There was a photograph the other day of a Hemingway lookalike competition in Key West, Florida. Bizarre? Perhaps not. It’s 50 years since he put the barrel of a shotgun in his mouth and blew his head off, but he remains the most famous and widely recognised American writer of the 20th century, indeed of all time. Sadly, however, the lookalikes all take after the bearded bust-up Papa of his last miserable years, not the handsome young author of the great short stories where every word does its work and there are never too many of them. That Hemingway created an American type — lean, rangy, debonair — last example, Gregory Peck as the journalist in Roman Holiday.

There was a photograph the other day of a Hemingway lookalike competition in Key West, Florida. Bizarre? Perhaps not. It’s 50 years since he put the barrel of a shotgun in his mouth and blew his head off, but he remains the most famous and widely recognised American writer of the 20th century, indeed of all time. Sadly, however, the lookalikes all take after the bearded bust-up Papa of his last miserable years, not the handsome young author of the great short stories where every word does its work and there are never too many of them. That Hemingway created an American type — lean, rangy, debonair — last example, Gregory Peck as the journalist in Roman Holiday.

Papa on the other hand is a sad case, was a sad case well before they took him off to the Mayo Clinic and gave him the electric shock treatment which finally scrambled his brains. It’s impossible to read accounts of his last years without feeling miserable. The man who knew the virtue of leaving things out now went on and on repetitively in The Dangerous Summer. Garrulity replaced the laconic, and his own conversation was littered with weary catchphrases — ‘how do you like it now, gentlemen?’ He couldn’t finish his books and of those which have been published posthumously, after much editing, only A Moveable Feast and The Garden of Eden stand up. His biography is a true American tragedy.

What went wrong? Alcohol evidently was one cause of the decline, and was impairing his ability to work long before it finally induced paranoia. Of course the succession of blows to the head that he suffered contributed, but so much of the work is pickled in booze, and by the end of the second world war he was sounding like a bar-room bore, full of wild boasts and fantasies. All novelists admittedly are liars, but alcoholic writers lie about more than their ability to hold the stuff. Across the River and into the Trees, a novel panned by most critics when it was published in 1949, is full of drink. Try matching the Colonel’s consumption and you’ll be lucky to reach the afternoon. Drunkenness gives one marvellous moments, even hours, but destroys the ability to distinguish between objective reality and what goes on in your head. Novelists need that ability.

It may be that he was mixed-up from the start, and it took courage and a powerful will to create the smiling masculine persona he presented to the world. When he was a small boy, his mother, whom he came to detest, used to dress him as a girl. He determined not to be a sissy, but there was always a suppressed girly side to his nature. Zelda Fitzgerald wasn’t alone in thinking that the hair on his chest was a toupée, though she expressed the suspicion better than anyone else. He knew this side was there, and had the courage to explore it in The Garden of Eden, one reason why that book fascinates. But he could never get it right, which is why the slim novel we have was culled by editors from a mass of material. It was one of the manuscripts he shut away in a bank vault, and I would guess that he was afflicted by timidity: the novel was too close to himself, in its portrayal of sexual ambiguity, and he was alarmed to discover how he had let his guard drop. Yet bits of it are as good as anything he had written since his youth.

Inline sub2


Artistic failure may be a consequence of personal failure, but the reverse is equally true. Hemingway’s disintegration may have been the result of going the wrong way in his work. From the start he distrusted the big words, but the public persona he had cultivated and the demands of his critical public were always pushing him to write the big novel. He wasn’t equipped for this. His great and original talent was for revealing states of mind and feeling through dialogue and brief descriptive sentences. He was really a miniaturist, which is why the short stories, where no room is left for development, are so good; why there are wonderful scenes in all the novels — think of the duck-shooting on the Venetian lagoon in the first chapter of Across the River, sheer magic; but it is also why in the big novels, A Farewell to Arms and especially For Whom the Bell Tolls, there is a straining for effect and an element of fake. Indeed the most satisfying of the completed novels, Fiesta and To Have and Have Not are really loosely-linked short stories. Early in The Garden of Eden, there is a brief exchange:

‘What were you thinking?’ the girl said.

‘Nothing.’

‘You have to think of something.’

‘I was just feeling.’

‘How?’

‘Happy.’

When he writes like this he is at ease, and makes the reader feel happy too. This itself is a rare gift.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Life & Letters