By Michael Atkinson
Authors’ biographies have traditionally delivered varying ratios of worship and destruction—the first quantity an organic by-product of book-love, the second an equally natural result of exposing life details that the subject in question, or anyone, would have preferred to have kept secret. But today, the scales seem to be tipping toward open combat. At their most bewitching, biographies can still rescue the history of obscure figures, uncover revelatory truths about the famous, provide startling new insight to finger-worn life stories, and tell a thumping good true tale of a span on Earth we can vicariously enjoy, for reasons of our own. Often, however, recent acts of biography can fall onto the grave of the unwitting subject like a spitefully-dumped load of trash.
We can all chalk up instances, and reviewers do so almost every week, of biographies written as acts of vengeance or exploitation or unexplained hostility, often and at least, it would seem, in countrapuntal response to what is seen as a writer’s or artist’s received public image. The drill is tiresomely familiar: the excavation of hidden sexual proclivities, the extrapolation of psychological interpretations, the whitewashing of the unjustly condemned, the condemnation of the unjustly whitewashed…. Biographers need to sell books, too, we know, and if you can suggest a heretofore unsuspected Amy Winehouse-ish trace of social-sexual mayhem in the pleats of, hypothetically, Emily Bronte’s garniture, more is the rock and roll, and the odds of a New York Times Book Review Page One.
You cannot hurt the dead, really. But you can kneecap the intent and trust of the biographer’s pact with the reader. This is a relativist take—I am not a biographer, and my sympathies usually lie with the biographied, who are (usually) not in a position to write a letter to the editor or show up on a doorstep and pop the biographer off his or her feet with a fist to the chin. The biographer-subject confrontation has never been a fair fight, and it can be discomfiting to consider how coldbloodedly we as readers consume the ‘lives’ of the dead, who absolutely must suffer the underwear-drawer snooping with dignity and silence. Still, any contemporary writer might easily imagine wanting to kill their potential future biographers in their cradles, before they grow up and labour to detail our shortcomings, rudenesses, and fetishes in print, and then contrive to have all of that illuminate whatever writing we left behind. Although these days many writers hanker for self-exposure and flaunt their tragedies, I still think we would all think twice before desiring to have someone else narrativise, say, our attraction to certain types of porn, or our instances of outright personal betrayal, or, perhaps especially, our craven efforts to attract attention through our shortcomings.
This rat’s nest of ethical concerns has arisen for me recently in a testily practical way. A while back, I had begun a series of mystery novels in which Ernest Hemingway is pressed into unlikely service as an amateur sleuth, largely due to his often pickled sense of personal justice. My research at first was light—do not we already know too much about this guy?—but soon enough, I began buckling down with The Facts, so I would not at least make unwitting errors with the historical record. The Facts were not terribly hard to come by, since almost every moment of the man’s life on Earth seems to be accounted for in print; I was able to find a fallow swatch of time in 1956 when Hemingway appears to have been doing nothing in particular, and so that is when the first book is set. (Book #2 entails more history, but takes more liberties, in 1937 during Hemingway’s time in Spain.)
It is a project about mortality, writing, and speculative moral compunction, but at the very least, I want the books to exude a knowing sense of barroom fun. I think Hemingway deserves as much. I was surprised to find that not everyone felt this way. My chow-down on the Hemingway bio-legacy revealed that the poor schmuck, by general vote the most important English prose stylist of the 20th century, and arguably the greatest short story writer in any language in the same period, has undergone a kind of pervasive personality demolition in recent years. Everywhere I looked, Hemingway took hits in the neck, belly, and groin. In the books published since the Reagan era, he is predominantly a compulsive liar, a womanising turd, a wifebeater, a pathetic alcoholic, a reprehensible bully, an amoral opportunist, and quite probably bipolar to boot. I half-expected to find conjecture that he was a paedophile and a cheater at cards as well. In the words of Morris Freedman, lamenting the Hemingway dress-down in the Virginia Quarterly Review, ‘the centennial of his birth, 1999, loosed a torrent of disparagement plunging from grudging, carping concession of his merit, to venomous insult and debasement’.
