If strange things are happening in the academy, perhaps none is stranger than the debate concerning the American literary canon provoked in part by the current reassessment of Ernest Hemingway’s fiction. Recently, for instance, Professor Lawrence Buell of Oberlin College demanded a new non sexist literary criticism that will “foment reorderings in the pre-feminist canon (the demotion of Hemingway, for in stance).” Hemingway demoted? Is Papa now out? So it seems-at least with some professors for whom purity of style, clarity of image, and vividly rendered dramatic action are no longer literary values.
Hemingway’s detractors have two basic objections to his work. The first is that its subject matter is too masculine (warfare, safaris, deep-sea fishing, fighting, drinking, and making the earth move). His portraits of men, they argue, reflect mere sexism and violence. Not long ago, Professor Martin Green attacked Hemingway in The Great Adventure (1985) for writing stories that-in celebrating “such virtues as courage, fortitude, cunning, strength, leadership and persistence”—brainwash young men into serving the ideological purposes of a capitalist, anti-Christian, and anti-democratic society. We’ll never attain Utopia, Green argued, unless we stop glorifying writers like Hemingway.
The second complaint involves Hemingway’s characterization of women. Let us have no fictional women, some of the professors seem to be saying, who are-like Catherine Barkley in A Farewell to Arms or Maria in For Whom the Bell Tolls—tender, loving, and self-sacrificing heroines. (Some of the canon-busters seem more willing to tolerate Hemingway’s Brett Ashley in The Sun Also Rises: she takes her pleasure wherever she finds it and always reserves to herself the freedom to decide whether or not to be a bitch.) The attack on Catherine and Maria reminds us how far we have come from the 19th century, when women (including women writers) respected loving-kindness, even toward men, as a virtue. Today women characters (and novelists of both sexes) with a vision of the redemptive value of self sacrifice are out of fashion-among them Hemingway, whose most positive images of women were based upon this discredited view.
Nevertheless, despite the wide spread dismissal of him as either a warmonger or a misogynist, or both, Hemingway enjoys as high a reputation among serious readers of good fiction (luckily not all of them professors) as he ever has. And, in the 1980’s alone, more than twenty books were published on his life and works—many of them extremely good books (a number of them even by women professors). Feminist orthodoxy or no, Papa appears to hang in there as a major American writer in our time.
Some of the best work done on Hemingway has been that of Michael S. Reynolds, a professor of English at North Carolina State University, who is not about to let Hemingway be drummed out of the literary corps. Reynolds’ Hemingway’s First War: The Making of A Farewell to Arms (1976), Hemingway’s Reading, 1910-1940: A Commentary and Inventory (1981), and his edition of Critical Essays on Ernest Hemingway’s In Our Time (1983) partly prepared him for a large, multivolume biographical project commencing with The Young Hemingway (1986). Now, with Hemingway: The Paris Years (1989), Reynolds covers the story of Hemingway’s life between 1922-1926.
The period in question may seem a short one for such a long book, but these were formative years in the artist’s life. During this period Hemingway settled in Paris with his wife Hadley, had a child, skied, hunted, and fished, went to the bullfights, composed In Our Time (1925) and The Sun Also Rises (1926), met Pauline Pfeiffer, for whom he would soon abandon his family, and began to suffer those ominous bouts of depression that would finally defeat him.
In view of previous biographies by Carlos Baker, Charles Fenton, Kenneth Lynn, A.E. Hotcher, and Jeffrey Meyers, among others, it is worth asking whether Michael Reynolds has anything new to add. In fact, he does: the book is a mine of fresh discoveries drawn from the Hemingway papers as well as from the accumulating letters and diaries of Hemingway’s wives and friends. To his credit, Reynolds avoids the temptation to read the stories as straight autobiography. But more important, he is skeptical of memoirs and retrospective nonfictional accounts of the period like Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast or Harold Loeb’s The Way It Was. Reynolds wisely prefers to stick with contemporaneous documents, which frequently correct the self-serving recollections of the novelist and his friends.
But perhaps the most striking feature of this new biography is its “inside narrative.” Hemingway’s story is told, at least in part, by an indirect method that at times amounts to stream-of consciousness narration. The effect is quite novelistic, for an impression of which one instance of Reynolds’ method will have to suffice. After young Hemingway’s apprentice work had been repeatedly rejected, H.L. Mencken wrote an article saying that publishers were really not inhospitable to new writers. Here is how Reynolds reports Hemingway’s reaction to Mencken’s piece:
If a young writer continually got rejections, Mencken said, then he probably deserved them, and personal contacts would be no help. But if the talent was there, the editors would certainly spot it. Four rejections in six weeks and the great sage from Baltimore tells him that the magazines can spot talent. Well, to hell with Mencken and his American Mercury. They had their chance. Never again did Hemingway submit anything to the Mercury, and he never forgave or forgot Mencken’s rejections.
Reynolds’ practice of moving into and out of Hemingway’s consciousness, based as it is upon this “mind-reading” technique of available documents, makes Hemingway: The Paris Years one of the most creative of the recent lives of the writer. But it is worth remarking that being inside the mind of Hemingway is not always a pleasant experience, since, as Reynolds makes plain, Hemingway had “a mean, bully ing streak that some people brought to the surface without even trying.” Still, Reynolds, though never minimizing his subject’s gargantuan faults, succeeds in making us understand how Hemingway’s apprenticeship was served and how it was to be the troubled man behind the memorable books.
[Hemingway: The Paris Years, by Michael Reynolds (Oxford and Cambridge, Massachusetts: Basil Blackwell) 402 pp., $24.95]