracks and hating almost everyone. He became this big, brawny, larger-than-life badass who, in a cage match against Teddy Roosevelt or Chuck Norris, would still get my bet. Dude was tough and everyone knew it.
He fell out of favor with academics in the 80s on charges of being a misogynist; the general argument went something along the lines of, “Why should we respect someone who obviously didn’t respect women?” Lately, within the past few years, he’s experienced a resurgence in popularity among the literati but people still seem to be solidly on one side of the fence or the other; there’s no middle ground. Get a group of literary-minded grad students together and put a few drinks in them, this debate will come up, and people will be yelling and slamming their fists on the table within minutes.
I happen to be on the side that loves Hemingway, to the point that I would say he’s one of my favorite writers, if not my favorite. I haven’t read everything he’s written but I’ve read a lot of it, and I pick up his books to re-read more than anyone else’s. Simply put, I think he’s a brilliant writer, regardless of whatever character flaws he may have had as a person. I would also argue that he’s more generally misanthropic than specifically misogynistic, and I think there’s a certain vulnerability in his characters from his earlier works (which I tend to like more) that disappears in his later books. The main character/narrator in The Sun Also Rises, for instance, is a heartbroken WWI vet who was wounded during the war and ended up impotent, and thus can’t be with the woman he loves. That doesn’t match up very well with the tough-guy Everything That Is Man image that Hemingway has come to be associated with. His writing gets decidedly less sympathetic the older he got.
One of his books that I’ve read over and over is A Moveable Feast, his memoir/essays about living in Paris in his twenties. It was published posthumously in 1964 by his… third? (fourth? fifth? I’ve lost track) wife, Mary. The stories are interesting and the writing is downright beautiful in places. Since it was written in his later years, the lack of sympathy comes through, but there are moments where it’s surprisingly soft and the insider’s peak into Hemingway as a young man, and what his life was like in Paris, is intriguing.
The following five things are aspects of the book that surprised and/or delighted me. If you’ve ever studied Hemingway in depth, you probably already know some or all of these things, but if your only experience with him was being forced to read The Old Man and the Sea in high school you might learn something new.
1. Hemingway on Child-Rearing
A Moveable Feast depicts Hemingway when he was with his first wife, Hadley. He was still trying to “make it” as a writer and barely scraping by financially. They had a young son named Jack, referenced throughout the book as Bumby. Hemingway spent most of his days drinking in cafes and writing; who the hell knows what Hadley spent her days doing. However did they juggle their busy lives with taking care of a baby?
“It was wrong to take a baby to a cafe in the winter though; even a baby that never cried and watched everything that happened and was never bored. There were no baby-sitters then and Bumby would stay happy in his tall cage bed with his big, wonderful cat named F. Puss. There were people who said that it was dangerous to leave a cat with a baby. The most ignorant and prejudiced said that a cat would suck a baby’s breath and kill him. Others said that a cat would lie on a baby and the cat’s weight would smother him. F. Puss lay beside Bumby in the tall cafe bed and watched the door with his big yellow eyes, and would let no one come near him when we were out… There was no need for baby-sitters. F. Puss was the baby-sitter.” (113)
Yes, you read that right. Hemingway had their cat baby-sit their not-yet-mobile kid. Every time someone reads that paragraph, a helicopter parent somewhere has a heart attack and isn’t quite sure why.
2. The Term “The Lost Generation” Came from a Conversation with Gertrude Stein and was Coined by Hemingway
Hemingway wasn’t the only artist ex-pat living in Paris in the 1920s. Gertrude Stein was there, and so were F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ford Madox Ford, Evan Shipman, Piccaso, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and John Dos Passos, among others. There were enough of them that the artist community in that time, in that place became legendary in its own right (most recently, it can be seen in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris). Collectively, the young writers in this group, most of whom had served in WWI, came to be known as The Lost Generation.
The term came from a conversation Hemingway had with Gertrude Stein in which she referred to them as “une generation perdue,” claiming that she had heard a mechanic shout that at one of his young workers when he messed up. Hemingway took a liking to the term and ran with it, including the Stein quote as an epigraph at the beginning of The Sun Also Rises alongside a quote from Ecclesiastes. It’s stood the test of time and turned from a colloquial moniker into an academic one throughout the years.
The thing that strikes me most about this series of events is that Hemingway self-branded himself and his cohort at the time when it was all just starting. It was intentional. This name didn’t come into being after the fact, when people looked back on the ex-pats and thought about what to call them; it wasn’t prescribed by an outsider. Hemingway decided that he would define himself and every writer sharing his experience and by god, he did.
3. Hemingway on Literary Influences
I had absolutely no idea until reading A Moveable Feast that Hemingway loved Russian authors, to the point where almost everything else paled in comparison. Everyone knows that writers are also avid readers, and we have a tendency to absorb what we read and love and spit it out into our own writing. During those young years of writing, Hemingway had a borrowing system set up with Sylvia Beach at the now-famous Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris, and his books of choice were Russians, Russians, all the time.
“From the day I had found Sylvia Beach’s library I had read all of Turgenev, what had been published in English of Gogol, the Constance Garnett translations of Tolstoi and the English translations of Chekov. In Toronto, before we had ever come to Paris, I had been told Katherine Mansfield was a good short-story writer, even a great short-story writer, but trying to read her after Chekov was like hearing the carefully articulated tales of a young old-maid compared to those of an articulate and knowing physician who was a good and simple writer. Mansfield was like near-beer. It was better to drink water. But Chekov was not water except for the clarity.” (101)
Leave it to Hemingway to make a beer comparison, but seriously, as someone who has barely dipped a toe into the Russian canon, I feel a sudden urge to read all the Tolsoy. See you kids next summer.
