Carlos Baker Essay - Critical Essays

Baker, Carlos


Carlos Baker 1909–-1987

(Born Carlos Heard Baker) American biographer, novelist, critic, and editor.

Baker is best known as the official biographer of Ernest Hemingway, but he also published critical studies of other literary figures, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and William Faulkner. His biographical account of Hemingway's life garnered much praise for its wealth of invaluable material but drew negative reaction for its lack of insight and interpretation. Yet Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story (1969) is still regarded as an important biographical work and Baker is remembered as an influential biographer and literary critic.

Biographical Information

Baker was born on May 5, 1909 in Biddeford, Maine. In 1932 he received his B.A. from Dartmouth College and a year later received his M.A. from Harvard University. After spending a few years teaching high school, he became an English instructor at Princeton University in 1938. He received his Ph.D. from Princeton in 1940 and became a full professor in 1951. He was appointed chairman of the English department in 1952, a position that lasted until 1958. In the early 1950s, Baker initiated a correspondence with Hemingway, a relationship that would continue until a few months before Hemingway's death in 1961. This exchange of letters allowed Baker to gather personal information from the author, even though Hemingway forbade the writing of any biography of himself. From 1954 to 1957, Baker was the Woodrow Wilson Professor of English at Princeton. He received a Fulbright lectureship at Oxford University in 1957 and in Nice, France, in 1958. After Hemingway's death, Baker maintained a privileged relationship with Mary Hemingway, the author's widow. In this way he was able to become Hemingway's official biographer. In 1969 his biography of Hemingway was published. In 1977 Baker retired as professor emeritus. He died after a short illness on April 18, 1987.

Major Works

Baker's 1952 interpretive study of Hemingway's oeuvre, Hemingway: The Writer as Artist, succeeded in establishing his credentials as a leading Hemingway scholar. He revised the study three times, adding chapters to explore later fiction and appending a bibliography. Baker's often contentious relationship with Hemingway is retold in The Land of Rumbelow: A Fable in the Form of a Novel (1963), a novel chronicling the complex relationship between a famous author and a literary critic. Through information garnered from Hemingway and his widow, as well as interviews with associates, family, friends, and acquaintances, Baker compiled his comprehensive biography, Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story, which was published in 1969. Considered the official biography of Hemingway, the book was a commercial success and has been translated into several languages. With the permission of Mary Hemingway, Baker published Ernest Hemingway: Selected Letters, 1917-1961 (1981), a collection of approximately six hundred unedited letters. Because Hemingway had forbidden the publication of his correspondence, even after his death, the appearance of this book garnered critical approbation as some scholars disparaged Baker as opportunistic and dishonorable.

Critical Reception

Although some of Baker's facts have been challenged, Ernest Hemingway is regarded as an invaluable resource on Hemingway's life. Commentators have noted a few inaccuracies in Baker's biographical account, a result of Hemingway's tendency to invent his own truth and Baker's willingness to accept it. In general, however, Baker has been commended for exposing most of Hemingway's myths by presenting objective accounts of the author's life. The copious amount of previously unpublished information reported in Ernest Hemingway has also been a matter of critical discussion: most commentators praise the extensive amount of new material in the book; yet several assert that the research could have been presented more judiciously and with more insight into Hemingway's personality. Some critics maintain that Baker's privileged position as official Hemingway biographer impacted his interpretation of the material—that, in fact, he treated the author with too much respect. Yet critics recognize his accomplishment and the importance of his work, as well as his considerable influence on Hemingway studies.

