One of America’s most celebrated writers of the 20th-century, Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) pioneered a simple and understated style of writing. He was awarded both the Pulitzer and Nobel Prize for his literary contributions.
Biographer and critic Scott Donaldson has written eight books about 20th-century American authors, including Ernest Hemingway. His next book—The Impossible Craft: Literary Biography—recounts the frequent trials and rare triumphs of those who write life stories of great authors, and is scheduled for publication in March 2015 by Penn State University Press.
Simply Charly: You’ve written quite extensively about Ernest Hemingway and his fellow “Lost Generation” writer F. Scott Fitzgerald. What initially sparked your lifelong interest in their work?
Scott Donaldson: I discovered and fell in love with Hemingway’s fiction as a junior at Yale.
At the time (1950), Hemingway was not regarded by the Yale English department as a major established author. He was too modern, too popular, and above all, too American. So the task of directing my senior thesis on Hemingway’s short stories fell to the young and charismatic Charlie Fenton, who had not yet completed his doctorate. Sixty years later he was to become the subject of Death of a Rebel: The Charlie Fenton Story (2012), my eighth and most recent biography.
The fascination with Fitzgerald started only a few years later, coinciding with the revival of interest sparked by Budd Schulberg’s novel, The Disenchanted, and Arthur Mizener’s biography, The Far Side of Paradise. If anything, I felt (and still feel) a closer kinship with Fitzgerald than with Hemingway. We were all middle-class Midwesterners—Hemingway and Fitzgerald only a generation older, but the latter came from St. Paul, just across the Mississippi from my native Minneapolis, and he occupied a somewhat similar, shaky position to mine in the social hierarchies of those cities. My mother grew up in St. Paul, in the same neighborhood as Fitzgerald, and—I like to imagine—may well have danced with him during her high school years.
SC: The Hemingway Letters Project—a comprehensive scholarly edition of the author’s some 6,000 letters, many of which have never before been published—has revealed new aspects of the famed writer’s personality. One area that these letters shed more light on is his relationship with his immediate family. What can you tell us about Hemingway’s relationship with his parents and his five siblings?
SD: As an advisory editor of that 16-volume project, I just proofread and made corrections to his letters of 1926—a crucial year in which his first marriage was falling apart and his first novel, The Sun Also Rises, was published. Perhaps the most interesting letters of that year went to Ezra Pound, but Hemingway also dutifully kept in touch with his family back in Oak Park, IL.
His relationship with his mother and father was complicated and difficult. He put off telling them about his impending divorce and remarriage as long as possible, and he knew that both parents would disapprove of the behavior—sexual, in particular—of the characters in The Sun Also Rises. Fifteen and 20 years later, Hemingway would tell his closest friends that he “hated” his mother, but that was after his father’s suicide in 1929, a death the author attributed largely to his father having knuckled under his mother’s dominance.
As for the siblings, his mother saw to it that Hemingway was “twinned” with his sister Marcelline. She held back Marcelline from school so that the two children could be in the same class. And, as reported by several writers, the biographer Kenneth Lynn, in particular, she dressed both of them alike until Hemingway was six. Most of the year in Oak Park, both Ernest, and his sister wore girls’ clothing, and when the family went to northern Michigan for the summer, both were dressed in boys’ outfits. Despite (or perhaps because of) this peculiar dress code, Hemingway developed closer ties to his next born younger sisters, Madelaine (Sunny) and Ursula than to Marcelline. His other two siblings—Leicester and Carol—were born so much later that Hemingway’s relationship with them might best be called avuncular.
SC: Hemingway is probably the best-known author of the “Lost Generation”—a community of expatriate writers and artists living in Europe following World War I, which also included Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. What was Hemingway’s role in shaping the Lost Generation? Which of its defining characteristics did he represent in both his writing and his life?
SD: Hemingway did not think of himself as a “Lost Generation” writer, and he made fun of Gertrude Stein’s characterization of the post-World War I youths as forming such a generation. What he and his fellow writers undoubtedly shared was a sense of malaise in the aftermath of that war: disillusionment with the cardboard values advanced to justify that war, and a conviction that lingering Victorian standards no longer applied. They felt that they needed a fresh approach to life, as embodied in Hemingway’s famous “grace under pressure” definition of “guts,” and a corresponding pared-down style of writing that fit in with the artistic doctrine that “less is more.”
SC: Hemingway first resolved to write his novel, The Sun Also Rises, after reading F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. In what ways did Fitzgerald inspire and help Hemingway?
SD: Fitzgerald read Hemingway’s typescript of The Sun Also Rises in the summer of 1926 and advised him to cut 4,000 words from a beginning, which, in his opinion, read more like a satirical guidebook to Paris and its expatriates than a novel. Hemingway took that advice and pared down that section, to his profit and his readers as well.
SC: In your book, Hemingway vs. Fitzgerald: The Rise and Fall of a Literary Friendship, you explore their relationship in great detail. What was their relationship really like?
SD: What most people don’t realize is how close their friendship was in the years after they met at the Dingo Bar in Montparnasse in the spring of 1925. Looking back at that time in A Moveable Feast, Hemingway effectively belittled Fitzgerald for his drinking, for asking too many embarrassing questions, for giving in to his wife Zelda, and for his sexual insecurities. But their letters during those Paris years—“if you don’t mind, you’re the best friend I’ve got”—testify to deep and genuine warmth between them. And there can be no doubt that Fitzgerald, an established writer when they met, did whatever he could to advance the career of Hemingway, who was three years younger and, at that time, very little known outside Parisian literary circles.
