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Struggling for Sanctity

Frank Freeman

The Hemingway Log: A Chronology of His Life and Times, by Brewster Chamberlin, University Press of Kansas, 398 pp., $39.95, ISBN 978-0700620678

Anyone who has read about him cannot fail to have been struck by the difference between the young idealistic Hemingway and the older tragic one. The young writer and newlywed journalist in Paris who writes short stories when he can, over the years becomes the callow brutal alcoholic professional writer who keeps writing despite the wreckage of his life, which includes wives, children, and friends. This older writer tells George Plimpton, editor of The Paris Review, that every writer needs a “shockproof shit detector”; he proves he has one by publishing only one novel (a novella, really) ‑ The Old Man and the Sea ‑ after the vicious critical reviews of Across the River and Into the Trees, a terrible novel after its first beautiful pages, which deserved the severe criticism but not the viciousness. Proves it because of the thousands of pages he has written that he tucks away in safety deposit boxes and that his heirs allow to be published in deeply edited forms.

What happened? Was it simply a case of Hemingway choosing to perfect the art and not the life, as Yeats counselled?

Paul Hendrickson writes in Hemingway’s Boat (2011) the best and most balanced book on him, that it wasn’t as simple as that. In his prologue Hendrickson writes of how after all his enormous research on Hemingway he has come to a perhaps controversial conclusion:

I have come to believe deeply that Ernest Hemingway however unpostmodern it may sound, was on a lifelong quest for sainthood, and not just literary sainthood, and that at nearly every turn, he defeated himself. How? “By betrayals of himself, and what he believed in,” as the dying writer, with the gangrene going up his legs, says so bitterly in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” one of Hemingway's greatest short stories. Why the self-defeating betrayal of high humanistic aspirations? The seductions of celebrity and the sin of pridefulness and the curses of megalomania and the wastings of booze and, not least, the onslaughts of bipolarism must amount to a large part of the answer. Hemingway once said in a letter to his closest friend in the last two decades of his life, General Buck Lanham, who he had come to know on the battlefield as a correspondent in World War II: “I have always had the illusion it was more important, or as important to be a good man as to be a great writer. May turn out to be neither. But would like to be both.

Hendrickson proves his thesis by structuring his biography-meditation around Hemingway’s boat, Pilar, and emphasising the good Hemingway did and strove for, and sometimes only wanted to strive for. He does so by not himself striving to, as Nelson Algren wrote, “get his [Hemingway's] number”, as Algren thought so many who detested Hemingway felt it was “absolutely essential” to do.

In the “Acknowledgments” section of his book, Hendrickson includes the following about a man whose work helped him greatly (although he precedes this paragraph with one about how he learned more from “female Hemingway scholars” than their male counterparts):

Brewster Chamberlin, to whom I made reference in a footnote. He and his wife, Lynn-Marie, live and work in Key West. Once we lived unaware of each other on the same block on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. We found each other through our separate (then informally joined) research on Hemingway. For the last half-dozen years, Brewster has been compiling and wonderfully annotating and continuously updating what amounts to almost a daybook calendar of Hemingway's life. No other previous Hemingway chronology comes close to what is now well over 150,000 words of manuscript—and cries out for publication by a major publisher.

I don’t know if the University Press of Kansas is major enough for Hendrickson but it has published Brewster Chamberlin’s book, The Hemingway Log: A Chronology of His Life and Times and it lives up to what Hendrickson writes about it. It tells the same story as all the biographies but in a bare bones sort of way with dates and facts stated often in a wry and dry manner, often including historical facts tangentially related to Hemingway. It’s as if you are given the pieces of a story but it is up to you, the reader, to tell your own version of it given the information provided. I mentioned earlier how Hemingway betrayed friends, wives, and children; what I would like to do here is tell a story about one friend and one child in Hemingway’s life using Chamberlin's book, to give a taste of what it is like to read this book and to, I hope, gain some insight into Hemingway’s life.

First, the friend: Mike Strater first appears three years before Ernest Hemingway in this book; he appears on page 8 under the heading 1896: “Henry (“Mike”) Strater, painter, boxer, and fisherman who will be for a while a good friend of EH’s, is born in Louisville, Kentucky.” Hemingway himself comes along in 1899, the same year as Hart Crane.

Eighteen years later (1917), in the same year that Yeats’s The Wild Swans at Coole and Eliot’s Prufrock and other Observations comes out and Hemingway turns eighteen, “Strater [in August] is in a hospital with a crushed leg and a bad cough; to avoid being sent home as an invalid, he overcomes his injury and is later assigned to a unit of the Belgian Army until the end of November 1918.”

Meanwhile in the summer of 1918, Hemingway, unable to enlist in the army because of bad eyesight, having volunteered to deliver cigarettes and sweets to soldiers at the front, is “badly wounded” by mortar fire while serving with the Red Cross ambulance corps. In December of the same year, “Henry Strater is on leave from the Red Cross to study at the Académie Julian art school in Paris through January the following year.” In 1922 the two young Americans meet:

End of October: EH meets the painter Henry Strater (whose nickname is “Mike”), a Princeton classmate of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s (and the model for the character Burne Holiday in This Side of Paradise) at Ezra Pound’s studio; a short time later they spar at Strater’s rental house in the hamlet Béranger near the Auteuil race track and discover they are more or less evenly matched.

