The Legend of Ernest Hemingway
A revival of interest in the author is all about his macho personality, not his literary prowess
For a guy who has been dead for 50 years, Ernest Hemingway is thriving.
The writer, who committed suicide at age 61 by shooting himself with a hunting rifle at his home in Ketchum, Idaho, on July 2, 1961, is suddenly back in vogue, and not just on dusty bookshelves.
Hemingway & Gellhorn, a made-for-HBO movie directed by Philip Kaufman (The Right Stuff, The Unbearable Lightness of Being), had its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival last month, with stars Clive Owen and Nicole Kidman walking the red carpet. The story of the tempestuous romance and marriage of the macho novelist and war correspondent Martha Gellhorn (1908-1998), the film is airing on HBO and is available on the pay cable channel’s On Demand service.
Told from Gellhorn’s point of view, H&G is pulpy fun, a gossipy hunk of literary history with a slice of politics and war on the side, plus several steamy sex scenes. The couple meets in 1936 in Key West, Fla., and begin an affair in Spain during the Spanish Civil War. Soon they're writing, drinking, arguing and loving around the globe, from China and Cuba to New York and London.
The famous author depicted in Hemingway & Gellhorn is a loud, hard-drinking, often loutish brawler. He's also a disciplined writer who doggedly bangs out page after page while standing at his manual typewriter, no matter whether bombs are pounding all around him or his own head is pounding from a hangover. When Gellhorn walks away — they divorced in 1945 after five years of marriage — it’s because two writers in the family are clearly one too many for the fiercely competitive “Papa.” Over the course of their relationship, she's a writer coming into her own even as her celebrated mate is sinking into self-parody.
The HBO opus is just the latest chapter in a Hemingway revival. He turned up last year, more amusingly, in Woody Allen’s popular comedy, Midnight in Paris. There, a twentysomething Hemingway (slyly played by Corey Stoll), offered tough-guy advice in short, blunt prose worthy of first prize in the once annual Bad Hemingway competition.
The terse author is also back on the best-seller list — in a novel about him, not by him. More than a year after publication, Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife, a fictionalized retelling of Hemingway’s marriage to his first wife, Hadley, ranks No. 26 on the New York Times hardcover list. The book depicts the fledgling writer as charming, self-confident, moody, selfish and brutally unfaithful.
Evident in all of these recent portrayals is that time has rendered Hemingway almost buffoonish. He is no longer regarded in popular culture with the reverence once accorded him. Hemingway as a red-blooded caricature, it seems, now resonates more strongly than his actual work. What other dead writer has such a strong public persona that there's an entire furniture line named after him?
Maybe that’s because what once seemed fresh and true (to use two of his favorite words) in Hemingway's prose now comes across as mannered and affected. His range of interests — war, drinking and bullfighting — seem like those of a man who had a great deal to prove. The Nick Adams short stories are still worth reading, as are the novels — if you’re young (A Moveable Feast is a must for a first visit to Paris). The rest? Well, not so much.
Ironically, the opposite is true of Hemingway’s great literary peer and frenemy, F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940). The pull of Fitzgerald’s pages remains strong even as the memory of his escapades with wife Zelda, including a drunken splash in the fountain at the Plaza Hotel, fade from mention and memory. While Fitzgerald (played by English actor Tom Hiddleston) also turned up in Midnight in Paris, he barely registered.
It’s telling that the attention being paid to Fitzgerald these days is more about the work than the man. His most enduring novel, The Great Gatsby (first published in 1925), was the inspiration for two recent sold-out runs of Gatz, a six-hour, off-Broadway adaptation that recited every single word in the book. And a fourth Hollywood movie version of Gatsby is due on Christmas Day — this one in 3-D, starring Leonardo DiCaprio in the title role and directed by Baz Luhrman (Moulin Rouge and Australia).
Fitzgerald, like Hemingway, managed to capture the imagination of his generation. But only Papa has taken on a new life that has little to do with his literature and everything to do with an outsized personality that has grown well beyond his pages. It's as if Hemingway has, in the end, become his own most famous creation rather than any of those that came from his pen. He lived a life even more adventurous, filled with highs and lows, and morally complex than any of his fictional doppelgangers, which is why over time the man himself has come to overshadow the work.