Friday, July 8, 2011

Ernest Hemingway – Posthumously Yours

In Africa a thing is true at first light and a lie by and you have no more respect for it than for the lovely, perfect weed-fringed lake you see across the sun-baked salt plain. You have walked across that plain in the morning and you know that no such lake is there. But now it is there absolutely true, beautiful and believable.

- Under Kilimanjaro, page 239, edited by Robert W. Lewis and Robert E. Fleming
- True at First Light, page 189, edited by Patrick Hemingway

July 2nd marked the fiftieth anniversary of Ernest Hemingway’s death. Where other writers have faded with time Hemingway’s books remain in print and consistently strike a chord with a each new generation of readers. He’s had his critics, particularly the feminist critics who labeled him chauvinistic and simple, but I never cared much for the pantywaist approach to literary revisionism. Hemingway endures because he was a damn good storyteller.
Hemingway is the ALPHA MALE among writers – all capital letters, all machismo, all man. His talent is on display in his first three short story collections: In Our Time (1925), Men Without Women (1927) and Winner Take Nothing (1933). Of his novels published during his lifetime the best are The Sun Also Rises (1926), A Farewell to Arms (1929), The Green Hills of Africa (1935), To Have and Have Not (1937) and For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940). An expanded short story collection, The Fifth Column and the First Forty-Nine stories (1938) would include his classic “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.” His 1932 non-fiction account of bullfighting, Death in the Afternoon, is still better than what most journalists can write today. His later novel, Across the River and Into the Trees (1950), is pedestrian but not without interest. His novella, The Old Man and the Sea (1952) remains his crowning achievement according to most scholars.

This is the Hemingway the world knew during his lifetime: a bullfighter, a boxer, a sailor, the great white hunter, a world traveler, the war correspondent, and the lover of women. And he loved booze and food and wrote about what he loved best. Fishing, hunting, writing. He was an outdoorsman with a literary talent. Only the great Zane Grey could compare to such a testosterone fueled reputation, but Grey was dead suddenly in 1939 and Hemingway had the field to himself.
Those books alone are enough to ensure Hemingway’s reputation would endure fifty years after his death, but there was more. A lot more. Hemingway was prolific. He wrote constantly, and apparently under diverse conditions and while suffering through various traumas. By all accounts he never gave up – not until July 2, 1961 when he loaded his W. & C. Scott & Son long-barreled and straight stocked 12-gauge shotgun, put the barrels to his head and triggered it with his toe.
Four years later we were treated to the first of his unpublished manuscripts, and the only one that he had been actively preparing before his death. A Moveable Feast (1964), a slightly fictionalized memoir of his bohemian youth in Paris, was an international best-seller. And damn, it was good. His fourth wife, Mary, re-organized the manuscript and oversaw the book’s publication with the editors at Scribners. And this is where many take issue with the publication of Hemingway’s posthumous work. Readers and scholars alike have criticized that these manuscripts were incomplete at the time of Hemingway’s death, and that sometimes major cuts were made. Many, including the journalist Joan Didion, have stated the books should never have been published. Many feel that such work demeans Hemingway’s canon and that these works are the product of a faltering, seriously ill man who had long passed his heyday as a creative writer. Of course, they’re wrong – most of the time.
The publication of Hemingway’s posthumous work lasted the better part of forty years. Islands in the Steam (1970) was a major literary event, and once again edited and approved by Mary Hemingway. This is a rich, vibrant novel, and unlike anything Hemingway had done previously. It is the work of a man willing to attempt new things, but who also understood what made him so good to begin with.
The Dangerous Summer (1985) was edited from 120,000 words to 45,000 words originally for Life magazine. With an introduction by James Michener, The Dangerous Summer is a non-fiction account of Hemingway’s 1959 return to Spain. For last time he wrote about bullfighting, but the book is disjointed. The many brilliant passages and descriptions simply cannot equal the far superior Death in the Afternoon. Still, there is enough of that magical Hemingway touch to earn this book a place in your personal library. But read Death in the Afternoon first.
The Garden of Eden (1986), a personal favorite of mine, was edited by Mary Hemingway from 200,000 words into the 70,000 word novel we have today. The extent of these cuts were not known until many years after the book’s publication. I was enthralled by the book and consider it another favorite. To Mary Hemingway’s credit, the editing appears flawless. There is no hint whatsoever that a longer novel had been written. I would love to read the complete manuscript, but as it stands The Garden of Eden is fine warm-hearted novel about his early years in Paris.

