Ernest Hemingway: A New Life, by James M. Hutchisson (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press; 320 pp., $37.95). As readers and critics had learned everything that is important to know about Hemingway and his work decades ago, subsequent books about the novelist have concentrated on viewing and re-viewing him from various angles. Hutchisson admits that while Hemingway may not have been the greatest American writer, or even the author of the greatest American novel, he remains nevertheless “the American writer.”
Whatever sort of assessment this is, it is not a literary one. Hemingway wrote one immortal novel (The Sun Also Rises), a book of first-rate short stories (In Our Time) and many other excellent or good stories, one fine novella (The Old Man and the Sea), and one fine but underrated work of narrative nonfiction (Green Hills of Africa). The rest of his work was either mediocre (e.g., For Whom the Bell Tolls), weak (Across the River and Into the Trees), or embarrassing (To Have and Have Not), thus providing the basis for Harold Bloom’s judgment that he was a minor novelist with a major style. Since both Hemingway’s art and his persona are widely regarded today as either artistically dated or politically offensive, or both, and his books mostly neglected by academia—the only part of society where some people still read classical literature, however badly—just who is interested in more books about Hemingway these days is a puzzle.
Nevertheless, the books keep coming for now, a good thing of course, though no longer a necessary one. Hutchisson’s book, well and interestingly written for the most part, inevitably rehashes a great deal of material that has been known about his subject, it seems, forever. The value of his “New Life” is that it is chiefly an explanatory one that seeks unapologetically to defend Hemingway against recent biographers who have emphasized his many and considerable personal faults and his frequently abominable actions and behavior, and in this the biographer is successful. Ernest Hemingway, from early manhood, led a progressively self-destructive life that damaged or destroyed many other people and ended, unsurprisingly, in outright suicide. Hutchisson is extremely good at describing the demons that rode him and the suffering they caused him, and he strikes an admirable balance between excuse and generous empathy that culminates in his treatment of Hemingway’s final desperate act early on the morning of July 2, 1961. Hutchisson’s account of the events of the previous year or two shows beyond doubt that Hemingway, owing to emotional depression, alcoholism, his various physical illnesses, and the conflicting medications he was given to treat them, was not mentally competent and so morally responsible, when he pulled the triggers on his W. & C. Scott & Son Monte Carlo B shotgun, as by then there was virtually nothing left of the poor man. Of all previous biographies of Ernest Hemingway, Hutchisson’s is by far the saddest.
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