BY BENJAMIN DEMOTT
HEMINGWAY: The Life and the Work by Kenneth S. Lynn. Simon and Schuster, $24.95.
WILLIAM FAULKNER: The Man and the Art by Stephen B. Oates. Harper & Row, $22.50.
NOT EXACTLY FRESH faces, Hemingway and Faulkner, but still mesmeric to Americanists. For close to a quarter of a century the Hemingway legend has been undergoing approximately annual touch-ups. In Hemingway: The Life and the Work, Kenneth Lynn praises nine previous biographical studies; six appeared after 1981. The creator of Yoknapatawpha inspired one of history’s longest literary biographies (a serious Guinness contender) in Joseph Blotner’s 2,000-page Faulkner (1974). But barely a dozen years later here is Stephen B. Oates, challenging Blotner’s reliability on no subject, trivial or momentous, yet retelling the novelist’s story in full. According to the standard indictment, our aging century is obsessed with tomorrow’s celebrities and indifferent to old shrines. But in weighing that charge the future will need to ponder the non-corroborating profusion, in our period, of lives of dead writers. Biographers may get us off.
Meanwhile they reconsider and, in Kenneth Lynn’s case, revise. Lynn’s revisions, which concern Hemingway the macho man, are not reverent, and introduce a hitherto neglected villainess— the novelist’s mother. Grace Hemingway kept the hero-writer-to-be in dresses and shoulder-length hair (a “loose, tapered coiffure”) well past toddlerdom— rather longer than was customary. Ernest wore “pink gingham gowns with white Battenberg lace hoods . . . fluffy lace-tucked dresses, black patent-leather Mary Janes, high stockings, and picture hats with flowers on them”; beside one photo of the lad in an ankle-length gown, his mother wrote the phrase “summer girl.” In addition, Grace Hemingway paired Ernest with his older, often intimidating sister Marcelline, treating them like “twins of the same sex” (sometimes male, sometimes female), pressing Ernest simultaneously to be and not to be “a ‘real’ boy.” “Caught between his mother’s wish to conceal his masculinity and her eagerness to encourage it, was it any wonder that he was anxious and insecure?”
The younger Hemingway children were sent equally confusing sexual signals. Hemingway’s sister Ursula wore a Rough Rider costume and was nicknamed Teddy. (Like Ernest and their father, Ursula committed suicide; she and Ernest seem at one point to have been lost in fantasies both androgynous and incestuous.) Grace Hemingway’s husband appears also to have endured sexual humiliation. While young Ernest was in his observant teens, Dr. Hemingway threw a woman out of the house whom he evidently suspected of being involved in a lesbian affair with Grace.
On the appearance last year of an abbreviated version of The Garden of Eden, a novel Hemingway shelved in mid-life, readers commenced asking unaccustomed questions about the writer. The book was awash with transsexual fantasies, and Kenneth Lynn claims that it “compelled reluctant recognition of the possibility that [Hemingway] was not the writer, nor the man, he was thought to be. ...” But that recognition was, in Lynn’s view, clouded and evasive. The world of letters pretended to see the sensibility revealed in The Garden of Eden as “new,” when in fact it had been “there all along.”
Lynn had been engaged for some while in studying the sensibility, probing its roots in life situations and tracking its development from the earliest stories onward. The core of his argument here is that the extraordinary anxieties and insecurities of the writer’s youth and adolescence exerted shaping influence not only on his work but on his relationships with siblings, friends, lovers, and competitors.
Lynn’s achievement as biographer is that he sets up a field of coherent relationships among previously difficult-roread phenomena. His book stresses the pervasiveness, through the entire writing career, in texts of utterly different character, of motifs and images—from emasculation to bobbed hair—that betray the novelist’s entrapment in the sexual uncertainties of his youth. This material is connected, in turn, with other details of behavior—Hemingway’s bullying and braggadocio, his constant testing of himself for bravery, his unwillingness to suffer any rival reputation in any literary, sporting, or sexual endeavor. And before the end of the work the Hemingway style itself—the famous spareness and reticence—is interpreted in light of behavioral patterns. Repeatedly Lynn imagines the operative forces from inside, attempting to spell out their interaction.
To be a boy but to be treated as a girl. To feel impelled to prove your masculinity through flat denials of your anxieties . . . and bold lies about your exploits. To be forced to practice the most severe economy in your attempts to “render” your life artistically, because your capital of self-understanding was too small to permit you to be expansive and your fear of exposure too powerful. To make a virtue of necessity by packing troubled feelings below the surface of your stories like dynamite beneath a bridge.
