a journal of modern society & culture

Book Review

Erik Grayson

Mary Dearborn, Ernest Hemingway: A Biography (New York: Knopf, 2018)

In the prologue to Ernest Hemingway: A Biography, Mary V. Dearborn recollects “ask[ing]…whether a woman could bring something to the subject that previous biographers had not” (7).

Her question is, at least in part, a response to the looming presence of “the Hemingway legend” in the American imagination, an impression of the man as “the very personification of virility” and a writer whose work lacks “any taint of femininity or aestheticism” (7, 6). As the first woman to undertake a full-length biography of Hemingway, Dearborn is acutely aware that she is “interested in different aspects of Hemingway’s life from the ones that drew his previous (male) biographers” precisely because she has “no investment in the Hemingway legend,” which she argues remains a prominent example of the sort of “social construction of gender” through which “masculinity gets defined” (6-7).

Thus, unburdened by the sense of obligation some biographers have felt to adhere to a near hagiographical presentation of Ernest Hemingway as the paragon of an uncomplicated brand of idealized masculinity characterized by bravery, honor, stoicism, and razor sharp honesty, Dearborn presents the subject of her book as a deeply neurotic man whose greatest fiction may well be the public persona he so painstakingly crafted. As Dearborn sloughs the mantle of hypermasculinity off Hemingway, she draws upon the evolution of gender discourse as well as contemporary developments in psychology and neuroscience to illuminate aspects of Hemingway’s life largely overlooked in previous biographies and, in the process, opens up several promising avenues to future critical inquiry into his fiction.

One of the first aspects of the Hemingway legend that Dearborn dismantles in her book is the author’s much-touted tough guy image. In contrast with the pugilistic strongman so many of us envision when we think of Hemingway, Ernest displays “a lifelong tendency towards androgyny” and a profound “ambivalence about and fascination with gender roles and sexuality” in Dearborn’s chronicle (251). The biographer traces “Ernest’s confusion in these matters” of gender expression “back to his childhood,” when his mother dressed the future author in girls’ clothing (482). From the moment Ernest Miller Hemingway, the eldest son of Ed and Grace (née Hall) Hemingway, was born on July 21, 1899, the boy’s mother sought to raise the child as the twin brother of his elder sister, Marcelline. Because she “wanted the children to feel like twins,” she not only encouraged the children to participate in the same activities, she also “dressed [them] in the same outfits” (22, emphasis Dearborn’s). As a result of Grace’s decision to raise her firstborn children as twins, photographs of the young Ernest Hemingway “show an infant and toddler in dresses, with bonnets and long hair” or “pink gingham frocks with Battenburg lace collars or crocheted bonnets” and “a shoulder-length bob matching his sister’s” (22). 

Dearborn is quick to point out that “many boys were dressed as girls at the turn of the century” due to the “general sentimentalization of childhood, wherein innocence–associated with what was thought to be the gentler, fairer sex–was highly prized,” but she notes that while “after the first year boys were generally taken out of dresses and put into male clothing,” it was “remarkable…how often, after the first year, Marcelline and Ernest alternated between being dressed as girls and as boys” (22). The fact “that Grace had clothed them androgynously well after the children were old enough to know what was going on” even resulted in  a situation in which the future author “was quite fearful before Christmas…that Santa Claus would know he was a boy, because he would wear just the same clothes as his sister” (23).

Both as a complicated element of his personal expression and as a subject of literary exploration, gender fluidity would continue to occupy Hemingway throughout his life. In public, Hemingway cultivated an image of himself as a hard-drinking man’s man; he was a strikingly fearless soldier, a skilled hunter, and a rugged sportsman. In private, however, Ernest could be quite different.”For a gender-ambivalent man born at the turn of the twentieth century,” Dearborn explains, “there was no escape from the binary, male-female notion of gender except through cross-dressing; role-playing, both sexual and otherwise; and/or fetishism” (486).  In each of his four marriages, for example, Hemingway enjoyed erotic play that reveled in reversals of gender roles and embraced a fluidity of gender expression. At the same time, he admired lesbians such as Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas and adopted the “androgynous terminology” with which they peppered their conversations in his own speech (251).

