HEMINGWAY: THE MAN AND THE LEGEND

Hemingway was my first literary hero. He wrote the way people talked. Brief, blunt, and brave.

I consumed his novels as a teenager the way I would finish off a pizza. I couldn’t put it down. “The Sun Also Rises” had a sustaining role in many of my teenage dreams. I fantasized hanging out on the left bank of Paris in the 30s with “the lost generation” folks. I swapped dreams with Jake, Lady Brett, Robert Cohen and other ex-pats, knocking back drinks into the wee hours as Edith Piaf sang past final call.

These long ago memories were revived as we watched Ken Burns’ PBS trilogy, “Hemingway” recently. The documentary in classic Burns’ style, dug deeply into the life of the man many regard as the greatest American novelist of the last century. The man who changed literature forever.

Ken Burns and Lyn Novick didn’t opt for printing the legend about Ernest Hemingway. They presented the man, with all his warts, frailties, and flaws, as well as his larger than life bravado and extraordinary writing skills.

As a teenager, I didn’t see the darker side of Hemingway. I was fascinated by his men and women whose lives were filled with romance and adventure that easily could befuddle my aspirations to become a writer and world traveler. I especially bonded with Jake and the other men who had tortured souls.

As a very shy young man, I felt a tight bond with these worldly men who couldn’t find happiness. Ah, the magic of Ernest Hemingway who, coincidentally, had those same feelings as a teenager.

Hemingway, as the Burns’ documentary shows, was a narcissist who needed to inflate everything even as he achieved enormous literary success. He was a cocktail warrior who bragged about exploits that needed no embellishments. Hemingway never seemed satisfied with the attention and adulation that surrounded him. He always needed more. I never saw that flaw as a young man infatuated with Hemingway’s characters and stories. I was blinded by the self-sacrificing heroism of Robert Jordan in “For Whom The Bell Tolls.”

Hemingway had a lifelong fascination with death. I did not share that fascination.

I also didn’t share Hemingway’s fascination with bull fighting. The author saw the bullfight arena as the ultimate life and death duel scenario. The gunfighter at high noon, if you will. There was no sense of the bull as the inevitable loser or victim. He displayed a similar insensitivity toward the creatures he killed on African safaris. He slaughtered animals for the sport and joy of displaying their skin and parts as trophies. This, also, was lost to a young man who just saw the courageous hunter in the treacherous jungle. The macho Hemingway loses much of his magic as we grow older and gain perspective on his need to be the hero at all costs.

During the 70s and 80s, I spent my R & R time off the Florida Keys on Bimini in the Bahamas. Bimini had been a second home for Ernest Hemingway. One of the primary island attractions is “Hemingway’s,” a bar frequented by the author. Along with other media friends, I spent many a long evening eating all manner of conch and drinking rum into the wee hours while listening to locals spin tales about “Papa” Hemingway and his island exploits. Well-fortified by the rum, I think we began to print our own legends about Ernest Hemingway.

During our final Bimini visit, I recall one local chatting me up and sharing, over several rums, that “Papa could be a very strange fella. He’d come into the place, all hale and hearty man. But hours later, he would get very mean with the ladies. Very mean and then fights would start. Papa would sucker punch and – oh, Mista, the tables and chairs would be flyin’ all over the place. Papa would be in the middle of the pile when the police come in. They send lots of us to jail but they take Papa home. He was a funny fella.”

A bit of a revelation perhaps about Hemingway’s macho-sexist manners. Back then, though, I just nodded and had a final rum before leaving.

I remember seeing Ernest Hemingway in a TV interview. Black and white images, maybe on Edward R. Murrow’s “Person To Person.” He was aged but still blustery. Refusing to engage Murrow’s direct questions. It was like seeing an old lion at the zoo. I must admit I made me sad.

A few months later, Ernest Hemingway’s life long fascination with death ended. There was no epilogue.



Categories: Author, Books, Garry Armstrong, Photography, Television, Television Review

Tags: , , , , , , ,

14 replies

  1. Congrats on a great article, Garry! I remember waiting for bookstores to start selling the first Spanish edition of “A Moveable Feast” when I was 15. By then, I had read “The Old Man and the Sea”, “A Farewell to Arms” and “For Whom the Bell Tolls”, and had completed all of his major works translated into Spanish by the time I finished high school (1967). When I went to school in the U.S., in 1970, I reread everything in English this time. I found him to be equally captivating in both languages, and there hasn’t been an American novelist (past or present) to bring me the joy and fascination Papa has brought me for most of my life.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. It’s an interesting show; I’ve just seen the first part. I like seeing many photos that are new to me.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Garry, this is a great post about Ernest Hemmingway who I also find fascinating. I have not read all his books yet but I am slowly getting through them. Interestingly, in South Africa, British literature is more readily available and well known.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Roberta, thanks. I really used to stay up till dawn – as a teenager – reading Hemingway. For years, I used to think absinthe was a wonderful drink because Hemingway’s characters drank it so frequently in those smoky Parisian bars. It was only recently that Marilyn explained that absinthe really isn’t something you want drink. Who knew?
      I still adore Hemingway’s terse writing style. It adapted well for a young news writer/reporter. My mentor at ABC Network News used to growl through his pipe smoke, “We don’t need no stinkin’ adjectives. Keep it lean, keep it real”. I had no problems. I followed Papa’s mantra. Lean and real.

      Like

  4. Who knows how some people get the way they do? Upbringing? Past Lives? Both, I’d say.

    Killing animals. Most such folks don’t see animals as Souls in a different body. Which is exactly what they are.
    Karma will teach them better.

    Like many genius’ they have another side that needs some work.
    Don’t we all.

    Liked by 1 person

    • In the course of being in touch with authors, I’ve found that some — despite their genius — are not such great people but others are absolutely wonderful. I suppose the all run the gamut as do we all. Hemingway was a genius and yet I wonder if he really saw that genius or was always trying to get to the place he had already achieved. It’s also interesting how our opinion of such people changes as we age, develop perspective — and change the things we find admirable. Nonetheless, his brilliance as an author stands despite all his personal failing. We get gifts, but never all of them.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I haven’t been in touch with or known many gifted authors – let alone a genius. I’ve known many wannabe authors who’ve shared tortured ambitions. But that’s another story.

        I guess there’s a fascination about these gifted people who almost touch the stars but fall short because of a human weakness. A cautionary tale, yes?

        Like

      • His genius is undeniable. For myself, although I know he was a much sought after celebrity, I never got into that. I only cared about his writing. Yet I would see and hear so much about him as a person. A ‘larger than life’ kinda personality. It was hard to ignore.

        But I think some artists are channels for some kind of flow that comes through them. They are like a conduit for that energy. Naturally they are given credit for it, but I wonder …

        Like

    • Papa’s soul needed lots of work. As you suggest, so do most of us we plod through life. AND, most of us don’t fit the genius mode.

      Hey, a conch platter and a round of tall rums — before we leave. It’s on Papa.

      Like

      • Indeed we envy that genius – where does that come I always wonder? And why does that guy get it, and maybe. I think to think though that we all our unique thing to offer that is valuable. – whether we become famous or not. I think you and Marilyn fit there quite nicely.

        Like

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