As a side note, Sylvia Beach was a huge supporter of the young writers in Paris at the time. She ran a bookstore but let Hemingway and others borrow books when they didn’t have money to pay for them, and often gave them either food or money to buy food when they couldn’t afford it. Several of these writers went on to be defining voices in the Modernist movement. She was instrumental in helping them get published and even published Ulysses— considered one of the most important books of the twentieth century– herself when James Joyce couldn’t find anyone else who was willing to publish it in its entirety.
4. Hemingway Respected F. Scott Fitzgerald as a Writer, But Not as a Person (Most of the Time)
Since A Moveable Feast is all about artists living in Paris at the time, several famous names show up in its pages. Some of the characterizations are kinder than others; Hemingway’s depiction of Gertrude Stein is notoriously acerbic, he refers to Ford Madox Ford as the devil’s disciple, and he describes poet Wyndham Lewis’s eyes as “those of an unsuccessful rapist.” (Ouch!) One of my absolute favorite chapters in the book, however, is a story about a disastrous weekend trip Hemingway and Fitzgerald took from Paris to Lyon not long after they.
Hemingway has openly admitted that The Great Gatsby is a brilliant novel, and this is what he had to say about Fitzgerald as a writer:
“His talent was as natural as the pattern that was made by the dust on a butterfly’s wings. At one time he understood it no more than the butterfly did and he did not know when it was brushed or marred. Later he became conscious of his damaged wings and of their construction and he learned to think. He was flying again and I was lucky to meet him just after a good time in his writing if not a good time in his life.” (124)
As a person, however, Hemingway had little patience for Fitzgerald. He paints him as a clueless, privileged, class obsessed, sexually insecure, hypochondriac pretty-boy who couldn’t hold his liquor. Fitzgerald hunted Hemingway down at a cafe to introduce himself when they were both still starting out, they talked writing, and then for whatever reason they decided to take a trip to Lyon to pick up a car. Hilarity ensues.
The chapter is much too long and entertaining to do it justice here, but perhaps my favorite line comes after Fitzgerald, who had their train tickets, flaked out on showing up at the station on time. Hemingway went on to Lyon without him and tells the reader, “While I had been angry I had demoted him from Scott to Fitzgerald” (133). For some reason, that just struck me as hilarious, perhaps because it’s so typically Hemingway, an understated, calm insult that still gets the job done and smacks of disrespect. However, in Fitzgerald’s defense, Hemingway derides him later in the chapter for not being able to hold his drink when they share “a few bottles” (!!) of wine during lunch, so perhaps his standards were a little ridiculous.
Despite the comedy of errors that weekend turned into, the two writers remained friends on and off for decades, although they went through periods where they were bad-mouthing each other to the press before Hemingway finally cut off the relationship. During that time, Fitzgerald’s wife Zelda once insulted his manhood, and Fitzy dropped trou and asked Hemingway if everything looked, uh, up to par. To Hemingway’s credit he assured him it did. Now that’s friendship.
5. … But He Loved the Crap Out of Ezra Pound
Not everyone is given the typical scathing Hemingway treatment in the book, however; there are certain people about whom Hemingway talks with soft, gooey sentiment. Although we see their marriage starting to fall apart towards the end, Hemingway writes about those years with Hadley with tenderness and love. What probably jumped out at me as most utterly surprising is just how devoted Hemingway was towards Ezra Pound. Pound seemed to be the butt of every joke in the ex-pat community (there’s a particularly amusing anecdote where Gertrude Stein invites him to sit in a small, broken chair and then yells at him when he “breaks” it; he’s also reamed for his bad bassoon playing), but Hemingway talks about him incessantly as a good, honest, giving person who always saw the best in people. We see Ezra Pound go out of his way to take care of his friends (not bad for someone who later turned into a Mussolini fanboy and wrote [really bad] Fascist poetry in Italian to show that support), and Hemingway respected him for this.
In one chapter, “Ezra Pound and his Bel Esprit”, this respect comes through in the first paragraph:
“Ezra Pound was the most generous writer I have ever known and the most disinterested. He was always doing something practical for poets, painters, sculptors, and prose writers that he believed in and he would help anyone, whether he believed in them or not, if they were in trouble. He worried about everyone and in the time when I first knew him he was most worried about T.S. Eliot who, Ezra told me, had to work in a bank in London and so had insufficient time and bad hours to function as a poet.” (178)
To help Eliot, Pound set up a campaign called Bel Esprit which collected money from other artists so that Eliot could quit his job at the bank and concentrate on his poetry. The result? The Waste Land was published and won The Dial Award and Eliot never had to work in a bank again. BOOM. (The brochure for the Bel Esprit fund featured a picture of a small Greek temple on the front, and Hemingway talks about how he had hoped Eliot would live there– it was in a garden in Paris– and thought that maybe he and Ezra could bike there and put crowns of laurel on Eliot’s head whenever he was feeling lonely, but alas, it was not to be.)
In another chapter, Hemingway talks about how Pound, after he moved away from Paris, tasked him with the job of keeping the opium-addicted poet Ralph Cheever Dunning from killing himself and how it resulted in Dunning throwing milk bottles at his head. He writes, “Perhaps Dunning took me for an agent of evil or the police. I only know that Ezra tried to be kind to Dunning as he was kind to so many people and I always hoped Dunning was as fine a poet as Ezra believed him to be.” (112) In that same chapter, Hemingway tells another writer about Pound, “I miss him every day.” (110)
Hemingway’s devotion to Pound is downright touching. It appears that the infamous misanthrope may have had a heart after all.