Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1560
The classical scholar Sir Ronald Syme so immersed himself in the works of Cornelius Tacitus that many critics felt his prose style came to resemble that of the Latin author. When Syme’s Tacitus was released in 1979, critics joked: “What is the difference between the style of Tacitusand the style of Tacitus’ Annals?”; to which the answer was: “No difference at all. They are precisely the Syme.”
Imitating the style of their subjects must be a great temptation for literary biographers. In Michael Reynolds’s Hemingway: The 1930’s, sentences are often as concise and striking as those in the novelist’s own works: “Martha Gellhorn, not yet twenty-nine, was not a tender of men, nor did she require much attendance.” At times, Reynolds even ventures close to parody: “More arena afternoons, more blood and sand, and afterward a warm hotel room with too much noise outside in the street, and, later, a meal of several courses not ending before midnight. . . . The summer is finished: time to leave.” In the work of a less accomplished biographer, such passages would merely be distracting. However, Hemingway: The 1930’s is the fourth volume in an excellent series by Reynolds that includes The Young Hemingway (1986), Hemingway: The Paris Years(1989), and Hemingway: The American Homecoming (1992). Since Reynolds is also the author of two specialized studies, Hemingway’s First War (1976) and Hemingway’s Reading (1981), it is no wonder that he can reproduce the master’s style almost without trying.
The strength of Hemingway: The 1930’s lies in its detail and thoroughness, not in its unexpected revelations. This is not at all a revisionist biography. The author provides no shocking new information about Hemingway’s life, and the book details its period without a single major surprise. The result is that Reynolds neither attacks his subject’s genius nor engages in uncritical adulation, producing simply a more complete look at the Hemingway we already know. Reynolds sees the novelist as a figure of deep but fleeting passions. Hemingway burns with enthusiasm for each new interest—a budding romance, a newly discovered sport, a favorite part of the world, a preferred companion for travel and conversation—that intensifies until it seems to be of consuming importance, only to fade away quickly when the next interest comes along. For instance, Hemingway’s preoccupation with bullfighting—so all-consuming that it results in the novelist’s first work of non-fiction—is cast aside in favor of marlin fishing almost as soon as the book is published. Love for Spain is replaced by love for Cuba, until Cuba yields to Africa and Africa to Spain yet again. Pauline Hemingway, the “other woman” in the novelist’s life, who, at the start of the book, has just usurped the place of his first wife, Hadley Richardson, is herself replaced in his affections by the writer Martha Gellhorn. (They, too, will marry in 1940 and then divorce in 1945.) The portrait that emerges fromHemingway: The 1930’s is that of a man who loves easily and bores easily, who must always search for a newer style or more perfect literary form, who continually exchanges old passions for new in a never-ending search for that still-richer mixture of danger, romance, and adulation that he feels compelled to pursue in every aspect of his life.
Hemingway’s unquenchable thirst for adulation is another of Reynolds’s repeated themes. No matter how successful each of Hemingway’s new publications may be—and they often sold many times the number of copies sold by other works regarded as “best-sellers”—the praise received by the author was never enough. In what became a tedious ritual after the appearance of each new work, Hemingway would bitterly accuse his editor, Max Perkins, of failing him. In the novelist’s eyes, the editor never promoted his books sufficiently, failed to see that they received a prominent enough place in bookstores, skimped on advertisements, and (most bizarrely of all Hemingway’s charges) tried to sabotage the very works that the long-suffering Perkins had patiently urged him to finish.
One friend after another learned how brutal Hemingway’s tongue could be. (Hemingway’s readiness to find fault with others was always coupled with his own inability to endure even the mildest criticism.) The novelist’s own children were forced to grow into roles their father envisioned for them; Hemingway tended to have little interest in young children, taking on his famous role of “Papa” only as his boys grew old enough to hunt and fish. Reynolds’s Hemingway is, thus, an insecure genius, a deeply flawed figure desperate for the approval of others but stinting on praise himself.