Principal Works

Shadow on a Stone (poetry) 1930

The American Looks at the World [editor] (essays) 1944

Shelley's Major Poetry: The Fabric of a Vision (criticism) 1948

Hemingway: The Writer as Artist (criticism) 1952

The Major English Romantic Poets: A Symposium in Reappraisal [editor with C. D. Thorpe and Bennett Weaver] (criticism) 1957

A Friend in Power (novel) 1958

Hemingway and His Critics: An International Anthology [editor] (criticism) 1961

Ernest Hemingway: Critiques of Four Major Novels [editor] (criticism) 1962

A Year and a Day: Poems (poetry) 1963

The Land of Rumbelow: A Fable in the Form of a Novel (novel) 1963

Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story (biography) 1969

The Gay Head Conspiracy: A Novel of Suspense (novel) 1973

The Talismans and Other Stories (short stories) 1976

Ernest Hemingway: Selected Letters, 1917-1961 [editor] (letters) 1981

The Echoing Green: Romanticism, Modernism, and Phenomenon of Transference in Poetry (criticism) 1984

Emerson Among the Eccentrics: A Group Portrait (criticism) 1996


Arthur Mizener (review date 18 October 1952)

SOURCE: Mizener, Arthur. “Prodigy into Peer.” Saturday Review of Literature 35, no. 42 (18 October 1952): 25.

[In the following favorable review of Hemingway: The Writer as Artist, Mizener contends that Baker succeeds in focusing on Hemingway's “essential character” and considers the study “a considerable accomplishment.”]

This first systematic study of Hemingway as a writer [in Hemingway: The Writer as Artist] is a fine, sensible book, and when you think of all the possibilities for going astray about Hemingway's work and of all the irrelevant things it would be easy to write about his personality, you feel, I think, very grateful to Professor Baker for having written the kind of book he has.

He is not trying to startle the reader with “Freudian fiddle-faddle” or another trick kind of interpretation; he is trying to give precise definition to what we can all see, if only vaguely. Consequently he fixes from the start on what is certainly the essential characteristic of Hemingway's work, the way he is able to embody a structure of values and feelings in a meticulously “true” representation of “the way it was.” Professor Baker makes us see how this central intention has governed Hemingway's work through all the changes and developments of the thirty years between Three Stories and Ten Poems and The Old Man and the Sea. It is a...

(The entire section is 572 words.)

Patrick F. Quinn (review date 24 October 1952)

SOURCE: Quinn, Patrick F. “The Measure of Hemingway.” Commonweal 57, no. 3 (24 October 1952): 73-75.

[In the following review, Quinn asserts that Baker repudiates many of the critical perceptions about Hemingway and his work in Hemingway: The Writer as Artist.]

Perhaps the most important generalization that can be made about modern literature, fiction as well as poetry, is that its method is dramatic rather than expository. It seeks not to explain but to imply.

Some day this axiom will be taken for granted. Ignoring it, many people are baffled by the apparently inflated reputation of Hemingway. The man can write—obviously. But what a...

(The entire section is 863 words.)

Ray B. West, Jr. (review date spring 1953)

SOURCE: West, Ray B., Jr. “The Sham Battle over Ernest Hemingway.” Western Review 17, no. 3 (spring 1953): 234-40.

[In the following review, West compares Baker's treatment of Hemingway and his work in Hemingway: The Writer as Artist to Philip Young's Ernest Hemingway.]

Present-day criticism of Ernest Hemingway appears to be in a confused and unhappy state. The blame, I think, lies with the over-zealous friends of Mr. Hemingway, and with Mr. Hemingway himself. There is a kind of person who can abide no criticism of Ernest Hemingway, and Ernest Hemingway himself seems to be one of these people. In those pleasant days—say between the publication of For...

(The entire section is 3674 words.)

Joseph Warren Beach (review date spring 1954)

SOURCE: Beach, Joseph Warren. Review of Hemingway: The Writer as Artist, by Carlos Baker. American Quarterly 6, no. 1 (spring 1954): 79-83.

[In the following mixed assessment of Hemingway: The Writer as Artist, Beach commends Baker's analysis of specific stories and novels, but criticizes his treatment of Hemingway's aesthetic.]

Even if he is not always satisfied with Professor Baker's approach to the esthetic problem, the devoted reader of Hemingway must hail this study [entitled Hemingway: The Writer as Artist] as of decided importance for an understanding and evaluation of Hemingway's writing. To begin with, it is full and detailed in its...

(The entire section is 2243 words.)

Ben Ray Redman (review date 24 May 1958)

SOURCE: Redman, Ben Ray. “Politicking Profs.” Saturday Review of Literature 41, no. 21 (24 May 1958): 16-17.

