Ernest Hemingway by Mary V. Dearborn

Published: 2022-11-05

Impressions

Though The Washington Post touted this book as "The most fully faceted portrait of Hemingway now available", I was unimpressed. The content of the book is detailed, but the writing was rigid. Facts about Ernest's life were written out in a matter-of-fact manner. The stories told, though few, lacked drama or failed to engage one’s imagination. Letters were mentioned and quoted, but you never saw them shown in full detail. I learned more about Hemingway's obsession with bullfighting than I did about his writing habits or philosophy, spare the mention of the Kansas City Star writing guide (mentioned below in the notes). I suppose that's what people want though. They want the man and life behind the writing, not the writing. I think it’s a well-written book, it just was not what I was expecting and hoping for.

It was also assumed you've read (and memorized) all of Hemingway's works. A plot in a story was mentioned and I'd have to Google what the book was about or how the character acted because it was never explained. A new person in Hemingway's life would be introduced and a passing reference would be made to how they would later become character X in one of his novels, but that was it. There was no further commentary about how, or why, or anything.

I’m always hesitant to say any work of art is “bad.” All I can think about is the time and energy the creator put into the piece, and then imagining them reading a review (like I really even matter as a reviewer) saying it’s bad. No work is ever really bad, sometimes it’s just not what we expect, or not something we like. And that’s okay. Because with the 7 billion people in the world, I’m sure lots would love this book. I’m just one of the few who didn’t.

However, I did learn interesting details about the Hemingway-Paris-writers era, which I've long been enchanted by. I closed the book with a fuller understanding of the man who called himself Ernest than I did when I opened it, which is what you hope for when you read a biography. A phrase that might sum up his life: don't meet your heroes, kid.

Notes

  • Ernest's grandmother told him that the only regrets she had in life were the things that she hadn't done.
  • If you make something easy and fun, you're more likely to do it. Ernest, early on in his writing career, wrote short humorous stories for the school newspaper.
  • Jazz, at the time of Ernest's upbringing was shifting to mean the music it refers to now, from a word that originally meant sexual intercourse.
  • Ernest's first real writing job was at the Kansas City Star. There, he would start to adopt the infamous style he would use throughout his life, thanks to a document The Star provided all of their new writers. Ernest later said the document was, "the best rules I've ever learned for the business of writing. I've never forgotten them." This guide contained rules like "Use short sentences. Use short first paragraphs. Use vigorous English. Be positive, not negative." It also had rules for describing news events. One such rule was to never write anyone was "seriously injured" because all injuries were serious. It also said to avoid adjectives. Words like "gorgeous," "grand," or "marvelous" were not to be used. Ernest said, "[No writer] can fail to write well if he abides by [those rules]."
  • Ernest knew it wasn't important enough just to write, but that the writer had to "push the envelope, engage in nothing less than literary revolution, or, in the famous words of Ezra Pound, 'make it new.'"
  • Hadley, Ernest's first wife, used a cool analogy when answering whether or not being engaged was the greatest time in her life. She said it wasn't–and that the best things are yet to come. But she compared it to "the difference between studying the sun thru astronomical methods & simply and joyously living in a country saturated by light."
  • Ernest would "try to write one true sentence, he vowed in the early days of Paris. He would avoid adjectives. He would work on the iceberg principle, meaning that if the writer knew much more than what actually made its way into the story, or the part of the iceberg that is below the water, and wrote in the right fashion, what was unseen would inform the story, the part that was above water, without the writer voicing it. Writing was a craft, and it had rules, which, if they had to be reduced to a single concept, dictated that the writer be genuine."
  • I didn't know this, but early in his career, Ernest would have to battle a stereotype that male writers weren't serious, or that writing, even as a career, was a very feminine practice.
  • In response to his mother's comments about the content of his writings, Ernest replied, "I know what I'm doing and it doesn't make any difference either way what anybody says about it. Naturally, it is nice to have people like it. But it is inside yourself that you have to judge...You have to be your own worst critic."
  • "Ultimately, I suppose, one must judge the degree of one's love for a person by the hush and the emptiness that descends on the day–after the departure." - This was a quote from Gerald Murphy. He and his wife had become good friends with the Fitzgeralds and wrote that in a letter after their leaving.
    • Don't use "something or other" or "etc." in your writing. If you don't want to tell, why bother using three words to say that? #writing-advice
    • "Something permanent being ended for something passing", was a phrase Hadley used to describe Ernest and Pauline, his second wife's love before they had split. I think it's a cool phrase to use.