If there is enough Papa scholarship-which is what Hemingway’s Boat, Paul Hendrickson’s non fiction book, aims to be-to fill a small public library, then a lot of shelves would be redundant. There would be no decimal system but wood carved signs splattered in red paint, with disclaimers beneath them stating they were written in blood. There would be a “Tragic Artist Madlib ” section ( Carlos Baker, Michael Reynolds, twice), a “Glorified Macho Excursion” section ( Nick Lyons, and sadly, Michael Palin), and, to fill the vast majority of the room, a “guy code” section ( Peter Griffin, James Mellow, Robert Trogndon, and numerous others). They’re not biography genres as much as brands, factory models shipped every Christmas; containing narratives as familiar and homiletic as a holiday yarn, and only half as honest.
Hemingway’s Boat, Hendrickson’s fan letter to the later Hemingway, aims to be the king of the third section, and what is ignored and focused on in the work is mind boggling. I’m as jaded a reader of the man as they come, but I believe his work needs to be discussed. But this? To focus on Hemingway’s work AFTER 1934? When almost all of his work that deserves discussion was behind him? To focus on his decline as some heroic tale, and not the morbid, ugly, 90 proof spectacle it was? And to focus on a damm boat?
Hendrickson’s aim, in Hemingway’s Boat, is to defend Hemingway the writer-celebrity, the pop super star who was the masculine ideal for good deal of the last century. “ I have come to believe, no matter how un post modern it may sound , that Hemingway was on a quest for literary sainthood, and that nearly every turn, he defeated himself” He writes, and to the people who focus less on the mythology and more on the quality of work( or, lack thereof)
“Hemingway’s writing, every bit of it, even at it’s most self parodistic and papa cult worst, is seeking to be about the living( his italics) of this life. The being of this life. The doing of this life. And in that sense, the work, and even, I am willing to say, so much of the coarsened political history-can be thought of something spiritual, and indeed almost holy. ”
And holy is his father through his bouts of alcoholism:
“One pictures Hemingway titled back on his rod and his fighting chair, draining a bottle of booze, with a dozen other liquor or beer bottles beside him ”
parentage (as he describes the sons that he brutally beat):
“What I recall so vividly about Jack and Patrick, and Gregory Hemingway
In their deep psychic sibling pain-was their attempt to say how fine it had been to spend time with their father outdoors”
and suicide (quoting Norman Mailer):
“it may be even the final judgment on his work may come to the notion that what he failed to do was tragic, but what he accomplished was heroic, for it is possible that he carried a weight of anxiety within him from day to day which would have suffocated any man smaller than himself”
One has to admit that these sentences present the reader with a rorsarch test. There are those who believe, in their certainty of tone and affability of declaration, that this is clear, direct, populist writing. There are others, like myself, who believe that Hendrickson has the bad Hemingway sentence down pat, and believe Hemingway’s Boat to be almost worthless because of it. Swaggering when he doesn’t need to be, evasive and vague when the subject turns to the old man’s decay; Boat is a glorified macho bar ramble, clichéd, repetitive, not enough to sustain your attention, but mildly entertaining in spurts.
When it comes to scholarship, however, one has a duty to tell the truth, and the truth is in what ignored and glossed over here. The artless, simplistic prose. The alcoholic dementia. The brutal violence toward his wives and children. The brutal disloyalty to friends. The feckless, pathological dithering-about that he did in World War II. And the neverland of the “guy” narrative’s the later Papa so effortlessly spun; a land of glory, action, and no responsibility, a land that made him a star to many and to others, a cancer.
Yet another mystifying fact is missing here: an in depth discussion on how great Hemingway once was as a writer. As bitter a critic I am of his work and impact, I still read A Farewell To Arms, parts ofThe Sun Also Rises, and a great deal of the short stories in near awesome wonder. A minimalist influenced by Tolstoy, Stein, Goya, and Picasso; his best work revolutionized the short story by making it into more of an impressionist prose poem. Though not without his problems, the young Hemingway could also be capable of tremendous self introspection and insight about America, Europe, the problems of his time, and the damages of war.
That Hemingway only gets a few sentences in Hemingway’s boat; and I don’t know if that’s a bad thing or not. As much as I appreciate the best of of the man, I cannot help that so much of our vocabulary and narrative on manhood-vast, empty, filled with destructive mythologies on love and violence-is cut from the cloth of his work. Hendrickson’s book-easily the worst take on Hemingway I have ever read-is an act of patricide disguised as praise. To paraphrase Updike, The masks he painstakingly invented (and at times inflicted on people) have ate his face whole. I don’t know whether to call the whole affair a tragedy or a farce.