Sunday, January 22, 2012

Making Peace with Hemingway

The death of Penn State football coach Joe Paterno has prompted a lot of vitriol, jokes, and expressions of grief on the Internet today. It was sort of exhausting to read it, the attempts at humor, the defensiveness, the cursing. Oh, lawd, the cursing. Some funny folks and not-so-funny folks lost Twitter followers today because of it.

I'm not here to express my feelings about Joe Paterno. I laughed at some of the jokes. I understood why a friend was saddened by his death. I felt empathy for his family the way I do for anyone who has lost someone they love.

Life is complicated. People are complicated. Nothing is black and white, though we all wish it was. It'd be so much easier then, if the bad guys wore black hats and the good guys wore white hats, wouldn't it?

No, what this made me think about was how angry I used to be with Ernest Hemingway.

Yep. I was angry with a man who has been dead since 1961.

Why? Because he committed suicide.

If you think about it, it's not so hard to figure out why. It was easier to be angry at someone I never knew and never loved.

Sometimes, in the midst of mourning, you can become fixated on something or someone and, each time that person or thing comes up, you see it with eyes that are really seeing something else.

I read The Paris Wife, a novel about Hemingway's first wife, Hadley Richardson, earlier this year. While I read it, I railed against him and what a jerk he was. But I thought, too, that he was exactly the sort of person to whom I'd have been drawn. Larger than life, adventurous, hunting and fishing, drinking too much, strong and yet weak. I went to see Midnight in Paris (a movie I absolutely adored), and I watched the character of Hemingway and I thought, "Shit, I think I dated that guy."

I read a magazine story titled "Ernest Hemingway's Suicide Gun." The story was about a book someone had written about Hemingway and his guns. I got pissed as hell and raged against the idea of this, the romance people affix to something so horrific.

On the surface, it might seem to be a story for people who like guns, for people who collect them and are fascinated by the craftsmanship that goes into them. But it seems to me that a story about Hemingway's guns is, beneath the surface, always going to be about the frightening truth: That one's grip on life is rather precarious. That one's "favorite shotgun" may prove to be his undoing. Perhaps it sends a thrill up one's spine, makes a person shiver with horror, to consider this dramatic way that a life can end.

"The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry." - Ernest Hemingway

The magazine ran a photo of Hemingway holding a shotgun.  In it, he stood shirtless, a gold watch on his left wrist, his expression serious.

It made my heart race and my throat close up, as often happens when I see photos of people holding guns, and I thought, "Screw you, people."

But I looked closely at the photograph. I looked for answers. I was always looking for answers like some forlorn little detective. Becky Bickers, girl detective. My friend Lane and I had once joked that, had my mother called me by my middle name of Rebecca, had people given me the nickname "Becky," my life would have been entirely different. I would have been a cheerleader or a girl detective, someone relentlessly perky and wearing a plaid skirt and knee socks like Nancy Drew.

Now, here I was, trying to solve a mystery, filling my moleskin notebook with clues. Truthfully, I was like that poor bastard in Memento who tattooed meaningless clues onto his skin. I tattooed meaningless clues onto my psyche.

Hemingway felt familiar to me. He looked like someone I might know. Had known. Someone bold and brash and looking for a fight. And, dammit, I was pissed at him.

How ridiculous is that? I would come across his name in random places, and I would think, "You suck. You big jerk."

People don't want you to be angry at the dead man you knew. The human inclination is to praise the dead. Leave the hatred for the living. (Sometimes you leave the hatred for yourself.) It is deemed uncool to speak ill of the dead.

I connected Hemingway and his work to his manner of death because there was someone else who was important to me whose life I had also inextricably connected to his manner of death.

I think there is something to be said for misdirected anger. I think there are plenty of people out there who speak ill of Joe Paterno, not because they knew him, but exactly because they didn't know him. For those who knew him, who loved him and will now grieve him, it's all going to be way more complicated. 

Over time, I have found that my feelings toward Ernest Hemingway have softened. I watched a tour of his home in Cuba, which has been perfectly preserved. I listened as his granddaughter, Mariel, said that he stood up at his Royal typewriter while he wrote his novels. I like picturing a writer who cannot sit down to write. I find this idiosyncrasy endearing. 

I like how he didn't use a lot of commas, because I have a real problem figuring out where the hell commas are supposed to go. 

I pulled my copy of For Whom the Bell Tolls off the bookshelf and I opened it and looked at my grandmother's maiden name written inside it - Virginia Boyd San Francisco 1940.  It is so old that it makes my nose itch. I reread a bit of it. I collected his quotes. 

One weekend, I found these photos online of Hemingway wearing sweaters from and I laughed. I love them. Hemingway in a unicorn sweater? Yes, please. 

The thing is that you can hate something that someone did. You can know all too well the damage that was done. And you can be a fan, too.

There is no black and there is no white.

"I know now that there is no one thing that is true - it is all true."- Ernest Hemingway


  1. So much power in this. It may sound reduntant, but you'll understand when I say, your words speak. I learned by trial to never silence what cries out if it keeps you sane.

    1. Thank you, Allison. I really appreciate your comment. Writing definitely helps keep me sane, no doubt about it!

  2. Love, love, love this post. I also read The Paris Wife recently and have been oddly intrigued and fascinated by Hemingway since. I've devoured every tidbit about his life I can get my hands on. I would have totally been drawn to him too. (And I, too, have a love affair with commas!)

  3. Thank you for your comment! I have a feeling that Hemingway was one of those men who would show you a really good time. Then he'd show you a really bad time. But the memory of the good time would keep you coming back for more.


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