While some previous biographers have seen the author’s abiding interests in androgyny and gender fluidity as reason to speculate on Hemingway’s sexuality, Dearborn takes great pains to resist the temptation to connect dots that may not be present in the author’s life. Although she acknowledges that Hemingway “moved in a setting in which homosexuality was commonplace” and even “seriously considered attaching himself to an older homosexual to further his career” when his wealthy Red Cross captain, Jim Gamble, offered to fund Ernest’s expenses to spend a year together in Europe, Dearborn makes it clear that there simply is no evidence to suggest the author was sexually attracted to men (147).

She does, however, suggest that, for Ernest, his mother’s suspected lesbian relationship with a younger woman as well as his own fondness for lesbians, his androgynous relationship with Marcelline as a child, and his son’s penchant for cross-dressing, among other factors, give scholars sufficient reason to suspect that some of the novelist’s most interesting work may have been forged in a mind in which questions of gender expression burned fiercely. Thus, when Ernest Hemingway’s persistent fascination with gender and androgyny is taken into consideration, the seemingly sudden focus on gender nonconformity in works such as The Garden of Eden may be read as more explicit explorations of a theme that, while muted, may be found throughout his oeuvre, from the mannish Lady Brett Ashley in The Sun Also Rises to Catherine Barkley’s desire to look similar to Frederic Henry in A Farewell to Arms.

Just as Dearborn’s account of Hemingway peels away the author’s singularly macho exterior to reveal an individual with a much more complicated sense of gender than his public persona would indicate, the book also suggests that the author’s outwardly confident disposition was little more than an easily-penetrated and highly brittle carapace wholly inadequate for the task of shielding the insecure and often oversensitive man underneath. Indeed, despite his considerable charm, which always drew admirers into his sphere, Ernest Hemingway was largely unable to maintain lifelong relationships because his insecurities about writing produced a wildly mercurial temperament that would sooner or later alienate many of the people who befriended him.

Owing to an almost pathological inability to accept criticism, for instance, Hemingway developed a habit of excoriating fellow writers whose frequently mild suggestions to improve his work seemed to him unjustified attacks on the very core of his being. In a similar vein, Ernest could not stomach the notion that his success as a writer had, in part, been the result of the early championing of his work by more experienced authors. Indeed, because Hemingway had a “constant need to compare himself to his peers [and] always to his advantage,” he would routinely direct his most vitriolic attacks at those literary friends who had been his mentors, champions, and most generous editors (549). While a handful of Hemingway’s literary friends, most notably John Dos Passos and Ezra Pound, largely avoided the author’s vitriol, others such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, and Sherwood Anderson were blindsided by his fierce and often ad hominem criticism. Later, when younger writers such as Norman Mailer and James Jones began receiving acclaim as chroniclers of World War II, Hemingway “feared he would be viewed as a hoary chronicler of a long-ago strife” rather than as “one of the all-time great war novelists” and launched a series of brutal attacks on a new generation of authors who not only openly admired him but who also acknowledged his influence (549).

Of course, Hemingway’s occasionally vindictive criticism of fellow writers has become part of the Hemingway legend, too, as a sort of verbal manifestation of the author’s celebrated ferocity. Where Dearborn’s biography distinguishes itself is in its attempt to contextualize such behavior. While previous chroniclers have discussed the “[m]ental illness cours[ing] through the Hemingway family,” much of that attention has focused on the depression, suicidal ideation, and alcoholism that likely contributed to the suicides of Ernest’s father, two of his siblings, Hemingway himself, and his granddaughter (626). While she does not go so far as to attempt a retroactive diagnosis, Dearborn posits that much of Hemingway’s behavior throughout his life is consistent with bipolar disorder. Thus, while many previous biographies examine the melancholy Hemingway dealt with, Dearborn turns her attention to the possibility that the other pole, mania, may have been a major factor in the author’s life, though the evidence is fairly thin at times. For instance, “his characteristic quickness, high self-regard, and sheer exuberance,” Dearborn suggests, “all might be seen as responsible for…his great productivity and, in a different aspect, even his charisma (519). During his remarkably productive period of the early 1920s, for instance, “Ernest showed a certain amount of…manic behavior” including “excessive energy and grandiosity, racing thoughts, and self-destructive tendencies,” which may be seen both as the engine powering his prodigious literary output as well as the source of the “irritability or hair-trigger temper” that resulted in his scathing attacks on the likes of Sherwood Anderson and Marianne Moore (171-172).

