Hemingway: The Final Years Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

With this fifth and final volume, Michael Reynolds brings to a close his monumental biography of Ernest Hemingway. Such multivolume productions, even for the greatest literary figures, were rare in the publishing climate of the late twentieth century. Two, let alone five, volumes are generally a losing proposition for publishers. Sales decrease with each succeeding volume, and reviewers often complain about the plodding nature of multivolume biographies, which are chastised for being congested with detail. There has been no dearth of Hemingway biographies, either. Carlos Baker’s groundbreaking book, the first comprehensive narrative of Hemingway’s life and career, remains useful, as do biographies by Jeffrey Meyers, Kenneth Lynn, and James Mellow. Can there really have been a need for this long-term project?

Reynolds redeems his extended effort by providing new information from the National Archive and by treating familiar incidents covered in other Hemingway biographies with a more searching approach. A case in point is Hemingway’s submarine- hunting adventures at the beginning of World War II. His third wife, Martha Gellhorn, scoffed at the idea that Hemingway and his cronies did much more than drink, carouse, and pretend to be warriors aboard the Pilar, Hemingway’s fishing boat. Other Hemingway biographers, while not as prejudiced as Gellhorn, have rendered this period as one of Hemingway’s more self- indulgent. Reynolds does not so much challenge these earlier accounts as provide a historical context based on new archival material. At the start of the war, in 1940 (before the United States was attacked at Pearl Harbor), the United States government was concerned about German submarine activity in the Caribbean Sea and about the possibility that bases could be set up and that spies could be infiltrating the Americas. Hemingway was one of a number of fishermen and small-boat owners enlisted to provide intelligence. He supplied thorough and observant reports to the Office of Naval Intelligence. Reynolds does not make any great claim for Hemingway’s contribution to the war effort, but it was a patriotic and certainly a risky assignment that Hemingway took seriously.

Reynolds’s treatment of the submarine-hunting episode is more than just a biographer’s effort to set the record straight and to share with readers new data. Rather, he pinpoints Hemingway’s reckless plan to ram a German submarine and lob grenades onto its watchtower as the first definite sign of a man who was not only prepared to die but perhaps half-wanted death to end a creative career he feared was coming to its end.

Reynolds persuasively shows that Hemingway worried that he would not be able to write any more great novels. After the publication of For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940) he seemed stymied. He had no idea how to produce another novel, let alone one that would be better than his last Pulitzer Prize winner. Indeed, he wrote very little during the war and did not come out of his dry spell until the late 1940’s. While Gellhorn was goading him to cover the war in Europe as a reporter, the expeditions on the Pilar constituted a desperate bid for material that then might be turned into a novel that would be something like a combination of To Have and Have Not (1937) and For Whom the Bell Tolls. The material would not coalesce, however, and Hemingway was drawn to enjoying the fruits of retirement in Cuba.

Gellhorn had invested much labor in making the Finca Vigia (the Hemingway home in Cuba) into a comfortable, attractive environment. Yet she yearned to get away and report on the war as she had done in Spain during its civil war. She had an intrinsic interest in journalism that Hemingway, for all his journalistic experience, did not share. As Reynolds points out, she never understood how different she and Hemingway were in this respect. Both wanted to write great novels, but there was a part of Gellhorn that was pure reporter, separate from her ego as a novelist. For Hemingway, on the other hand, war was simply his material.

Hemingway was at his surly worst in Cuba; every time Gellhorn returned home from one of her assignments the couple quarreled bitterly. Finally, a fed-up Hemingway got his credentials as a war correspondent fromCollier’s magazine, the very outlet Gellhorn had used most throughout her career. She would convey to Hemingway biographers how mean-spirited Hemingway was to choose the magazine that employed her when he could have had his pick. Reynolds points out that as a...

(The entire section is 1868 words.)