Write Drunk, Edit Sober
A Review of Hemingway's Boat, a biography by Paul Henderickson
“Show the readers everything, tell them nothing”
I was just fifteen when I met Ernest Hemingway. That is a time in a person’s life where you don’t much appreciate those things that really matter. I was much more focused on the excitement of being fifteen and a girl than on the books of American literature. We read The Old Man and the Sea. At the time, like my sophomoric classmates, I believed it was nothing more than a short book about a man, a boy, and a fish. Nothing more. Hemingway bored me, his literary companion, F. Scott fascinated me. The wild parties, the dancing, the imposing eyeglasses and throwing of expensive dress shirts. At the time The Great Gatsby seemed of much greater importance to my inconsequential life. Maybe it is because I understood the blatancy of it more or maybe it is because I fancied myself a kind of Daisy. I don’t remember much of our discussions on the book about the sea, other than being bored out of my mind, as most fifteen year olds, bound by a certain status quo, are apt to be. I do remember my teacher drawing an iceberg on the white board. That classic image used to describe Hemingway. What you see is not what you get, there is so much more.
Five years later, sitting on a sailboat in the bay of San Francisco, listening to an old man in a cabled knit sweater, I begin to think again of Hemingway and that iceberg. So often, what we see is not what we get. There is so much there lurking just below the surface, waiting to be found. But also perfectly content to be left undiscovered.
The facts. Ernest Miller Hemingway was born 21 June 1899 in Oak Park, Illinois. His father was a physician and his mother a musician. He had one brother and four sisters. After High School he got a job at the Kansas City Star as a journalist. At eighteen, in 1918, he joined the war efforts as an ambulance driver. He served in both World Wars and reported on the Spanish Civil War. In 1954 he was almost killed in two subsequent plane crashes. He had four wives and three children—all sons. He was a big man, at his largest, 225 pounds and six feet tall. During his life Hemingway published seven novels, six short story collections, and two non-fiction works. Posthumously, three more novels, four short stories, and three non-fiction pieces were published. In 1954, the same year he faced death twice, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature. He owned permanent residences in Key West, Florida and Cuba and, in 1959, he bought a house in Ketchum, Idaho. His gross estate is estimated at $1,410,310. He owned one boat, Pilar, which cost him $7,495.
This boat is the subject around which Paul Hendrickson shapes his biography of the twentieth century American author. On April 3, 1934 Ernest and his second wife Pauline arrived in Manhattan. They were returning from an adventurous and eventful safari in Africa, during which Hemingway became extremely ill. Despite the illness, this adventure was, for the author and his companions, a success. A greater success awaited him in the states. Upon receiving a loan of $3000 from Arnold Gingrich of Esquire, for which Hemingway promised to write ten pieces for the magazine, Ernest made his way to Wheeler’s boat yard in Brooklyn. Four weeks or so later his dream boat was delivered to him in Key West. She was a wonder. She was large and comfortable. But like her owner, her size did not stop her from subtlety and quickness. She could face any kind of sea, and weather. She could “turn on her tail” to follow a fish—a most important characteristic for Hemingway’s favored sport.
Thus began a long love affair with Pilar. Growing up in the backwoods of Illinois, Hemingway learned to hunt and fish, gaining a great appreciation of the outdoors. For the rest of his life, hunting and fishing would be seminal parts of his life, informing much of his writing. In July 1934, with guns, cameras, and marlin-ready rods, Ernest Hemingway took his boat across the ninety-mile wedge of blue water between the United States and Cuba. There he, and his motley crew and various visitors, would spend days on the boat, fishing. This was not the fishing of a quiet old man sitting in canoe in a lake, dangling a string into the water and waiting for a bite. This was the fishing of a 35-year-old, giant of a man, full of veracity and determination. Big-game fishing, often for marlin or tuna weighing over 200 pounds, sometimes upwards of 700 pounds. This kind of fishing is much more akin to hunting, as he had done not three months earlier in Africa.
This hobby, this love of the hunt, was, and is, about so much more than a desire to kill. Nor is it even about the thrill of a catch. As aforementioned, with so much in Hemingway’s life, and by extension his writing, it was about something deeper, and unsaid. The boat, the gulf, the fishing—all were deeper than the surface of the water. How so? When Hemingway wrote he painted a picture. It is a piece of artwork, and the beauty of artwork is that the observer is able to give their own meaning. The ocean is often one of the most common “deepest fears” of people. That is because it is the epitome of the unknown. The surface is shining and beautiful, but below the surface are all the terrifying options of what could be. It is like life. Hemingway doesn’t just tell you that the ocean is big and scary and dark, he shows you. He shows you the rotting stinking corpses, he shows you the blood and guts, he shows you true tragedy, but also true happiness. He shows you life.