[In the following negative review, Redman deems A Friend in Power dull and unfavorably compares Baker's novel to C. P. Snow's The Masters.]

For some years now the groves of academe have been loud with the voices of professor-novelists telling the outside world what life is like within the learned woods. Some of the revelations have been shocking to innocent readers who had previously believed that universities were staffed exclusively by dedicated scholars and teachers, indifferent to the rewards of a competitive society, seeking only the...

(The entire section is 566 words.)

Gerald Weales (review 27 June 1958)

SOURCE: Weales, Gerald. “Politics of the Academy.” Commonweal 68, no. 13 (27 June 1958): 333-34.

[In the following review, Weales provides a negative assessment of A Friend in Power.]

If a man teaches at Princeton, as Carlos H. Baker does; if he is high enough in the academic echelons to know something about the intimate mechanics of university administration, as Baker, former Chairman of the Department of English, presumably is; and if Princeton chooses a new president, as it recently did, it is not surprising that the tangentially involved man should decide that the process of president-hunting might be the basis of a novel. If the observer is concerned with...

(The entire section is 1062 words.)

Granville Hicks (review date 19 April 1969)

SOURCE: Hicks, Granville. “Hemingway: The Complexities That Animated the Man.” Saturday Review of Literature 52, no. 16 (19 April 1969): 31-33, 43.

[In the following favorable review, Hicks regards Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story as objective and superbly researched.]

Of seven books about Ernest Hemingway and his writings that have appeared in recent months the most important is Carlos Baker's semi-official biography, Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story. In his foreword Baker describes the nature of his authority: “This biography was undertaken at the invitation of Charles Scribner, Jr., president of the publishing company which brought out all of...

(The entire section is 2392 words.)

Jeffrey Hart (review date 22 April 1969)

SOURCE: Hart, Jeffrey. “Hemingway: Sunlight and Night-Face.” National Review 21, no. 15 (22 April 1969): 390-91.

[In the following laudatory review of Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story, Hart praises Baker's prodigious accomplishment.]

On trouve au fond de tout le vide et le néant.

—Eugénie de Guerin

In a famous passage in Death in the Afternoon Hemingway remarked that “the dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water,” and he intended this as a comment upon his own writing, where much of the meaning is beneath the surface, its...

(The entire section is 1583 words.)

Charles Thomas Samuels (review date 26 April 1969)

SOURCE: Samuels, Charles Thomas. “The Heresy of Self-Love.” New Republic 160, no. 2835 (26 April 1969): 28-32.

[In the following mixed review of Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story, Samuels disparages the objectivity of and amount of minute detail in Baker's biographical account.]

Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story tells so inconclusive a tale about so narrowly conceived a life that it is hard to acknowledge Baker's virtues without seeming smug. Commend his factual abundance, and you seem to be praising unglamorous gifts like industry and perseverance; whereas the abundance is so striking that one means a more handsome compliment. During seven years, Baker...

(The entire section is 3112 words.)

Elizabeth Hardwick (review date 5 June 1969)

SOURCE: Hardwick, Elizabeth. “Dead Souls.” New York Review of Books 1, no. 11 (5 June 1969): 3-4.

[In the following unfavorable review, Hardwick describes Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story as “an extensive, exhausting, repetitive record of the events of Hemingway's life.”]

Carlos Baker's biography of Ernest Hemingway [Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story] is bad news. The friendliness with which it has been received would seem to give sanction to this unfortunate development in the practice of biography. Baker's work is an enterprise of a special kind, not the first of its sort, and, one supposes, not the last. It is a form of book-making that rests upon...

(The entire section is 2191 words.)

Edward Weeks (review date June 1969)

SOURCE: Weeks, Edward. “The Peripatetic Reviewer.” Atlantic Monthly 223, no. 6 (June 1969): 110-12.

[In the following review, Weeks offers a favorable assessment of Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story.]

Shortly after its publication I remember discussing A Farewell to Arms with a famous obstetrician. “How did you like it?” I asked. “Great,” he said, “I thought it was great. But I couldn't bear to read about Catherine Barkley's death. It was too near the real thing.”