No life or style generates its logic solely from within, and, aware of this, Kenneth Lynn seeks to ground his tale firmly in history. He establishes that the remarkably fluid, unisexual dress and hairdo conventions prevailing at the turn of the century tended to encourage Grace Hemingway’s indulgence in kinky conceits. The pivotal historical reality of the age—the Great War—served Hemingway’s special need, providing him with a heroic explanation for wounds that Lynn believes were embarrassingly unheroic in origin. And a contemporary sexual revolution offered an objective, legitimizing framework for secret personal fixations. In Hemingway’s Paris “sexual inversion was everywhere,” and the author was acquainted with (fond of at moments) several “women-loving women.” The Sun Also Rises is a book about “a man who is passionately in love with a sexually aggressive woman with an androgynous first name and a mannish haircut, a man whose dilemma is that, like a lesbian, he cannot penetrate his loved one’s body with his own.” The subject of lesbianism is “encapsulat[ed] . , . within the story of its two principals” and in the very names and Paris addresses of two well-known “women-loving women”:
“Barnes!” Braddocks calls out to Jake in the bal musette. “I say, Barnes! Jacob Barnes!” A few pages later, Jake’s proper name is dramatically reemphasized when Robert Cohn asks Brett to dance and is refused. “I’ve promised to dance this with Jacob,” she explains. “You’ve a hell of a biblical name, Jake,” she laughingly adds. Natalie Barney, 20 rue Jacob; Djuna Barnes, Hotel Jacob. From these two associations Hemingway derived [his hero’s] name. . . . Everywhere in this life story social and psychological history are interfused, and, happily, Lynn isn’t the kind of biographer who affects to know precisely where and how to separate them. On the other hand, neither is he a biographer whose tone and manner give unfailing assurance of large-mindedness—the ability to journey deep into a troubled heart without becoming derailed by derision. The first hint of derailment occurs in the prefatory assumption that literary reputation shrivels whenever “transsexual fantasies” surface. Why do such fantasies cause us to conclude that an artist is less than “he was thought to be”? Stoniness also enters into Lynn’s mocking dismissals of the generation of Hemingway biographers (“fools”) that believed that the sick man in “Big Two-Hearted River” had been psychically crippled by the war. Must every new explanation destroy all preceding explanations?
And contempt rules this biographer’s discussion of sentimental leftist critics who took seriously the naive, “engaged" Hemingway of The Spanish Earth and To Have and Have Not. Nobody’s evidence that Hemingway’s “faults were terrible” is more compelling than Kenneth Lynn’s. And, to Lynn’s credit, he struggles to balance consciousness of the faults with appreciation of the author as a “conflicted, haunted man who produced from his torment some of the most memorable fiction of the century.” The Nobel laureate is saluted on the closing page as a writer whose curiosity, gusto, adventures, and art “affirmed the possibilities of life in this tough world.” But the alternating patches of baiting and generosity elsewhere are distracting, as is the book’s undervoice, which murmurs almost ceaselessly, We have found you out.
How will reputational hierarchies shift as a result of the re-evaluation that is now—perhaps—inevitable? Reading about this writer’s torments had the effect, on me, of sharpening affection for a Hemingway contemporary who was rich-souled enough to live into his transsexual fantasies with humane humor as well as passion: James Joyce, of course. As for the standing of the best and worst in Hemingway’s oeuvre: it’s been years since the macho worst has commanded respect, and I can report, on the basis of rereading, that the best— the story “Hills Like White Elephants”—seems rather more poignant than before.
IN THE PREFACE to William Faulkner: The Man and the Art, Stephen B. Oates claims to be different from writers whose “critical studies [are] aimed largely at fellow specialists.” He compares himself as an artist to the author of The Sound and the Fury, declares that “my narrative voice is empathetic,” and promises “graphic scenes, revealing quotations, apt details, and dramatic narrative sweep.” Only the “pure biographer,” Oates says, blessed with his “spark of creation,” can “elicit from the coldness of fact the warmth of a life being lived,” thereby winning the interest of “a broad reading audience.” In the same preface Oates undertakes to explain the relationship between the book at hand and his own earlier works (“My biography of Faulkner seems a logical outgrowth of my Civil War quintet”).
I admire this biographer’s aspirations and agree that the Blotner life is a bulky object. But Oates’s Faulkner, although attractively shorter, is badly flawed. A minor failing is that it’s cliché-ridden— filled with a thousand hickeys such as “grisly tale,” “social whirl,” “ugly scene,” and the like. Equally minor is that it offers interminable plot summaries of novel after novel—resistible fare,
I believe, out there among the “broad reading audience.”
But less forgivable is the biographer’s habit of appropriating, without quotation marks, the language of intimate letters (“she was his honey”); I hear this as gaucherie, not empathy. And, most vexing, the book leans (with acknowledgment) on Blotner but rarely so much as alludes to the genuinely unforgettable bits in that work—for example, the chokingly hilarious sketch of Bill Faulkner, postmaster, transforming his PO inner office into a genteel club—library “reading room,” open to chums for smoking, sipping tea, and leisurely scanning of quality monthlies as they arrive (after a week or so, the members sated, the postmaster moves the magazines along to the presumably patient boxholding subscribers).
The need for a short, incisive biography of Faulkner can’t be questioned, and the need for a version of Hemingway’s life that’s less tendentious than Kenneth Lynn’s may also soon become clear. Down the road, in short, there will continue to be quiet demands for better readings of our classics. And, with luck, even as those familiar charges of nowmania grow in volume, our biographers will continue to get us off.