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A haunting look at Hemingway’s life with Pilar

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Ernest Hemingway’s death by suicide. He has remained, of course, an icon of American letters, a legend, a man whose life and art still seem to tower over today’s writers. Only his friend, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Jack Kerouac have exerted the same kind of mythic literary pull on the popular imagination of his countrymen. There are Hemingway websites, numerous Hemingway biographies, Hemingway festivals and even Hemingway look-alike contests.

Joining the mania of all things Hemingway is biographer Paul Hendrickson. In Hemingway’s Boat: Everything He Loved In Life, and Lost, 1934-1961 (ISBN 978-1-4000-4162-6, 531 pages, $30), Hendrickson connects the life of Hemingway to his love of the sea and the boat on which he sailed for so many years, the Pilar. Hendrickson is a man of many gifts: a meticulous eye for research, a writer who can bring alive the past on paper, a biographer who clearly loves his subject but who has the courage to present his foibles in full. He brings all these talents to bear in this study of the Nobel Prize winning author who also was wounded in war, lived his youth in Paris, hunted lions in Africa, spent countless days fishing the Gulf Stream, and changed the shape of the American fiction.

In his prologue, Hendrickson lays out some general thoughts regarding Hemingway’s life, observations that other biographers have either missed or downplayed. He writes, for example, that “I have come to believe deeply that Ernest Hemingway, however un-postmodern it may sound, was on a lifelong quest for sainthood, and not just literary sainthood, and that at nearly every turn, he defeated himself.”

He alleges, too, that “there was so much more fear inside of Hemingway than he ever let on,” mostly a fear of suicide (in perhaps a related phobia, he was also, by his own admission, terrified of falling asleep in deep darkness). Hendrickson also believes Hemingway was a man of heroic stature, torn apart by a high sense of honor and an inability to meet his own standards.

Finally, despite Hemingway’s reputation for killing friendships and abusing those around him, Hendrickson tells us that Hemingway possessed a kind and compassionate side to his nature often overlooked by other biographers. He returns to this point repeatedly throughout the book, showing us examples of this gentler Hemingway: his tender letter to a nine-year-old boy with congenital heart disease, written just days before Hemingway took his own life; his loan of money to a young man in distress; his love and concern for his sons, at least until they grew to manhood; his agonies of guilt when he would hurt friends and loved ones.

Two problems do arise in Hemingway’s Boat, difficulties to which Hendrickson seems strangely blind. The first has to do with Hemingway’s alcoholism. Hemingway regarded drunks as “rummies,” and either scorned them or pitied them, as he pitied Fitzgerald, but he could never acknowledge that he himself was an alcoholic. Hendrickson knows of Hemingway’s drinking and surely knows how deeply it affected his relationships with others, his mental state, and the quality of his work, yet he rarely mentions this enormous flaw. We hear again and again that Hemingway drove friends away, but Hendrickson doesn’t seem to make the connection that Hemingway was for years a rummy himself.

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He notes, as others have, Hemingway’s penchant for mishaps — he shot himself by accident, for example, while fishing on the Pilar — but again doesn’t tell the reader that these accidents were often caused by alcohol as much as by Hemingway’s famous clumsiness.

Stranger still is Hendrickson’s long treatment in the latter half of the book of Hemingway’s relationship with his son Gregory, known as Gigi to his father. Gregory led a life troubled by his relationships with his parents and wives, his sexual identity, his alcoholism and drugs. In 2001, he died as a transgendered Gloria Hemingway in the Miami-Dade County Women’s Detention Center. (One note: when I worked as a clerk in the Old Corner Bookstore in Boston from 1975-1976, Gregory Hemingway visited the store for a book signing of Papa, his account of his father. He struck me as the author has described him here — a nice man, diffident, interested in others).

Certainly Gregory’s wild life, his drinking, his drugs, his inability to accept responsibility for his actions, is sad and arouses our pity, and to look at his relationship with his father is worthy and just in understanding Hemingway, yet Hendrickson gives almost no space to Gregory’s relationship with his mother, Pauline. It was Pauline who, after her divorce, did the bulk of the parenting. Hendrickson does note some details of her life and her time with Gregory, but why spend so much time investigating the effects Hemingway had on Gregory’s life without examining at length the effect of his mother?    

Despite these failures in the book — and perhaps in part because of them, particularly the attempt to make so many connections between Hemingway and his third son — Hemingway’s Boat is one of the most compelling biographies of the year. This book will haunt you long after you have closed the covers, intruding at odd times into your emotions, roughing up the smooth waters of your thoughts like the winds on Hemingway’s sea.

Hemingway’s Boat: Everything He Loved In Life, and Lost, 1934-1961 by Paul Hendrickson. Knopf, 2011. 544 pages.

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