Despite his hypersensitivity to criticism, his tendency to lash out at those writers he considered competition, and an unfortunate habit of alienating his friends during such periods, Hemingway generally managed to ride out his manic episodes without much damage to his literary career. Towards the end of his life, however, Hemingway’s manic episodes intensified to the point of delusion. Whereas the author had long been known to “be a bit cavalier with facts, especially when they were not flattering to himself,” he eventually evolved into an outright fabulist who would deliver rambling accounts of outrageous events to anyone who would listen (462). As the author grew older, and especially after the publication of The Old Man and the Sea in 1951, Hemingway’s prose, which had influenced a generation of writers to favor taut sentences and precise wording, loosened to the point of sloppiness, where “verbosity and insufficiently modulated detail” frustrated readers (572). Many previous biographers attribute these developments to the author’s worsening alcoholism, which has become a common explanation among Hemingway’s scholars. Dearborn, however, proposes a more nuanced explanation, namely that the author’s mental illness was greatly exacerbated not only by alcohol but by the same sort of chronic traumatic brain injury that one sees among former boxers and gridiron football players.

Over the course of his life, Ernest Hemingway suffered at least five serious concussions. While he appears to have recovered from his first concussion, the result of of a mortar shell exploding with the force of “a furnace door blasting open” a few feet away from him while serving with the Red Cross in Italy during World War I, a succession of traumatic brain injuries later in Hemingway’s life appear to have contributed to the ultimately fatal escalation of his mental illness (59). Months after Hemingway incurred a suspected subdural hematoma after a 1945 car accident in London in which the author’s head hit the windshield, he was involved in a motorcycle crash that resulted in a third severe brain injury. Five years later, Hemingway suffered another concussion when he fell on the deck of his boat. Three years after that fall, Hemingway suffered what most biographers consider to be the worst injury on his life. On January 24, 1954, while touring Africa, Hemingway treated his wife to a plane trip into Uganda. In an effort to secure a good angle for photography, the pilot flew into a flock of ibis and was forced to crash land. The next day, the trio found another bush pilot who agreed to fly them back to Entebbe. When they tried to land, the plane’s engine burst into flames, trapping Hemingway and the other passengers. When Hemingway found he “was unable to kick [the plane’s door] open, [he] butted it open with his own head” (563).

While the author had been suffering from chronic headaches, irritability, sexual impotence, and other common symptoms of traumatic brain injury ever since the car crash in London, it was the African crash landings that affected him the most. In the years following the crashes, he would experience memory lapses, an inability to find the right words to express his thoughts, paranoia, double vision, extreme confusion, and greatly intensified periods of depression and mania. Combined with the cumulative effects of lifelong alcoholism, Hemingway’s head injuries appear to have contributed to the almost total absence of “[d]iscresion and inhibitions” in the final half decade of the author’s life (564). While stopping short of another impossible retroactive diagnosis, Dearborn strongly suggests that Hemingway’s repeated brain injuries resulted in symptoms that are consistent with chronic traumatic encepholopathy, the degenerative disease associated with the depression, dementia, irrationality, memory loss, and even violence found in many retired NFL players (583). Thus, when Hemingway committed suicide on July 2, 1961, Dearborn observes that “it seemed inevitable” given the severity of his ongoing mental disintegration (615).

While nearly any biography of a great person can, in a certain sense, be read as a tragedy, the life of Ernest Hemingway feels almost archetypically so. There’s something Aristotelian in his rise and fall. The same manic energy and braggadocio that fueled his ascent to the peak of literary renown also scripted his demise. What Dearborn does so well in Ernest Hemingway: A Life is look beyond the myth of the man into his psyche. What emerges, though presented in an unsparing and dispassionate fashion, is a sympathetic portrait of a man at once supremely confident and astonishingly insecure, whose manic drive to suck the last ounce of marrow out of life enabled him to craft timeless fictions from his experiences while also pushing him to pursue dangerous and self-destructive activities. We could not have the titan of American literature, it seems, without the reckless bon vivant. A man of extremes as well as nuance, Dearborn’s Hemingway is far more complex a figure than the Hemingway legend would have us believe. In deconstructing the legend, Dearborn introduces us to the man and we are the richer for it.

Work Cited

Dearborn, Mary V. Ernest Hemingway: A Life. New York: Vintage, 2017.

Erik Grayson is Associate Professor of English at Northampton Community College.