The books can still amaze. Charles Whiting’s Hemingway Goes to War (1999), for instance, begins in a sardonic pitch and never lets up. ‘Hypochrondriac and almost pathological liar that he was…’; ‘unpatriotic’; ‘suffering from a severe sexual disability’; ‘a prematurely aged and sick 44-year-old’; guilty of ‘latent anti-semitism’ and of being a scumbag: ‘For him the war was to be exploited, in the same way that a greedy gold-miner might hack away, secretly and jealously, at a newly discovered rich seam of ore.’ Whiting even quotes an obscure English aristocrat who claimed that ‘he struck me as androgynous!… Distinctly emasculated!’ The author was a prolific British military historian, and finds himself morally capable of condemning Hemingway for his use of profanity, his supposedly dishonest depiction—in fiction!—of how British officers spoke (‘This was a gentleman’s war,’ Whiting hilariously maintains), ‘Anglophobia,’ and so on.
Although Carlos Baker’s Hemingway: A Life Story (1969) dallied mightily on Hemingway’s unsavoury behavior, the onslaught may have begun in earnest with Jeffrey Meyers’ Hemingway: A Life (1985), which psychoanalysed Hemingway into a sorry, squawling, malevolent infant. Kenneth Lynn’s Hemingway (1987) and Mark Spilka’s Hemingway’s Quarrel with Androgyny (1995) spear-headed the movement toward defining Hemingway as a frustrated transgender Oedipus. There has been a one-man, off-Broadway show, performed by Len Cariou in 1996, that dramatised Hemingway’s most drink-sodden and vicious tendencies. And even editor Matthew Bruccoli, in the introduction to Hemingway and the Mechanism of Fame (2005), a miscellany of Hemingway-authored ad copy, reviews, blurbs, prefaces and the like, rips him up as a self-serving megalomaniac.
Quite possibly the most curiously rabid biographer is Stephen Koch, whose book The Breaking Point: Hemingway, Dos Passos and the Murder of Jose Robles (2005) surveys the mid-1930s for Hemingway, when he had gone to Spain as a journalist reporting on the civil war. Taking Dos Passos’ and Martha Gelhorn’s grumpy autumnal memoirs as law is one thing, and so is acknowledging Hemingway’s bulldozer behaviour as his fame was gaining steam. But, for quite another thing, catch Koch’s judgmental tone:
‘[H]is physical uncleanliness was stomach-churning. Beneath his charm was a mile-wide mean streak. He was arrogant to an insufferable degree.’ ‘Hemingway was a blamer. In his last years, this character fault became psychosis: he became clinically paranoid.’ ‘In reality, that “good life” was always contaminated by the sadistic self-loathing that lurked coiled inside his psyche lifelong.’ ‘Causing agony, the man lived in agony. Lord Lazarus did his comeback really well.’ In painting a scene where Hemingway somehow supposedly “humiliates” John Dos Passos with the news that his friend Jose Robles has been reported dead, Koch declares that Hemingway ‘looked almost too cheerful. He was beaming’. In a photograph, ‘[t]he man looks almost sick with hatred. He is slouching, joyless, and defiant… This man is ready to strike. He is ready to inflict pain.’
For a man who simply wrote books, drank booze, and divorced wives, this is a little rich. Koch believes everything in Dos Passos’ fictionalised memoir Century’s Ebb, and sympathises with Pauline Pfeiffer, Hemingway wife #2, but finds devious lies, when it suits his position, in almost everything written or said by Hemingway, Martha Gellhorn, Joris Ivens, and journalist Josephine Herbst. (Gellhorn maintained for over 60 years, until her death at 90, that she was shipped to Spain in 1937 without Hemingway’s assistance or funds, but Koch says she perjured through her teeth.) Koch goes so far as to boldface bits of Hemingway’s invective to make them leap off the page. Koch is perfectly free to write as hyperbolically as he likes about people he has never met and events for which he was not present. But what did Hemingway ever do to him?
What seems to be at work on the surface layer of this trend is a strange kind of historical moral absolutism. Hemingway as a semi-mythified figure has come to inspire unfettered malice, from many corners, including the supposedly rigorous systems of academia. You could say this has arrived as an opposite and equal reaction to the cataracts of deification Hemingway has enjoyed, for years before and after his date with that boss double barrel. He has not been, not since the 1940s, a mere writer and man, but a preposterous piece of Americana, a living riposte to a 20th century that seemed to otherwise deplete opportunities for masculine privilege and duty as the years of industrialisation, commercialisation, domestication, and entertainment-media saturation rolled on.