“It seems as though we are all on a boat now together, a good boat still, that we have made but that we know now will never reach port. There will be all kinds of weather, good and bad.” –from a letter by E.H.
In reading Hemingway’s boat logs, we see a great attention to detail. A great deal of data, the dates and times, tools and people, the weather and the catch, but there is also a kind of emotional texture. Hendrickson describes it as if the fisherman is “creating a raw, immediate, documentary novel within the larger novel of his life, a work with its own storytelling arc.” During this first year in the Gulf on Pilar, Hemingway was working on his novel The Green Hills of Africa, a book which is much like a ships diary. There are distinct parallels in terms of structure between the two, seemingly different, types of writing. Perhaps, to the author and the fisherman, they were one in the same. Both part of a great story telling arc.
Stories. Hemingway’s stories, short and long, are layered. There are the outward, simplistic stories. The words on the page, the details of what happened. Written much like a ship’s diaries. Often focusing on inconsequential scenes, focusing on small rituals of every day life. The reader becomes an observer . In “A Clean, Well Lighted Place”, we become a patron of a little café, watching as a deaf old man steadily becomes drunk as two waiters, one young the other older, discuss the time and old man. It is a simple story, not much happens, but it displays Hemingway’s mastery of the art of narrative. Perhaps this came from his days of being a journalist.
His writing style is spare and tight, leaving out anything that can be left out. Like his mastery at cable-ese and letter writing. Much of what can be learned about Hemingway can be learned from his writing. Not only his published writing, but also, and particularly, his letter and cable writing. Patrick, his eldest son, said that in trying to learn more about his father he always would go back to the letters and correspondences. Both inform us not only about his life, but also about his style. The way that his brain worked. In writing his letters, which he wrote many, somewhere between six and seven thousand, he wrote in free-associative bursts more or less in the way we speak in conversation. He would jump for subject to subject, spell incorrectly, often have misshapen grammar, and yet the letters make perfect sense. His letter writing could also be anywhere from incredibly kind, emotional, and sentimental to angry and vindictive, full of a good many “four letter words”. And often these two types of letter were written one after the other. In is cable-ese, he was a master at economy. Economic in more senses than one. Cable-ese for Hemingway was an exercise in omitting everything that can be taken for granted.
By leaving out, he is not omitting, but suggesting. It leaves the understanding up to the reader. In writing “Big Two Hearted River” he said that the story was about coming back from the war but there was no mention of the war in it. It is the things that are unsaid that are what matter most. Hemingway believed that if a writer truly knows what he is talking about, he may omit things and the reader will have a feeling of those things. They will be evident without having to be obvious.
There is a school of thought in which it is hypothesized that Hemingway writes this way because of his experiences in the First World War. Following the war, there were a great many authors who had “lost faith in the central institutions of Western civilization”. In reaction to the elaborate writing style of the 19th century, Hemingway and fellow modernists began to create a style in which meaning was established through dialogue, action, and silences. Very little was stated explicitly. This might be true. Perhaps he was simply rebelling against the establishment of the western world. That could be one layer. Another layer could be that he writes so little to say so much in reaction to the inhumanities he had experienced. This is one of the underlying layers of the character Nick Adams in “Big Two Hearted River”. By concentrating on fishing, Nick does not have to think about anything else. This says more about the experience that war leaves one with that stating explicitly the tragedies Nick may have seen. These are the explanations given by people like Gertrude Stein, placing Hemingway into the ”lost generation”.
This is true. There was a whole generation who had lost their centers, if not themselves. But Hemingway turns this around in The Sun Also Rises. In the story of the expats in Spain watching the bullfights, he sheds new light on the “lost generation”. In quoting Ecclesiastes he shows the generation that has passed away and the generation to come. The sun rises and goes down and yet it will rise again. The generation, as seen in the characters in this most famous of Hemingway’s works, is not lost, but extremely battered. Nevertheless, it will go on.
There is yet another layer, that of Hemingway himself. Yes he experienced terrible awful things in the war, he saw great inhumanities. This brokenness of society was also within him, he was a broken man. For all his life, he faced depression, what he called the “black ass” (as opposed to Churchill’s “black dog”). It followed him everywhere. He may not have been lost, he knew where he was, but he was certainly battered.
