Tuesday, November 23, 2010



Many people still think of Ernest Hemingway in exaggerated terms. Fifty years after his death, he is the Lord Byron of the 20th century, a hyper-macho, rum-drinking, war-mongering, pistol-packing literary giant who married four times, had countless lovers and defined what it was and in many cases still is to be an American male. It is a comfortable and well-worn portrait and, in part, how I imagined him myself growing up as boy in Miami during the 60s and 70s. The larger-than-life image and exploits of the man were certainly more exciting than what you had with many other writers. He was outrageously real, (“too macho to be true” as my dad used to say) in an over-the-top, Quentin Tarantino kind of way. Of course, years later when I wrote Strange Tribe I discovered that Ernest was not at all the person who I thought he was and that perhaps he had more in common with my father, his transsexual youngest son, than with the fishermen, soldiers and bullfighters he was friends with. But even with this knowledge and the publication of my book old ideas die hard. Myths are immortal, I'm inclined to believe, and the exaggerated role that Ernest played in post World War II American culture had a great deal to do with how “Papa” was packaged by the nation's pulp magazines.

This is the fascinating thesis of Professor David M. Earle's recent book, All Man, Hemingway, 1950's Men's Magazine's, and the Masculine Persona (The Kent State University Press, 2009). Reading it, I have to say, answered many of the questions that I've always had about my grandfather and his fame. I knew that Ernest from the 1920's onward was very proactive in molding his image as a sportsman, hunter and connoisseur of wine, women and bulls. He was an ambitious writer, someone who actively sought fame and success. But what Earle does is to show us that not only was Ernest a competent manipulator of the nascent media industry in the US but that he was far from being adverse to publicity, especially from pulp magazines. Ernest started out as a pulp writer, wanted to earn a living writing for them, and while it is true, as most Hemingway aficionados know, that Hemingway submitted many of his short stories to the Saturday Evening Post (all of which were rejected), he was at the same time submitting these pieces to the pulps. Aiming high, but always having a back-up publication for your work, Earle explains, was a common characteristic of pulp writers in the post WWI period.

In Europe, Ernest's writing tackled themes that were decidedly more ambiguous than the stories he'd submitted to the pulp magazines. His portraits of male dysfunctionality and homosexuality such as A Sea Change and A Simple Inquiry are considered some of the best ever written in the English language. Yet, in spite of these works and the view that they provide of my grandfather's complex personality his image as a clear-cut man's man has continued to grow. To a large extent it was his own fault. As Earle shows in All Man, my grandfather “both fought and nurtured his image as a larger-than-life character. In 1930 he made Grosset and Dunlap destroy dust jackets that claimed he had joined the Arditi in the First World War; later he had his editor, Maxwell Perkins, send a letter to correct this information in Paramount studios' press about him for the upcoming A Farewell to Arms. Yet thirty years later these myths were still appearing in interviews and profiles of the author...the image that he put forward in interviews with his quips about meeting international whores and making love until age eighty-five were just as extreme – not so much masculine as a character of hyper-masculine proportions.” In All Man Ernest is just about everywhere in the in the 1950s. Gracing the covers of literally hundreds of magazines, from Focus, which voted him one of the sexiest men in America, to Show, which featured the Hungarian starlet Zsa Zsa Gabor and her list of the ten most “sexciting men” of 1957, Hemingway was hard to ignore. As Zsa Zsa put it “Hemingway's such an outdoor man! So different in every way from women...”.

What was ironic, for me at least, reading the book was to see how Ernest went from being a representative of the Lost Generation and its anti-militarist, anti-conformist themes to someone whose image was used by corporate America to help returning WWII war veterans conform to their roles as suburban husbands and fathers in a conservative, aggressively capitalist nation. Indeed, the alpha-male portrayals of Hemingway filled a cultural need, says Earle, to reaffirm the country's masculinity in an era of “deep-rooted crisis of gender”. Woman had changed during the war, taking on the jobs that their men used to do, and would never again be as submissive as they'd once been. Ernest's past as a wounded veteran and his glamorous lifestyle in Cuba fishing and womanizing could thus be used as a role model and a means of social control. His short stories of WWI soldiers dealing with shell-shock were enormously appealing to a whole new generation of veterans still struggling with their own nightmares, while the sexually ambiguity and relative strength of women in many of his earlier works was conveniently ignored. Ernest certainly hadn't given up writing about male dysfunctionality or his personal search for a more African sexuality “beyond all tribal law” (the Garden of Eden, was written during the 1950s), but he does seem to have understood that he could no longer find a market for the gender bending games of Garden.

Earle's All Man shows us the enormous shadow that Ernest cast over post-war America and at the same time gives us an idea of the intense pressure that he must have experienced living life in the fish bowl of celebrity culture and how this could have only compounded the depression and paranoia that he suffered from in his final years. It is an extremely well-written, and beautifully illustrated book and an important addition to Hemingway scholarship.