SC: Hemingway’s life was marked by turbulent relationships with women: he was married four times and had numerous extramarital affairs. Why do you think he married so often, and so often made the same mistake?
SD: I think his serial marriages—generally entered into while an ex-wife watched from the wings—stemmed from a determination to let no one get too close. He had been hurt, badly, when the first woman he wanted to marry jilted him. That was Agnes von Kurowsky, the Red Cross nurse he fell in love with after he was wounded in Italy in the summer of 1918. They had agreed to marry, but Agnes sent him back to the States when the war was over, entered into a relationship with an Italian officer, and mailed him a devastating “Dear Ernest” letter in the spring of 1919. She expected great things of him in the future, Agnes wrote, but as a 19-year-old he was seven years her junior and simply too young for her. (Interestingly, Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson, whom he married in 1921, was almost eight years older than he).
That jilting made him wary of giving too much of himself in any and all relationships. And another blow came in 1920 when Hemingway’s mother kicked him out of their summer home in Michigan for what she regarded as his egotistical and thoughtless behavior. In a curious comparison, she explained that Ernest had overdrawn on the bank account of his mother’s love. That rejection also stung. Thereafter, he was careful not to put himself in a position to be hurt, which explains four marriages and several friendships that he broke off, sometimes viciously.
SC: How was Hemingway’s attitude towards women expressed through his novels’ female characters?
SD: It’s a commonplace opinion among critics that Hemingway’s female characters pale in comparison to the males. But like many such widely held views, that seems quite wrong. Usually, his fictional women are depicted more sympathetically than the men, as—perhaps most notably—Catherine Barkley vs. Frederic Henry in A Farewell to Arms, or, the American wife vs. her husband in “Cat in the Rain.” And at times, as with Pilar in For Whom the Bell Tolls, the woman is the strongest and fiercest character of all.
SC: As significant as his novels are, a large part of Hemingway’s legacy was the exciting events of his own life and the force of his character. What lesser-known aspects of his personality has your extensive research revealed and what surprised you the most?
SD: I’d like to cite Malcolm Cowley’s insights into Hemingway’s personality, which he laid out in his book of letters called The Long Voyage (2014). Cowley met Hemingway in Paris in the early 1920s, favorably reviewed most of his books, and in 1948 spent a week with him and his fourth wife Mary at their Finca Vigia in Cuba as research for a long Life magazine story. “Hemingway loves being a great man,” Cowley wrote to William Faulkner immediately after that visit. “It’s something he needs and demands and nobody begrudges it to him because he keeps paying for it at every moment in terms of kindness and attention and thoughtfulness to anyone around him. He lives like old Father Abraham in the midst of his flocks and herds of servants and wives and children and friends and dependents… It’s a curious life for a writer … and Hemingway is a curious and very likable person and drinks almost enough to put anyone else in the alcoholic ward.” And in another letter, a few days later: “He [Hemingway] wasn’t a tough guy who taught himself how to write; he was a tender guy who painfully taught himself to be tough.”
Cowley had other associations with Hemingway during the 1950s. He proposed writing a biography, but Hemingway discouraged him. Cowley was also involved as an editorial adviser for Philip Young’s Ernest Hemingway (1952), a book that infuriated Hemingway because of Young’s guiding psychological principle: that as a consequence of his wounding in the First World War, Hemingway was driven to engage in dangerous sports and to “attend “ all the wars of his time (often at the front lines) as a way of proving his courage.
“I mourn for Hemingway,” Cowley wrote to Conrad Aiken when news of Ernest’s suicide in 1961 reached him. “He could be mean as cat piss and sweet as a ministering angel. It’s hard to think of so much vitality, vanity, unflagging zest, eagerness to excel in everything, willingness to learn and study and finally teach everything, ability to participate in other people’s lives—that all this should simply vanish.” The trouble with Carlos Baker’s monumental Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story (1969), Cowley thought, was that it did not capture the writer’s remarkable enthusiasm for life.
Fifteen years later, in the course of doing an excellent job of editing my By Force of Will: The Life and Art of Ernest Hemingway (1977) for Viking Press, Cowley cautioned me against being judgmental about the departed writer’s record of broken friendships and marriages. Always, Cowley felt a bond of loyalty to Hemingway. As he wrote to Hemingway in May 1951, “We started from the same place, driving ambulances [Hemingway] and camions [Cowley] in the war”. And though they had very different experiences thereafter, Cowley felt that “as a generation of writers we have done a good job, one of the best, and if each man has had his individual failings, that’s something we can talk about ourselves and let the twerps find out for themselves.”
SC: In his later years, Hemingway frequently traveled the world and embarked on safaris in Africa. During this time, he was bitterly depressed, finally committing suicide in 1961. Was Hemingway’s depression typical of his generation’s authors?
SD: I don’t know if depression was endemic among writers of his generation, but alcoholism certainly was: think of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner. But then, alcoholism and depression often complement each other, so that it’s difficult to tell where one disease leaves off, and the other takes over. Indeed, depression leading to suicide ran in the Hemingway family line—his father killed himself, and so did one sister, his only brother, and a granddaughter.
SC: Do you have any favorite Hemingway novels? Which one(s) resonate with you most?
SD: For a long time, I would have said The Sun Also Rises, a fine and highly teachable book, but I’ve come to admire A Farewell to Arms more and more, over the years, and to upgrade For Whom the Bell Tolls as well. Nonetheless, I think Hemingway’s stories constitute his very best work, beginning with In Our Time and continuing through the two great stories of the mid-1930s, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” and “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.”