Critical Lives Series
London: Reaktion Books, 2016
Paperback 222 p. ISBN 978-1780235783. £11.99
Reviewed by Steven Trout
University of South Alabama (Mobile)
Brief biographies of already familiar, intensely studied figures sometimes shine new light on their subjects by discerning patterns and themes that may become lost amid more detailed accounts. This is certainly the case with Verna Kale’s superb Ernest Hemingway. Fewer than 100 pages (out of 221 total) separate the ebullient Hemingway of 1929, arguably at his artistic zenith with the publication of A Farewell to Arms, from the prematurely aging and creatively frustrated author of the late 1940s and 1950s. Contrary to Hemingway’s hale and hearty public persona (over which he ultimately lost control), his life was essentially tragic—pitiful and heartbreaking, really—and through her conciseness Kale makes the reader feel this bitter truth with particular intensity. This is a sad book, even among studies of Hemingway. And a hard book to put down.
Instructors of courses devoted to Hemingway and/or modern American literature will find Kale’s biography helpful as a classroom-friendly introduction to a complex and still commonly misunderstood author. Everything a student needs is here. Moving at proverbial light speed, but with writerly grace and judicious selection of detail, Kale covers the essentials, including Hemingway’s upbringing in suburban Oak Park, Illinois, and the woodsy summer retreat of Lake Walloon, Michigan; his months as a cub reporter in Kansas City, Missouri; his Italian adventure (complete with a serious love affair) in World War I; his Paris apprenticeship; his major professional achievements, from the publication of The Sun Also Rises, which made him an instant celebrity, to his receipt of the Nobel Prize in Literature; his work as a war correspondent during the Spanish Civil War and World War II; his love of manly contests, from bullfighting to boxing to Marlin fishing; his four marriages; and the physical and psychological deterioration that led to his suicide in 1961.
Never once guilty of hero-worship, but always respectful of Hemingway’s unique genius, Kale does full justice to the writer’s contradictions and failings. There were plenty of both. A warm and charismatic man, known as “Papa” to his many cronies, Hemingway could also be petty and vindictive—especially toward former mentors. As Sherwood Anderson learned, the best way to alienate the ultra-competitive Hemingway was to do him a favor. Ironically, “Papa” wasn’t exactly an ideal paterfamilias either. A largely indifferent father to his sons, he seems to have loved each of his wives, but he perhaps loved the sensation of falling in love even more. The writer’s Midwestern, middleclass values guided his attitudes toward marriage and family. Except, of course, when they interfered with his desires.
While covering the basic (and fundamentally tragic) outline of Hemingway’s life and creating a vivid portrait of his sometimes forbidding personality, Kale also somehow finds the space to advance some provocative original arguments. She notes, for example, that Hemingway’s early success coincided with an important (and often unrecognized) shift in the literary marketplace. By the late 1920s, modernism had become fashionable, even among so-called middlebrow readers who cultivated a taste for complexity and experimentation as a mark of social distinction. It was—to use the parlance of a later era—suddenly “hip” to grapple with works produced by the literary avant-garde, and Hemingway’s combination of deceptively straightforward prose and implied subtext fit this new consumer demand perfectly.
In addition, in her harrowing account of Hemingway’s later years, Kale posits a fresh explanation for his violent mood swings and periodic bouts of writer’s block—namely, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disorder caused by multiple concussions. This hypothesis makes a great deal of sense. As Kale writes, “The exact number of concussions Hemingway sustained throughout his life is unknown, though there were more than a dozen, some of them serious” . The accident-prone writer suffered two especially severe head injuries during his time as a war correspondent in World War II. These left him with “blinding headaches” . And during his ill-fated African safari in 1953, he used his cranium as a battering ram to escape from a burning aircraft (amid the second of two back-to-back plane crashes). This time, Hemingway actually fractured his skull and, as Kale notes, was never the same man again. Much in the news of late, because of its implications for American football players, chronic traumatic encephalopathy may have robbed Hemingway of his creative powers and, through the suicidal depression that resulted, ultimately his life.
One could, I suppose, quibble with some of Kale’s choices in this volume, but doing so would be both unfair and silly. A work of such intentional brevity can only do so much, and Ernest Hemingway manages, by any standard, to do plenty. A welcome addition to the Critical Lives series, this short biography packs an incredible amount of information and insight into a small package and would be impossible to improve upon.
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