The next winter, in 1923, the Hemingways are in Rapallo. There Strater, visiting the Pounds with his wife, Maggie, and their baby, “paints two portraits of EH and one of Hadley”. Two portraits for Hemingway because Hemingway thinks, according to Chamberlin (in a note), that the first “made him look too much like H. G. Wells, meaning like an effete intellectual, so Strater painted a second, stronger, tougher one he named The Boxer”. (About a week before this, “Norman Mailer, the writer who will become an intense if ambiguous fan of EH, is born in Long Branch, New Jersey.”) Also, William Butler Yeats wins the Nobel Prize for Literature. Later that summer the Hemingways and Strater, with others, attend some boxing matches and in the winter of 1924 we learn the Straters have lent the Hemingways a stroller.

The next time we see Strater and the Hemingways, in 1928, Hemingway has a new wife, Pauline. On November 16 “EH, Pauline, and Strater attend boxing matches at Madison Square Garden”. The next day they get together again and meet the Fitzgeralds for the Princeton-Yale football game, “after which they stay overnight at the Fitzgeralds’ rented mansion near Wilmington, Delaware. On the train from Princeton to Wilmington, Scott becomes rather inebriated, embarrassing everyone, including himself.” (Earlier, we have learned, when Hemingway met Fitzgerald’s wife, Zelda, he took “an instant dislike to her, and she returns the feeling.”)

Over the next seven years there are more references to Strater in the book, most of them about fishing trips he went on with Hemingway aboard the Pilar. Strater also painted one more portrait of Hemingway. Then we come to 1935 and the friendship ends with a bang:

Mid-May: ... Strater catches a huge marlin that sharks begin to attack; EH sprays them with the machine gun, filling the sea with blood, which attracts more sharks, which eat half of Strater’s catch before he can reel it aboard; the marlin is strung up on the beach on Cats Cay, where the photographs are taken, in one of which EH stands next to the fish as if it were his own ... Strater will never forgive EH for what he believes to be a deliberate sabotage of his catch, and their friendship never recovers.

Hendrickson gives the same basic account with much more detail, of course, and both he and Chamberlin agree that Hemingway ruined his friendship with Strater, who would go on to open the Museum of American Art in Ogunquit, Maine, and died in 1987. In an interview with Denis Brian, Strater said this of Hemingway: “We were friends, but he was a goddamned thankless friend.”

Strater was not the only such friend. In fact, if I remember correctly, Hemingway in A Moveable Feast has good words for only two other fellow writers: Ezra Pound and James Joyce.

How did his children fare? Hendrickson convincingly writes that Gregory Hemingway, the youngest child, second son of Hemingway and Pauline, fared the worst. This is backed up by a look at Chamberlin’s entries about him.

Gregory was born in 1931 to a mother who later in life allegedly said she couldn’t stand “horrid little children”. Perhaps this would not have mattered quite so much if Pauline had hired an empathetic nanny; instead she hired Ada Stern, whom Chamberlin labels “manipulative”. In 1933, a few months short of Gregory’s second birthda,y we read that everyone in the family, including Pauline’s sister, Virginia, leave Havana for Spain. Chamberlin notes:

Unfortunately Gregory remains in Key West and Syracuse with Ada Stern; he is often left in her care for months on end while his parents are elsewhere, a situation that embitters him as a young man and adult.

The next significant entry is the following from 1934:

May 31: Pauline leaves with Patrick for Piggot for the annual visit to her family; Gregory travels with Ada Stern to her home in Syracuse, New York, increasing his sense of dislocation and lack of family bonds.

Not until November 3rd of the same year does Stern bring “Gregory back from Syracuse for his third birthday; he has barely seen his parents in the last eighteen months.”

It appears 1935 was a good year for Gregory; even though Ada Stern was still the nanny, he got to spend the summer in Bimini. But in 1936 he is again with Stern from July to November. From then on, until 1951, things overall were better, one could say. Gregory sometimes went to Syracuse with Ada and his brother, Patrick; other summers they went to Connecticut summer camps. The boys got to go on U-boat hunting expeditions off the coast of Cuba. Their father divorced and remarried twice, first with journalist and writer Martha Gellhorn, who in later years never had much good to say about him (except that he was good to have around in an emergency), and then Mary Welsh.

In 1951, however, when Gregory was nineteen, two things happened. First, he became enmeshed in the scientology movement:

January: EH begins writing The Old Man and the Sea. In New Jersey, L. Ron Hubbard, inventor of Dianetics, convinces the nineteen-year-old Gregory Hemingway to move to Los Angeles with the rest of the Dianetics crew because the New Jersey State Medical Board brings charges against Hubbard for practicing medicine without a license.