That criticism by one professional of another expresses what many of my generation felt about Ernest Hemingway: he did bring us so dangerously close to the real thing....

(The entire section is 926 words.)

Mark Schorer (review date January 1969-1970)

SOURCE: Schorer, Mark. Review of Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story, by Carlos Baker. American Literature 41, no. 4 (January 1969-70): 592-94.

[In the following essay, Schorer applauds the abundance of research and fact in Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story, but perceives the biography as lacking interpretation and insight into the true character of Hemingway.]

Carlos Baker tells us at the outset what his book [Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story] will and will not be, what we may expect and what we are not to expect. He will not critically explore Hemingway's “literary output.” He will not propose any “thesis” to explain Hemingway's “psychological...

(The entire section is 1299 words.)

Alfred Kazin (review date 16 April 1981)

SOURCE: Kazin, Alfred. “The Battler.” New York Review of Books 28, no. 6 (16 April 1981): 3-4.

[In the following review, Kazin maintains that Hemingway's selected letters “make a sometimes unbearably continuous and too emphatic record of the man's life, vehemence by vehemence.”]

Hemingway liked to write letters; his biographer Carlos Baker, selecting nearly six hundred here [in Ernest Hemingway: Selected Letters, 1917-1961], thinks he wrote six or seven thousand in the fifty years preceding his death in 1961. He liked to write, scoffed at Conrad and others for grumbling. Since Hemingway's “real writing” came so hard (he counted each day's...

(The entire section is 1965 words.)

Anthony Burgess (review date April 1981)

SOURCE: Burgess, Anthony. “Opening Hemingway's Mail.” Saturday Review 8, no. 4 (April 1981): 64-65.

[In the following positive review of Hemingway's selected letters, Burgess praises Baker's fine editing job of the volume.]

As one who earns his precarious living by writing, I find the writing of letters—even necessary ones like rebuttals of accusations of libel or plagiarism—a source of chagrin and even guilt, since being a letter-writer gets in the way of being a man of letters. Some authors manage to fuse the opposed claims of letters and letters by practicing what is termed the epistolary art, anticipating the posthumous publication of their collected mail...

(The entire section is 1420 words.)

Townsend Ludington (review date 2 May 1981)

SOURCE: Ludington, Townsend. “Papa Agonistes.” New Republic 184, no. 3460 (2 May 1981): 32-36.

[In the following mixed assessment of Hemingway's selected letters, Ludington maintains that the collection will be “fascinating to a substantial audience who doubtless will find many details boring and references obscure.”]

Ernest Hemingway to F. Scott Fitzgerald, from Burguete, Spain, July 1925:

To me heaven would be a big bull ring with me holding two barrera seats and a trout stream outside that no one else was allowed to fish in and two lovely houses in the town; one where I would have my wife and children and be monogamous...

(The entire section is 2736 words.)

Bernard Oldsey (review date 9 May 1981)

SOURCE: Oldsey, Bernard. “Papa's Private World.” Nation 232, no. 18 (9 May 1981): 575-77.

[In the following review, Oldsey contends that Hemingway's selected letters provide valuable insight into his life and work.]

A dying writer in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” realizes that he “had sold vitality, in one form or another, all of his life.” The author of that story seems capable of doing the same thing even after life. Ernest Hemingway's career has been extended by a string of posthumous publications, including A Moveable Feast, By-Line: Ernest Hemingway, Islands in the Stream and The Nick Adams Stories. Now, twenty years after his...

(The entire section is 1557 words.)

Vincent D. Balitas (review date 23 May 1981)

SOURCE: Balitas, Vincent D. Review of Ernest Hemingway: Selected Letters, 1917-1961, by Carlos Baker. America 144, no. 20 (23 May 1981): 430.

[In the following favorable review of Selected Letters, Balitas asserts that Baker “has provided us the opportunity to learn a bit more about the man and his art.”]

His reputation is lower now than at any time in the past, but Ernest Hemingway nevertheless retains his appeal for a wide variety of readers. Perhaps that appeal has more to do with the legend he worked so hard to create than it does with the work itself, but few can doubt that his contributions to the art of fiction were once of major importance....