To be sure, Hemingway himself bridled against the depletions mentioned above, in almost every aspect of his life from adolescence on, and he also did what he could, between tipples and sentences, to foster the idea of himself, sometimes conscientiously, sometimes not so much, as a man’s man trapped in a small-boned world. But chalking up a pervasive cultural perspective like this as merely Newtonian ignores a lot of runoff and context. There is little point, given the tenor of the discussion, to mention that Hemingway was also a documented generous gift-giver and a devoted friend to scores of memoir-writers; that he had the moral compunction to not just go to Madrid for the war in 1937, but to spend months beforehand raising money to buy ambulances to help the Republican cause, and once he was in country to help the struggling government in any number of public-relations ways. You read him, even his NANA dispatches from Spain, and you hear the voice of sympathy in your ears.
But he was not well-behaved, and that is all his recent biographers have needed to know. It would appear, for one thing, that the moralism flexing its muscles all over this particular life story is a form of political correctness, which in the broadest sense, certainly has its proper role in balancing out centuries of white-straight-male oppression. But it is an assimilated factor in our lives by now—you no longer have to be B Ruby Rich or Henry Louis Gates to score tenure points by publishing ‘research’ about the oppressive social codes and historical venalities of white male power. Nor do you have to be a ‘person of colour’, or a woman, or gay to fathom their impact, or to get the analysis. Hemingway would seem to be the perfect target, a big sleepy bull standing in the crosshairs of critical theory—a privileged white man who conscientiously epitomised the spirits of male supremacy and far-flung colonialism.
Whoever writes it, the new critical approach in the post-structuralist wake is not merely about explicating: it is political, and therefore it is about assigning blame, righting perceived wrongs. Applying psychological methods to a biography is an unarguable method, but since when do biographers feel the need to condemn their subjects for what is uncovered, acting more like Puritan schoolmarms than psychologists or scholars? You could see the anti-Hemingway rage as part of a culture-wide phenomenon, a paradigm shift that is as interpersonal as it is political. For an adult, the shift may have come as a surprise: suddenly, we as a culture are intolerant of selfish misbehavior. Politeness and civility among adults have been legislated to the extent that the contemporary workplace has the enforced-kindness norm structure of a kindergarten classroom.
Almost any incivility can be prosecuted as ‘harassment’, regardless of the gender or race of those involved, so long as there is a difference between them of some kind—and so the incivility takes on a political character, and is therefore outlawed. A Georgetown Law Journal article argues that under current statues, a persecutable ‘hostile work environment’ can be caused by such things as ‘political statements, religious proselytizing, legitimate art (such as prints of Francisco de Goya paintings), sexually-themed jokes (perhaps not even misogynistic), and other kinds of speech that are generally seen as being entirely constitutionally protected’. Uttering racial epithets in public can get you arrested; if such a word is uttered during a crime, a misdemeanor could turn into a felony and you could spend years in prison. ‘Offending’ someone is now a budding form of criminality. Whether you look at business, contemporary parenting, full-frontal media (pundits and talk radio blowhards have gotten craftier and more ubiquitous, but the language that, say, Bob Grant used to enjoy, would get them all fired in a heartbeat, and on occasion has), school regulations or the law, compulsory mild manners are the public rule.
By pointing this out, I am not advocating racist cant or bullying or rudeness, but I am not altogether comfortable outlawing them either, nor am I convinced that the culture is made healthier or happier by the slouch toward thought-crime and word-crime. It amounts, in many instances, to criminalising petulance and grouchiness and causticity. This is part of what the late George Carlin called ‘the pussification of America’, but it is not a local phenomenon; the industrialised world is quickly catching up to us with legislation and evolving norms, with Germany somewhat understandably leading the pack, imprisoning writers Soviet-style for revisionist-historical hallucinations. Here, though, the prospect of a writer or politician or public figure doing as they like regardless of how ‘respectful’ or decent it is, and being accepted for the nasty, uncaring, runaway-train bastard that they are, is close to nonexistent. The internet has become the last refuge for scalawags and china-shop bulls, because it is lawless and detached, and it can be anonymous; it is also a poor substitute for reckless individualism, and a piddling expression of a society’s more misanthropic nether edges. The days of tolerance for what has become known online, perhaps in mourning, as the Bad Motherfucker, are long gone.