True at First Light (1999) was edited by Hemingway’s son, Patrick, and its publication coincided with Hemingway’s centenary. Although I was enamored of the fine writing, my first reading of True at First Light upon its publication left me perplexed. It was obvious that much was missing, and the book’s rhythm was off. I was pleased with what I read, but there was always this nagging thought that something went wrong. And there were immediate criticisms that the book was rushed into print simply as a means to make money for Hemingway’s estate during the hoopla regarding his centenary.
Under Kilimanjaro, published in 2005 by the University of Kentucky Press, was the unexpurgated, complete manuscript of Hemingway’s “African Story” that Patrick Hemingway had published as True at First Light. The publication of Under Kilimanjaro makes clear several things: First, the complete manuscript, professionally edited by Robert W. Lewis and Robert E. Fleming, is a wonder to behold. It is the work of a literary master, and the writing is as clear as those Michigan streams where Hemingway learned how to fish. Secondly, Under Kilimanjaro makes it obvious that the editing by Patrick Hemingway on True at First Light was an injustice. Whatever good intentions he had are now overshadowed by the haphazard and often illogical editing. Under Kilimanjaro restores the playful dialogue, the extraordinary cast in all of their scenes, and proves that at the end Ernest Hemingway had retained that creative spark. Perhaps in some ways Under Kilimanjaro is the perfect companion to The Green Hills of Africa. It’s a strong book whereas True at First Light is a weak book. Under Kilimanjaro’s editing by Robert W. Lewis and Robert E. Fleming followed standard academic protocol, i.e., they corrected misspellings and the occasional grammatical lapse, and they provided a section of textual notes. Their approach was justified and retained the integrity of Hemingway’s manuscript. By comparison, Patrick Hemingway butchered his father’s work.
This leads us to the inevitable question – Does the material Mary Hemingway cut from Islands in the Stream and The Garden of Eden deserve a restoration? That’s not as easy to answer as one might think. Those books are already of high quality. Should they leave well enough alone? It’s rare that the unexpurgated, unedited manuscript would be of literary value, but it has happened, and recently. Several of Zane Grey’s original manuscripts have been published, notably Riders of the Purple Sage by Leisure Books in 2006, and Last of the Duanes in 2008. Last of the Duanes is the unedited manuscript that was published as The Lone Star Ranger in 1915. The original versions of Riders of the Purple Sage and Last of the Duanes are superior to the first published editions.
One thing is certain. Hemingway can’t be dismissed by today’s un-wholesome brand of white anglo-saxon protestant revisionist feminist cranks. They’ll try, but his is a ghost that cannot be vanquished. There is too much depth and insight in those first forty-nine stories, and novels like A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls will endure forever. And that will lead the literati to The Green Hills of Africa, To Have and Have Not and more. Hemingway is the seminal American writer; ballsy, independent, dedicated to his craft, a keen observer, and a fearless warrior. In the end he was writing about Africa again, and then Paris, and one can easily imagine how good it was most of the time in the sunlit far country of Idaho just after the spring thaw when the streams were beginning to warm.
PHOTO AT TOP: Hemingway in Africa with Kilimanjaro rising in the mist far behind him. The shotgun he’s holding is the Scott & Son shotgun that he used to finish his last chapter.

Visit the Oak Park, Illinois home of Hemingway HERE.
Visit the official Hemingway web page HERE.

2 comments:

  1. I used to carry around with me a paperback copy of A Moveable Feast and each time I opened it and began that first paragraph, I could and often did read all the way through again. I am cleaning out my garage this summer, and since the book is not in the house I must have tucked it away in a box out there. I am finding old treasures as I open those many boxes today, perhaps I will find the book and turn that first page. We already know what will happen then...

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  2. That's one of my favorites. I actually own two copies and if you want one let me know.

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