Thursday, September 22, 2011

Hemingway's Boat - Book Review

It seems to me the Hemingway biography industry has run dry - the last I remember reading was Michael Reynolds final volume of his wonderful biography - but just when you think there can't possibly be anything to add to life of Hemingway along comes Paul Hendrickson's Hemingway's Boat and that changes everything.

Hendrickson singular take is to begin in 1934 when Hemingway acquired his beloved boat, Pilar, and then work his way forwards and backwards and, sometimes, sideways. For that effort alone, Hendrickson should be applauded - he more than makes his case that everything that came before Pilar and that came after had a profound effect on Hemingway and his boat is what ties it all together. Passing characters in Hemingway's life get a closer look. Arnold Samuelson, who spent a memorable Summer with Hemingway in Key West which both Hemingway and Samuelson would write about, changes from a sometimes comic character to a tragic one. And there are new characters on the scene - Walter and Nita Houk, a couple who Hemingway befriended in the early 50s, that provide a sweet counterpoint to an ugly time of Hemingway's life. If Hemingway was capable of great cruelty, he was also capable of great gallantry. As Hendrickson points out, Walter Houk is still alive today, one of the few people who are who were around during those days and can provide a firsthand account of how things really were. But because Houk's story sheds a positive light on Hemingway, his and his wife's story has been overlooked by other biographers. That's too bad.

And then there are the final chapters about Hemingway's sad youngest son, Gregory, and the intriguing theory that perhaps the two shared similar impulses. It's too easy to say that Hemingway's overt macho-ism was a response to his mother's dressing him up as a girl when he was a toddler and later trying to twin him with is younger sister that led to his very real mental problems. Certainly his own father's struggle with mental illness had more to do with that than anything. But how do you explain Gregory's penchant for transvestism taken to the final extreme of transexualism at the end of his tragic life? Hendrickson says that Hemingway's impulses may have found an outlet in his writing; Gregory's impulses, alas, didn't, and he ended up acting them out in a most dramatic manner. Still, Hendrickson believes, and I do as well, that despite the distance between the two, neither could really give up on the other.

No doubt the Hemingway family was a strange family, driven by impulses they couldn't understand. Hemingway, whether he knew it or not, did the best he could to come to terms with those impulses through the life he lead and his writings. He was really a confessional writer before Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton forced the term to be coined.

Here's a review from OpinionJournal that delves deeper into the book than I do here and which summarizes and makes the final point about the book far better than I can:
This is persuasive. Yet there may be a simpler and more common explanation for the artistic decline and the despair it engendered: that Hemingway exhausted his material. It is a common fate for novelists, especially novelists who achieve early success. Most go on publishing, pretending that their new work is as good as their old. Hemingway, who told so many lies in his books, couldn't tell this lie to himself. He continued to write, at far greater length than in the good years, in the hope that the work would come out fine. It didn't. So the reams of manuscript and typescript were locked away in the bank. Even so, the gods had not altogether deserted him; he was granted that late miracle, "A Moveable Feast."

For Mr. Hendrickson, discovering just how unhappy and unsettled Hemingway was for so long makes him more of a hero. He states his case persuasively, which is why this book is so good. Certainly one cannot help admiring the way in which Hemingway stuck, grimly and doggedly, to his m├ętier, even as his powers failed.

There are two sentences that sum up what happened to Hemingway. They were written neither by himself nor by Mr. Hendrickson but by Fitzgerald, whose own weaknesses Hemingway, his friend and rival, admirer and denigrator, threw in his face. They were words that Fitzgerald gave to Dick Diver in "Tender Is the Night" to explain his decline: "The change came a long way back—but at first it didn't show. The manner remains intact for some time after the morale cracks."

No, you won't read this book about Hemingway because Hemingway doesn't mean anything to you. Even so, to miss it is to miss an extraordinary book about an extraordinary American writer.

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