Wrestling With an Icon in Malcolm Cowley’s ‘Ernest’

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

The question of what one would do with a time machine—which is a terribly interesting one among, at the very least, 18-year-old boys—often provokes an answer variating on the theme of going back to a historical hero’s heyday to meet him face to face. My own answer, at 18, was one of these: I wanted to go hang around outside the old Scribner’s building with a couple pairs of boxing gloves and challenge Ernest Hemingway to a fight. So many of his stories, and so many stories about him, involve teaching a lesser guy to box. He gave lessons to Fitzgerald. I figured it made me sound macho and cultured at once.

Eighteen-year-old-me’s answer was not as clever as he thought it was, but it was also more clever than he intended it to be. Because at that stage one wrestles with the central question of what kind of thing to become, and in Hemingway—who lived largely, dangerously, often violently and drunkenly, and, it must be admitted, stylishly—there was a ready-made template for what a man should be.

The dictates of this traditional masculinity are ill-defined but strict: First, make a scene. Be big, be brash, do physically courageous and dangerous things. Violent things. Be a spectacle in your actions, but in your thoughts and feelings, inscrutable. Insensitivity to pain and fear in the physical sense is but one side of the coin, and the other is that hallowed quiet strength, the cowboy mystery. Simplicity. Never admit a feeling you can’t control, or an unseen pain you can’t handle. More tersely: Blood yes, tears no.

In an octave called “Ernest” that came to me by way of Paul Hendrickson’s magnificent biography, Hemingway’s Boat, Malcolm Cowley teased out the problem with the form of masculinity Hemingway exemplified.

In the first stanza, Cowley digs mockingly at Hemingway’s hobby du jour (around when he was writing Green Hills of Africa), picturing the novelist on safari with his scattershot weapon, adventuring in rugged places, taking down fearsome animals as his trophies (and satirizing how this looks by picturing him with, of all weapons, a blunderbuss—an especially big and inaccurate type of shotgun that was already well out of date in Hemingway’s day). But with one word, he flips the script on the safari-going, deep-sea fishing, war-going, bullfighting novelist’s sense of himself:

Safe is the man with blunderbuss
Who stalks the Hippopotamus
On Niger’s Bank, or scours the Veldt,
To rape the lion of his pelt;

Safe! If hunting lions is not dangerous, what is?

But deep in peril he who sits
At home to rack his lonely wits
And there do battle, grim and blind,
Against the jackals of his mind.

Alone, in the dark, and with a pack of howling, predatory outsiders closing in seems closer to the truth of how Hemingway, who had a famously volcanic reaction to bad reviews, really pictured himself—closer to home than the swashbuckling rake he wanted the world to see.

By juxtaposing mental demons with big game, Cowley demonstrates what Hemingway would fatally learn: Heroic narratives may glorify action, but in real life it’s the buried psychological strife that will bring down the great hero. Ultimately it is being vulnerable, not bearing pain, that requires the higher form of courage. (And Hemingway was a hero whose jackals, it should be mentioned, have always been rumored to haunt him specifically where it comes to the subject of gender. The themes in his oeuvre did not turn on questions of manliness by random chance.) Beneath the bravado and the whiskey grin, Hemingway was trying desperately to perform manhood. And we all know in hindsight how it ended.

It may not be an original insight on my part, but it’s something every young man has to learn: Performed stoicism doesn’t work. By making men try to seem strong and impervious, it makes men destructive of themselves and those around them. It makes men weak.

Nobody demonstrates this problem like the seductive icon that Hemingway turned himself into, a sensitive, eventually suicidal artist-cum-adventurer who moved one wife out as he married his mistress, and then moved yet another mistress in, three times over. Just think of the pain he felt, and wrought, even as he crafted an ideal so many men would try to emulate. And so as a boy trying to figure out how to become a man, in a quite real sense I was already in a fight with Ernest.