The creative life of all great writers is undoubtedly grounded in the formative events of childhood, and this is especially true in the case of Ernest Hemingway, the first son and second child of Grace Hall Hemingway and Dr. Clarence Edmonds “Ed” Hemingway, an ill-fated couple who lived in the stuffy, middle-class community of Oak Park, Illinois. In 1906, they moved into a large house of Grace’s own design, a dwelling that offered consulting rooms for Ed and a conservatory where Grace could continue her operatic singing and offer music lessons. Always the domineering figure of the family, Grace often humiliated her sensitive and insecure husband in front of the children (Marcelline, Ernest, Ursula, Madelaine, Carol, and Leicester). She had been an unusually assertive figure by the Victorian standards of her own upbringing, riding a bicycle, for example, at a time when that device was considered to be for men only. It was Grace who encouraged—and pushed—the children toward excellence, but it was also she who created the nightmarish contradictions that would forever torment the psyche of Ernest. These paradoxes, especially those relating to sex and gender, inform his best work, from The Sun Also Rises (1926) all the way to the posthumously published The Garden of Eden (1986).
It was Grace who insisted on dressing Ernest like a little girl—long beyond the time that this practice normally occurred. (Most boys of the period began their lives in dresses but changed fairly soon to trousers.) This sartorial confusion, however, was only the most obvious of a long series of strategies and schemes that confused the genders of Ernest and Marcelline, whom Grace treated as identical twins. Once they began school, Grace insisted on identical haircuts, coats, and hats for the two siblings. She engineered plots to have Ernest escort Marcelline to party after party (including the high school proms); in general, she promoted an entirely unhealthy relationship between her oldest children, one that would result in lifelong enmity between them, as illustrated in Marcelline’s acerbic memoir, At the Hemingways (1962).
If this behavior on Grace’s part were not enough to undermine and skew Hemingway’s attitude and emotions toward women, then her treatment of her husband certainly furnished adequate evidence of the damage a wife and mother could cause. Never really sure of himself or his place in this large family, Ed Hemingway nevertheless displayed many admirable qualities. He had a passionate love for the outdoors, and when Ernest was still a child, Ed taught him how to fish and instructed him—as he did all the neighborhood children—in the art of identifying plants, birds, and trees. When Grace Hemingway thoughtlessly burned some of Ed’s snake specimens, Ernest never forgave her. This particular event is echoed in his own work, as are the many facts about woods and watercourses which he learned during the annual family vacations around Lake Walloon and Horton Bay, Michigan (the setting and actual background for many of the Nick Adams stories). When Ed committed suicide in 1928, Ernest naturally blamed Grace for this tragic conclusion to his father’s frustrated life. Ed’s suicide also started a grisly tradition of sorts within the Hemingway clan: Ernest committed suicide in 1961 and the suicides of his younger sister Ursula, in 1966, and younger brother Leicester, in 1982, followed.
Perhaps the greatest real or imagined damage that became part of Grace’s legacy was the inability of her son to reciprocate the love and affection shown to him by so many women (especially his four wives: Hadley, Pauline, Martha, and Mary)—or the kind and generous assistance of such writers as Sherwood Anderson, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Ford Madox Ford, John Dos Passos, and, especially F. Scott Fitzgerald. Kenneth Lynn is perhaps most convincing in his heavily Freudian reading of Hemingway’s life when he shows the undeniable linkage between the novelist’s betrayal by his mother and his lifelong tendency to betray his closest associates.
Again and again, Hemingway had to bite the hand that fed him, and this ugly trait is nowhere better shown than in his great novel The Sun Also Rises, a book in which Hemingway satirized and caricatured the most outstanding figures of the expatriate American literary community living in Paris in the 1920’s (including Djuna Barnes). These bitter portraits of some of his closest friends—Hemingway’s shabby...
(The entire section is 1849 words.)