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 showed, 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. Even less so now.

I also didn’t share Hemingway’s fascination with bull fighting. The author saw the bullfight arena as the ultimate life and death 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 that had been 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, after 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. It 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, Television, Television Review

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16 replies

  1. Hi Garry, an excellent article about Hemmingway. He was a fascinating character and a great writer. I love A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and The Old Man and the Sea. I like to listen to them slowly and enjoy the writing. The Sun Also Rises wasn’t a favourite of mine, but ‘no-one can please all of the people all of the time’ and that goes for books too.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I liked Hemingway when I was young but I tried to read The Sun Also Rises a few years back and couldn’t get through it. Maybe because I did see that Burn’s documentary. But I think, having much more life experience, I found some of his characters shallow and dull. But I think he did have an exciting life.


    • I think the tragedies in Hemingway’s character’s lives seem a lot less tragic now than they did back them. And yes, shallow. I don’t know how exciting Hemingway’s life was. I think it was most interesting when he was working as a journalist. After that, it was mostly crappy relationships and killing animals with big guns.


  3. I’ve never read any Hemingway, if you can believe it. But I make it habit to read at least one classic a year. So if I were to only read one Hemingway book, which would you recommend, that you feel i would enjoy the most?


  4. Great post, Garry. Those must have been some times on Bimini for you. It’s not politically correct as a woman to like Hemingway these days. For me, it’s a case of appreciation of the artist’s works, but the Artist as Man? Not so much. He’s not alone in that category for me. Glad you posted this one.


  5. I always liked Hemingway. I guess that goes back to having to read a couple of Hemingway novels in high school


    • It really IS a guy thing. I suspect his intended audience was men, too. He wasn’t nice to women and had mostly terrible relationships. BUT he was a brilliant writer and his style of writing absolutely changed the way novels were and are written. The tightness of his style was the beginning of modern novel-writing. I admired the style, hated the subjects.

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