Louis Auchincloss would have labeled Grace Hall Hemingway, Ernest Hemingway’s mother, an “injustice collector,” and that was indeed the way that Hemingway often looked upon her. Toward the end of this book, Peter Griffin presents a fragment from an early draft of a work that was eventually to grow into For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940), in which Hemingway clearly reveals how much he would have appreciated his mother’s not trying to make him earn her love.
Grace, though musically talented, was a domineering woman with a highly conventional value system. She controlled her husband to the point of emasculating him and attempted to exert similar control over Ernest, who fled from Oak Park in his twenty-third year and was to return only five or six times after that, never for more than a few days at a time. Although he provided for his mother in her old age, Ernest seldom saw her and in the last half of his own life avoided all contact with his immediate family.
Griffin’s book is based upon a broad selection of manuscript materials, much of which, such as the Hemingway-Bill Horne correspondence, has never before been available to scholars. Griffin has also made extensive use of such items as five “Memory Books,” chronicling Hemingway’s first eighteen years, that Grace Hemingway kept from her son’s birth until his graduation from high school.
Griffin reveals a Hemingway that the reading public has not encountered before. As a youth, Ernest wanted to do what was expected of him. He wished to please his family, and he was close to them. After high school, when he left home to become a reporter for the Kansas City Star, and seven months after that, when he went to Italy to be an ambulance driver in World War I, he was in close touch with his parents and showed a considerable dependence upon them.
At times he tested their love by telling them things he knew would distress them, as when he told them just before he was to sail from New York to Europe that he planned to marry film actress Mae Marsh, with whom he had a brief, somewhat casual friendship after he arrived in New York.
Hemingway’s letter to his parents apparently got exactly the kind of melodramatic reaction he wanted from them. His mother declared herself to be brokenhearted, and both parents claimed not to have slept for five days until Ernest finally sent them a telegram saying that he was not engaged and that he had just been joking. Nevertheless, it is interesting to see this prank in its context.
Even as Ernest’s message announcing his intended marriage was on its way to his parents, Grace was writing a letter to him scolding him for not writing to her as much as she wished he would: “Mrs. Newburg gets a letter from her son every day, she is sorry for me and so shares her news with me.” Once she had received Ernest’s shocking news, she wrote giving him gratuitous and quite pedestrian advice about marriage, which surely an independent male of nearly nineteen would have resented. She also compared him to his three-year-old brother, Leicester, reminding Ernest of what a sweet son he had once been.
Hemingway’s father sought increasingly to be Ernest’s chum as the boy grew up, but Ernest wanted and needed a father, not a chum. Clarence Hemingway, despite the demands of his medical practice, always found time for his children, and Grace undertook to introduce the children to the cultural life that she valued. She frequently took them on expeditions to museums in Chicago. On one of these expeditions, a very young Ernest was particularly impressed by the great bronze lions outside the Chicago Art Institute, presaging perhaps his interest in big-game hunting that was to occupy him substantially in his later life.
Hemingway’s attempts to win his mother’s approval were usually futile. Grace was always ready to point out her son’s flaws and tried continually to make him feel guilty about his supposed neglect of her. Both parents were overprotective of their son, not allowing him, for example, to ride the roller coaster when he wanted to, lest he be hurt.
In view of Hemingway’s constant need for maternal approbation, it is not surprising that his first real romance was with Agnes von Kurowsky, a nurse who tended the nineteen-year-old ambulance driver when he was wounded in Italy during World War I and who was seven years Hemingway’s senior. Griffin presents this early romance in considerable...
(The entire section is 1836 words.)