(The entire section is 750 words.)

Jeffrey Hart (review date 29 May 1981)

SOURCE: Hart, Jeffrey. “Swell Letters: The (Mostly) Sunlit Hemingway.” National Review 33, no. 10 (29 May 1981): 618-19.

[In the following positive assessment of the selected letters, Hart claims that “the true Hemingway devotee will savor every word, and every brief explanatory footnote by Carlos Baker, who has done a superb editorial job here.”]

Malcolm Cowley once wrote that Ernest Hemingway was one of the “nocturnal” American writers, and compared him with Hawthorne. I myself have compared him to Picasso's famous painting of the woman looking in the mirror: one countenance is painted in warm colors, cheerful; the alternative countenance is greenish and...

(The entire section is 1610 words.)

Sean French (review date 17 August 1984)

SOURCE: French, Sean. “Trade between Giants.” Times Literary Supplement (17 August 1984): 925.

[In the following review, French offers a negative assessment of The Echoing Green.]

Literary criticism is a collaborative process and, as F. R. Leavis argued, the crucial collaboration is that between the critic and his audience. But what if you have no confidence in any common ground with your audience at all? [In The Echoing Green], Carlos Baker seems to conduct his argument within a literary-critical version of Forster's Marabar Caves, that symbolic locale where there is no returning echo at all, simply a blank “bou-oum” representing the ultimate...

(The entire section is 584 words.)

Robert Gleckner (essay date March 1985)

SOURCE: Gleckner, Robert. Review of The Echoing Green: Romanticism, Modernism, and the Phenomena of Transference in Poetry, by Carlos Baker. American Literature 57, no. 1 (March 1985): 158-59.

[In the following essay, Gleckner finds The Echoing Green limp and disappointing.]

Jacket copy, publishers believe, helps to sell books. Perhaps it will sell some copies of this book [The Echoing Green], but those who buy on this account will learn to their disappointment, especially if they know Carlos Baker's previous work, that you can't always tell a book from its jacket blurb. This jacket tells us that Baker “examines and interprets” the works of...

(The entire section is 810 words.)

James W. Tuttleton (review date 4 April 1996)

SOURCE: Tuttleton, James W. “The Discord at Concord.” Wall Street Journal (4 April 1996): A12.

[In the following positive review, Tuttleton asserts that Emerson Among the Eccentrics “is a massive, readable, at times witty, always erudite biography of Ralph Waldo Emerson.”]

At his death in 1987, Princeton Prof. Carlos Baker had virtually completed Emerson Among the Eccentrics. Luckily for us, the manuscript has now been rescued and published (with a graceful introduction by James R. Mellow).

This book is a massive, readable, at times witty, always erudite biography of Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-82), one of America's most...

(The entire section is 875 words.)

W. Clark Gilpin (review date 9 October 1996)

SOURCE: Gilpin, W. Clark. Review of Emerson Among the Eccentrics, by Carlos Baker. Christian Century 113, no. 28 (9 October 1996): 943.

[In the following review, Gilpin offers a favorable assessment of Baker's biography of Emerson.]

Carlos Baker, who had a long and distinguished career as a literary critic at Princeton University, is perhaps best known for his magisterial 1969 biography of Ernest Hemingway. But for more than a decade thereafter Baker focused on Ralph Waldo Emerson, and this distinctive biography is the welcome result. Virtually complete at the time of Baker's death in 1987, Emerson Among the Eccentrics details Emerson's life in Concord,...

(The entire section is 440 words.)

Further Reading


Allen, Bruce. Review of Ernest Hemingway: Selected Letters, 1917-1961, edited by Carlos Baker. Christian Science Monitor (14 April 1981): B4.

Considers Hemingway's selected letters “a publication of enormous significance both for the study of Hemingway himself and for our understanding of modern American literature.”

Kazin, Alfred. “He Sensed the Disenchantment in Our Time.” Book World—The Washington Post 3, no. 15 (13 April 1969): 1, 3.

Postive review of Baker's biography of Hemingway.

Lisca, Peter. Review of Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story, by Carlos Baker....

(The entire section is 237 words.)