These are all layers. The writing style and the writing subject. Each is a metaphor. His youngest son, Gregory (aka Gig, Gigi, and Gloria), in talking to Paul Hendrickson, said “he got into everybody’s unconscious with his symbols. That’s part of what he’s about, you know.” The Old Man and the Sea, that book which so annoyed fifteen year old me, was to Hemingway “about an old man and a fish…but it is about everything in the world that I know”.
These all came from his life. Most of the stories were born in reality; they were based on actual events. He then filtered them through his imagination, and what went down on paper was only a semblance, a distant relative, of the truth. But they become more real than what actually happened and they are what last. It is not the man, but his words that last. And while the truth of what actually happened has been forgotten, the stories continue. It is the imagination that has become the new truth. This is why Hemingway has become an indelible part of the American canon.
In “The Snows of Kilimanjaro”, a story outwardly about a writer named Harry and his wife Helen, stranded while on safari in Africa. Harry’s leg is infected from gangrene; while they wait for a rescue plane, he reviews his life. While seemingly fiction, there are many aspects of this story that were born in truth. The ‘made-up’ wife, Helen, has the first name, and many of the same characteristics, as a woman of great prestige with whom Hemingway had tea shortly after buying his boat. The real-life woman supposedly wanted to pay for Hemingway and his wife to take her along on another African expedition, but this story was changed often. The expedition was not taken, but the encounter certainly impacted “the Snows”. According to the author, “The Snows” was a study of “what would or could have happened” if he had accepted that mysterious ladies invitation. Helen of the story though is not completely made up of Helen in real life. She is an imaginative, inflated, conflated mix of multiple women in his life. He had already been married twice, and both of those wives also make their way into the character of “The Snows”. As in all his fiction, Hemingway was making things up from what he knew. Perhaps this invention, this creating and expounding on his own life, is what he meant when he said in Death in the Afternoon “any man’s life, truly told, is a novel…” but yet, it wasn’t true.
What is true is what flows underneath. The underlying meaning, which is what remains. Let us return now to the boat and to the stream. These inventions, these metaphors, this pattern is part of the stream of Hemingway. There is a line, a sentence, a profound and uncommonly long sentence in The Green Hills of Africa that must be considered. This sentence, The Sentence as Hendrickson calls it, gives great insight into what Hemingway thought of his own writing, and his own life. It is about streams. These streams create a connection. A connection that began long ago and became a part of Hemingway and is what continues to flow with us today.
“That something I cannot yet define completely but the feeling comes when you write well and truly of something and know impersonally you have written in that way and those who are paid to read it and report on it do not like the subject so they say it is all a fake, you know its value absolutely: or when you do something which people do not consider a serious occupation and yet you know, truly, that it is as important and has always been as important as all the things that are in fashion, and when, on the sea, you are alone with it and know that this Gulf Stream you are living with, knowing, learning about, and loving, has moved, as it moves, since before man and that it has gone by the shoreline of that long, beautiful, unhappy island since before Columbus sighted it and that things you find out about it, and those that have always lived in it are permanent and of value because that stream will flow, as it has flowed…”
As it has flowed…
Hemingway was the captain of his own boat. He went where he pleased; he avoided places he wanted to avoid. He could admire the beauty in something that was tragic simply because it was real. He could admire and appreciate that there was more than what he could immediately see and understand. He could feel indescribably that being on the Gulf, in Pilar, gave him a part of the great flow, the greater story. This story involved all those things, known and unknown, happy and not, that he admired and that inspired his writing. Part of understanding this indefinable feeling is to understand that a stream will always flow forwards. That implies that one can never go back. There was quite a lot in Hemingway’s life that he could not go back to.
Edens lost. This is a theme flowing through his life and through his work. In A Farewell to Arms, the lieutenant in Italy is thinking about a far-off Michigan, although it is never named as being so. This recalls Hemingway’s youth. A time when his family planned on making an Eden-like retreat in the Michigan woods. But this would never be, so he must return to it only in his imagination. Then there were the lost days of his youth, lost in the war. The happy days of his first marriage with Hadley, his only “true” and “pure” marriage. There were the days in Paris and the many friendships that he lost because of pride and ego. In his writing, trying to regain the Edens lost, Hemingway is caught somewhere between how he wished things to be and how he knew things were. But even so, he can’t go back. No one can.
If you can’t go back, is your only real alternative to go farther out? Perhaps that is how we ought to understand Pilar and Hemingway in the Gulf. Again, it all goes on and the sun also rises.
