Hemingway: The American Homecoming
Michael Reynolds’ excellent biography of Ernest Hemingway from 1926 to 1929 follows two earlier volumes that bring Hemingway, born in 1898, up to 1926: The Young Hemingway (1986) and Hemingway: The Paris Years (1989). Reynolds is also the author of the critical work Hemingway’s First War: The Making of “A Farewell to Arms” (1976). In all these works, as in the present volume, he has not only a firm grasp of the relevant facts but also a telling feeling for the moods and imaginative life of his subject.
The three years here covered are important ones for Hemingway; in the course of them he moves from a relatively unknown, struggling artist in Paris who had published only short fiction, principally in In Our Time (1925), to a novelist and short-story writer well known in Europe and America, with two novels to his credit, a second collection of short fiction, and a third novel in the hands of his editor. This volume of the biography is the record of how all this came to be. In the course of these three short years, Hemingway also divested himself of one wife and acquired a second. He signed a favorable contract with the prestigious firm of Charles Scribner’s Sons. He prepared for his return to America by, consciously or unconsciously, cutting himself off from many of his former friends and associates, among them Sherwood Anderson, Gertrude Stein, and Louis Bromfield. Thus he arrived at Key West, Florida, accompanied by a pregnant wife, in April, 1928, only to return to Europe after a bare thirteen months, unable to settle in America, having been changed irrevocably by his long stay in Europe.
The first year of the biography is devoted to the contrapuntal themes of Hemingway’s divorce from his first wife, Hadley, and his revision and rewriting of The Sun Also Rises, published in October, 1926. By April, 1927, his divorce from Hadley was final, and he married Pauline Pfeiffer in May. It took Hemingway almost a year to make final plans, earlier begun, to go to America, where he would meet his new wife’s parents and revisit his own in Oak Park, Illinois. Neither trip would be a great success, for Hemingway was restless and unable to reconcile himself to small-town Arkansas or to the company of his own parents, especially that of his father. One of the constant themes through the book is the old one of the relationship between the father and the son; even if the father rarely appears in the work, he is a constant presence in the mind and imagination of the son.
This part of Hemingway’s life also sees him introduced to Key West and the sport of deep-sea fishing, items that would play important roles in Hemingway’s future. The year in the United States also saw the composition of A Farewell to Arms, which was handed over to Maxwell Perkins in February, 1929. Perhaps of most importance, even more than the literary success, for Hemingway was the death of his father, who shot himself in December, 1928. Hemingway, who certainly had earlier mused on suicide, could not understand his father’s act, regarding it as cowardly. Reynolds does not need to comment on Hemingway’s own escape from life by the same means in 1961. The moods of depression and physical failings of increasing years were shared by both father and son.
Reynolds relates these three years, a life full of incident, in impeccable detail. This biography shares many of the qualities of a good novel. It has a strong and complex character at its heart; it surrounds him with a cast of interesting, even eccentric characters. It is narrated with a wealth of significant detail and features the enduring themes of love and passion, the struggling artist true to his craft, and the attainment of success in one’s chosen field, along with subthemes of suicide and virile masculinity.
As with any good novel, this work evokes a time and a place. Hemingway is seen clearly against and amid the expatriate life of Jazz Age Paris. The stock characters are all there: Sylvia Beach, Maxwell Perkins, Ezra Pound, Archibald MacLeish, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Ford Madox Ford, and Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald. The cafes and bistros of Paris and Spain are important places of resort and refuge, and the drinking often extends into the small hours of the morning. The moods of raffishness, the flying in the face of convention, the living for the moment, the search for sensation, are all made to come alive for the reader of this biography, and thus the reader can better appreciate the spirit and imagination of Hemingway in, so to speak, his natural habitat. This work can be satisfyingly read as an evocation of those years, whether or not one is particularly interested in Hemingway.
Just as the work evokes those things associated with the 1920’s, so it also evokes the puritanism and repressive morality, especially in the United States of the same period. Examples include the reactions of Hemingway’s parents to his divorce, the misgivings of his second wife’s relatives, the editing of some of his writings to remove “offensive” material before publication, and above all the objections from many quarters to the sort of life depicted in his works and in those of a number of writers...
(The entire section is 2145 words.)