Carlos Baker Introduction

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(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.