In his biography of the author and fisherman, Paul Hendrickson creates quite a novel. Perhaps the only critical thing that can be said about the biographer is that he loved Hemingway, “Papa”, a little too much. He turns Hemingway’s life into a novel. Certainly the extraordinary circumstances of the American author’s life fit the category of an exciting story. However, it is important not to forget the man in remembering the legend. Hendrickson has a habit of hating what Hemingway hated and loving what he loved. He calls Gertrude Stein a “fat lesbian bitch”, while praising Ernest as being “one of the most efficient writers who ever lived”. Both of these statements may very well be true, but they must also be taken with a grain of salt. We must not forget that there are some things that Hemingway failed at. Let us not forget that he had four wives, affairs with many, and was not a very present father. He lost touch with many of his friends, breaking off the relationships frequently in aggressive and hurtful ways.
But then Hendrickson can be forgiven for loving Hemingway a little too much. I know that maybe I love him a little too much. And with good reason. His writing has given a new meaning to American literature. A new way of thinking about writing. Not everything needs to be said, so much can be said with saying nothing at all. Something that many an author, many a person, could remember a little more often. it is not him, the tangibly large, often depressed and insomniac, alcoholic, person that lives on. It is his words, and lack of words, that continue. Those things are what have become the truth of the man and it is those that I, that we, love. We must also remember though that we can only love something up to a certain extent.
Of his big brother, Les Hemingway once said, “he loved everything up to a certain point, and then nothing was any good anymore”. I think that is essential in beginning to understand the iceberg below the surface. His wives, his children, his friends, everything seemed to have an expiration date. Paul Hendrickson describes life as a sine curve. Rather than an arc, either up or down, this curve is continuously changing from up and down. Once there is an up, it must go down and once there is a down, it must go up. While I hesitate to quantify life to mathematics, this seemingly aligns with life, particularly Hemingway’s life. For one, this type of curve is often used to describe in economics the nature of bouncing back and the up-and-down commercial and legal fortunes of businesses, specifically the Wheeler boat company which made Pilar (a connection purposefully stressed by Hendrickson). This kind of bounce-back and up-and-down-ness of economics and fortunes is reflected in the literary fortunes of Hemingway. Often, as with many craftsmen, Hemingway’s literary success, followed by financial success, was marked as well by a time of emotional and physical fortune.
“I was completely happy. I had been quite ill and had that pleasant feeling of getting stronger each day…The only person I really cared about, except the children, was with me and I had no wish to share this life with anyone who was not there, only to live it, being completely happy and quite tired.”
–notes on The Green Hills of Africa
These eras of “belle époque”, like the days spent fishing in Bimini, could not last for long. Either because his physical deterioration, or a more complex combination of physical and mental depression, these times of beauty were marked by a steep decline. Hendrickson describes this as Hemingway being “congenitally restless”. Maybe Hemingway’s life followed this pattern because he loved everything and then nothing, or maybe he loved everything and then nothing because his life followed this pattern. Who knows?
Another thing about sine curves, they have a center. Every sine curve has an accompanying equation, a simplistic one that needn’t be recorded nor stated, that creates a straight-line crossing horizontally through the graph. It is on this horizontal straight line that the sine curve rests. At every point where they intersect, the curve changes from up to down. If the sine curve loses this connection, this center, it ceases to have form, it ceases to exist.
What happens when a man loses his center?
Despite what Hendrickson says, life cannot be confined to mathematics. Lives cannot be figured into an equation. A sine curve is symmetrical; it will always raise the equal amount it fell. More importantly though, unless specifically noted in the equation, a sine curve has no end. But life does have an end. And that end is something that is part of the flow of life. In a letter to his friend Max Perkins, after a period of time when many friends and acquaintances were dying, Hemingway wrote, “but I have been so conditioned about it that I think of death now like a possible blow-out tire on a transcontinental motor trip. It is only something that has to be figured in.” A blowout tire. That is all it is. Death. After all, “every man’s life ends the same way. It is only the details of how he lived and how he died that distinguish one man from another.”
We may like to fit this into another equation, another pattern. We may like to believe that death is not the end. And perhaps it isn’t truly. As that Bruce Springsteen song called “Atlantic City” says, “well now everything dies, baby that’s a fact/ But maybe everything that dies someday comes back”.
At 7:35 in the morning of Sunday July 2, 1961 Ernest Miller Hemingway stepped inside a five-and-a-half-foot space at the entryway of his house and shot himself in the head. And with that “one generation cometh and another passeth away, but the land abideth forever”. He left, taking much with him, but also leaving much behind. All that was unsaid. And yet, the sun also rises.
“He only dreamed of places now and the lions on the beach”