Then in September, this:

September 30 (Sunday): From San Francisco, Pauline arrives in Los Angeles to investigate why the police have arrested the nineteen-year-old Gregory and “to keep the Hemingway name out of the newspapers as well as to cure Gregory’s disturbance,” which is a rather quaint way of putting it; she stays with her sister in the house Virginia shares with her lover Laura Archera. In drag, Gregory has gone into the women’s restroom in a movie theater; the problem is not drugs, as some sources indicate. At some point that evening, EH and Pauline engage in a shouting, tear-drenched, angry telephone exchange the exact nature of which is unknown, but EH probably attacks his ex-wife, blaming her for Gregory’s troubles.

Pauline died the next day “at the age of fifty-six of blocked arteries, hypertension, and a rare tumour of the medulla that secretes massive amounts of adrenaline, causing extreme high blood pressure that drops suddenly, resulting in sufficient shock to kill her ...” There was plenty of guilt to go around here, and both Hemingway and Gregory blamed themselves, at some level, for what had happened.

It just gets sadder and sadder. The next time we read about Gregory in The Hemingway Log it is in 1957:

Mid-October: EH travels to Miami to meet Gregory, who has just been released from the Miami Medical Center, where he’d been for treatment of manic-depression syndrome. They drive to Key West to check on the Whitehead Street house; EH flies to Havana; Gregory cashes in his airline ticket to Cuba and returns to Miami; he never sees his father again, though they correspond.

In a note Chamberlin says on this same page that Hemingway blamed Gregory for Pauline’s death. Hemingway was a big blamer: it was Dos Passos’s fault for introducing him and first wife Hadley to rich people, which included Pauline, who broke up the marriage; then it was Pauline’s fault that Gregory turned out the way he did; and then Gregory’s fault, because of his cross-dressing escapade, that Pauline died suddenly and relatively young. Nothing was Hemingway’s fault because he simply spent his time writing well and truly about the things that hurt, and hunting and fishing and drinking. As you progress through any life or study of Hemingway it gets harder to agree with Hendrickson’s thesis that this was a writer on a quest for sainthood.

Here is the last time we read about Gregory Hemingway in Chamberlin’s book:

2001
October 1: Fifty years to the day of his mother’s death in Los Angeles, in the early morning Gregory Hemingway dies six weeks short of his seventieth birthday in the Miami women’s detention center where he’d been incarcerated as Gloria for   five days on charges of indecent exposure and resisting arrest without violence; he is buried in the Ketchum cemetery.

Ketchum is the town in Idaho where Hemingway lived his last few years, where he killed himself with his favourite shotgun, and where he was buried.

So that is the story, in abbreviated form, of Gregory Hemingway preceded by the story of Hemingway’s friendship with the painter, Mike Strater. Neither reflects well on Hemingway. The friendship with Strater shows us a man so insecure he cannot stand to have another man catch a bigger fish, and then, after causing this bigger fish to be ravaged by sharks, hones in on the photograph of the same, as if he had caught it after all. A man unwilling to be in the background. A man who never learned, it appears (or who hid it very well), the first lesson, I’ve read, of sainthood, which is humility.

And Gregory’s story shows us a distant father who appears to care more about his career and public image and going along with his wife’s aversion to “horrid little children” than his children, though one can point to many instances of him showing love and concern for his sons. And, in one notable instance of humility, he does write that Gregory was the best shot in the family.

But does it matter if Hemingway was on a quest for sainthood? It does to those who love his work enough to read the biographies, the critical studies, the chronologies. But I can’t decide. When I first read Hendrickson’s book I thought yes. Now, as I have re-examined Hemingway’s life in the bare bones fashion of The Hemingway Log, I am not so sure. When you look at only what happened, I have doubts. The critic Hugh Kenner said what Hemingway and his heroes lived for was best summed up by Walter Pater in The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry: “To burn always with this hard gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.” That sounds like a quest for sainthood, though with the goodness left out. Yes, Hemingway wrote to his friend Buck Lanham that he wanted to be both a good man and a good writer but I wonder sometimes if he really meant the good man part. I want to believe Hendrickson is right but cannot agree wholeheartedly.

Chamberlin does not say anything about sainthood. He keeps his comments dry, acerbic, and often hilarious, which makes his book that rare reference book which can be read straight through for pleasure. You get a sense of his venture in a paragraph at the end of “Appendix II: The EH-Martha Gellhorn Meeting”, about which there is considerable debate. At the end of these pages giving all the alternative scenarios of the Hemingway-Gellhorn meeting, Chamberlin writes:

Some readers might wonder whether this whole thing is unnecessary nitpicking by a cranky semi-academic who no doubt spends too much time indulging himself in such efforts. But the lives of women and men who have made significant contributions to their cultures are important enough to get them right. Truth does matter, and it is not fiction, despite the efforts of some biographers.

In a time when many seem to think the only meaning of truth is a play for power, that statement, “Truth does matter”, is refreshing. So is this book for those of us who love Hemingway’s work and wonder about the shipwreck of his life.

1/7/2015

Frank Freeman’s poetry has appeared in The New York Quarterly, Tiger’s Eye, The Aroostook Review and The Axe Factory. His book reviews have appeared in America Magazine, Bloomsbury Review, Commonweal, The Literary Review and The Rumpus, among others. His recent story “The Snowstorm”  was published in St. Katherine’s Review.

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