But if Hemingway should be allowed to be an impolite egomaniac, why cannot his biographers? I do not care if they are, frankly; all I care about is that the project of biography be executed with a semblance of decency and history, and objective fairness. Do not do your subject dishonour. Being a Bad Motherfucker is one thing, impacting those immediately around you and that is all. Using biography, in relation to someone you have never met, as a mode of personal prosecution is another. Am I alone in thinking that insulting someone in a bar or starting a fistfight are minor and momentary infractions in comparison to publishing an entire book attacking a perfect stranger? Generally, I have always liked the Bad Motherfuckers, and am sorry to see them go. In the world we live in today, the legacy of someone like Ernest Hemingway does not stand much of a chance; he is still the epitome of masculine egotism, with a timeline littered with bitter witnesses, whimsical brawls, willful crusades of self-destruction. He does not appear to have been someone you would want teaching feminist literature to undergrads, or supervising our children on the playground, or training young secretaries at an advertising agency, and so therefore he is deserving, apparently, of our general animus.
As counterpoint, you look at the new and widely reviewed biography of VS Naipaul, The World Is What It Is by Patrick French, which is something of a prototype of serene even-handedness over recounting the life, mistakes, achievements, and fuckups of another man. Dealing with a living author, who authorised the book, but apparently did not interface with its production at all, French was confronted with what might potentially be the most overwhelming amount of nasty shit ever left in the wake of a 20th-century writer: wife-beating, subjugation, rampant infidelities, public humiliations, unashamed rascist pronouncements, etc. And yet, though he presented it all in daunting detail, French refrains from forming an ethical ajudication about Naipaul. We are expected to decide what we think on our own; more to the point, we are allowed to also suspend judgment, knowing as any awake biography reader must that we are only getting slivers and facets of a life story, and that we should not decide we know Naipaul by book’s end. (Most of the man’s associates and female companions claim not to grasp the man, either.)
Truly, thinking you have acquired enough information about a dead person you have never met to write an entire and ‘accurate’ book about them is galling enough, objectively speaking. But to judge them, too? It is as if the anti-Hemingway contingent had never read him, or, at least, had not understood and taken to heart his sense of the world, which bleeds with sympathy and wonders at the mystery of our fellow man, which feels the ache of vanishing dignity between the words and hears the tragic echo in the distance between people. This, the throb of unspoken feeling woven into Hemingway’s sentences, the aura of loss, is why this conversation rolls on still (new Hemingway movies are rolling, a new musical has appeared in London, and a novel about Hadley fetched a cool half million at an auction)—not because the man had a barrel-chest, photographed well, and often made a publicity-whore of himself. Yet, this essential ‘lesson’ of Hemingway—the breath-caught and elusive love we feel for the average man, woman, or child after reading him, the lack of judgment—is exactly what seems to have slipped the noose.
Reviewing the Meyers biography in The New York Times back in 1985, Raymond Carver focuses, as well he might, on the sorcerous experience of Hemingway’s prose style, not on its import. But he sums up the conflict perfectly:
‘The only possible antidote for how you feel about Hemingway after finishing this book is to go back at once and reread the fiction itself. How clear, serene and solid the best work still seems; it’s as if there were a physical communion taking place among the fingers turning the page, the eyes taking in the words, the brain imaginatively re-creating what the words stand for and, as Hemingway put it, ‘making it a part of your own experience’. Hemingway did his work, and he’ll last. Any biographer who gives him less than this, granting the chaos of his public and personal life, might just as well write the biography of an anonymous grocer or a woolly mammoth.’
One thing is a given—Hemingway was no paradigm of machismo or hard-drinking writerdom or struggling artiste-hood or literary celebrity, or anything at all. I know this, because I am an adult with scars, children, fuckups, dreams, and bitternesses of my own. I know that he was no paradigm, but just a man who wrote (the fact that we are still rewarded by reading him does not make him more than that), a man who disappointed wives, a man lucky and unlucky enough to attract attention and become famous to a great many people he never knew. He was selfish and generous, he had savvy moments and dull ones, he gave gifts and started fights, and either embraced or ignored each day’s weather.
That is all he was, or, truly, that is all we know for sure. Anything else is spittle. You grow up and write to be read—the least you can do is respect the man, just as you would respect a living writer, or an non-famous or sober or polite one, or your neighbour, or the anonymous grocer, or your reader, or yourself.
Written under a Creative Commons License, with edits: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/1.0/