Though nominally an independent volume, Hemingway: The 1930’s is almost inseparable from the first three works in Reynolds’s series. The author assumes knowledge of many facts in Hemingway’s life and provides neither footnotes nor introduction for those unaware of them. As a result, the reader who has not begun with Reynolds’s earlier biographies may be confused about Hemingway’s complex relationship with his first wife Hadley, the important role that the novelist’s Uncle Augustus (“Gush”) Pfeiffer played in keeping the family afloat during difficult financial times, and the origins of Hemingway’s troubled relationships with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson, and Max Perkins, all of which reach their climax in this volume.
It should also be noted that Reynolds’s focus is always biographical rather than literary. He carefully traces the development and publication of Death in the Afternoon (1932), Winner Take Nothing (1933), Green Hills of Africa (1936), To Have and Have Not (1937), and The Fifth Column and the First 49 Stories (1938), but provides little or no literary analysis of these works. Readers who approach Hemingway: The 1930’sexpecting to come away with insights into the gradual development of the author’s style or the thematic relationships of the novelist’s books during this period are likely to come away disappointed. Reynolds has produced a biography of Hemingway during the period when he wrote remarkable books, not an exegesis of the books themselves.
Nevertheless, everything that Reynolds provides is of immense value: accounts of the background to each of Hemingway’s major works from the 1930’s (often with a discussion of the specific person or incident that inspired the book), a detailed summary of Hemingway’s day-to-day affairs as he sought to balance his active life with his many literary pursuits, and the novelist’s feelings about how each of his books was received by his colleagues and the general public.
At the very end of Hemingway: The 1930’s, Reynolds adds one final piece of the puzzle. He describes all of the novelist’s life and work during the 1930’s as a prelude to his creation of For Whom the Bell Tolls(1940). In the biography’s final paragraph, Reynolds concludes that
To create his characters, [Hemingway] needed all those Spanish days ofDeath in the Afternoon, studying the bullring and the faces surrounding it. He needed the African book to learn about moving people through terrain. He needed all those experiments with structure before he could write this story which has within it several other stories, each in a separate voice. He needed his affair with Martha [Gellhorn] before he would write of his fictional Maria. He needed the strength and purpose of Pauline to create the older woman, Pilar, whose name once belonged to her. He needed to watch the Italian bombers on the Tortosa road before he could describe the bombing of the lonely hilltop.
Hemingway: The 1930’s thus ends by presenting itself as an interlude between the author’s experimental years in Paris and the appearance ofFor Whom the Bell Tolls, a work that many regard as the fruit of Hemingway’s long years of apprenticeship.
A particular strength of this biography is its exploration of the novelist’s intense friendships—and bitter competitions—with some of the most important literary and intellectual figures of the early twentieth century. Reynolds provides better insight than earlier biographers into Hemingway’s final break with F. Scott Fitzgerald and the gradual decline of his relationship with Gerald and Sara Murphy. As writer after writer became increasingly attached to liberal causes during the tumultuous years of the Great Depression, Hemingway, seemingly alone, remained aloof from ideology, unlike John Dos Passos, who could not comprehend his friend’s apparent indifference to the plight of the poor. Yet, Hemingway refused to equate “serious literature” with any particular political agenda. He wanted to write about life “as it really was,” unclouded by the author’s own point of view. Only as the threat of fascism grew during the late 1930’s—and, Reynolds suggests, as the influence of the politically-oriented author Martha Gellhorn also grew—did Hemingway’s politics and literary perspective begin to merge.
Hemingway: The 1930’s contains an abundant amount of supplementary material, including excellent maps, a useful chronology of the period covered by the book, photographs of all principal characters, and a well-chosen bibliography. The work is a serious contribution to scholarship on Ernest Hemingway, deserving to be read by both literary scholars and general readers alike.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist. XCIII, May 15, 1997, p. 1557.
Chicago Tribune. July 2, 1997, V, p. 3.
Choice. XXXV, November, 1997, p. 483.
Hemingway Review. XVII, Fall, 1997, p. 92.
Kirkus Reviews. LXV, April 1, 1997, p. 531.
Library Journal. CXXII, April 15, 1997, p. 82.
The New York Times Book Review. CII, June 15, 1997, p. 23.
Publishers Weekly. CCXLIV, April 14, 1997, p. 62.
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