Hemingway: The Paris Years

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

The story of Ernest Hemingway’s years in Paris has been told repeatedly. His own fiction and memoirs describe his sojourn in Paris, and many Hemingway friends, biographers, and critics have explored this seminal phase of the writer’s development. What distinguishes Michael Reynolds’ account here, as in the first volume of this ongoing biography, The Young Hemingway (1986), is the way he has steeped himself in this mass of primary and secondary sources while making fresh use of Hemingway’s unpublished writings. Especially valuable is the distinction he is able to make between the way Hemingway and his contemporaries felt then (in the mid-1920’s) and the way they recall the period in their memoirs.

Although the basic story is familiar, it still sparkles with Reynolds’ deft handling of characters and setting. Especially fine is his evocation of Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley. She was always there for Hemingway, warmly maternal, sexually appealing, and enormously patient with her moody, aggressive, and ambitious husband. As long as Hemingway was unsure of himself of exactly when he would make his breakthrough as an artist, Hadley was absolutely essential to his well-being. Recognized only in low-circulation European literary journals and among the Left Bank aesthetes, Hemingway was an obscure, pretentious upstart—sensitive about his apprenticeship under writers such as Sherwood Anderson and Gertrude Stein and belligerent about being beholden to Ford Madox Ford, who employed him on the literary journal, transatlantic. Hadley’s quiet encouragement, her financial support (she had inherited money), and her willingness to do without—virtually every woman who met her remarked upon how badly dressed she seemed—guaranteed Hemingway an absolutely sympathetic atmosphere at precisely the time he most needed it.

Indeed, the handsome and vigorous Hemingway had an extraordinary band of backers. Sylvia Beach lent him money and books, introduced him to the most influential literary figures, and featured his first published books in her bookstore window. Ezra Pound put up with Hemingway’s uncalled-for attacks on his friend, T. S. Eliot, helped place Hemingway’s short stories in literary magazines, and generally played the role of the young writer’s booster, confidant, and partner—even agreeing to box with Hemingway when it was obvious that the winded poet’s forte was words not fisticuffs. At first, Robert McAlmon functioned in a similar position, but as a Hemingway contemporary (in age and in aspirations) he eventually became a bitter rival. Hemingway feared and loathed his competition and usually found a way of picking fights with men who in some way threatened him.

It may seem surprising that Hemingway had so few real enemies. As Reynolds shows, however, he was a man of wonderful charm and vitality. Men often felt energized around him, more masculine, and women more feminine—intrigued by this all-male specimen who so clearly needed a woman to help engineer his emergence as a great writer. Gertrude Stein, for example, could not resist a man who treated her so completely as an authority on writing. When it came to the question of developing an honest style, his entreaties to her for help suggested a moral nature that ennobled the profession of writing.

Another source of Hemingway’s appeal was his consummate ability as a performer. Every aspect of his life became a drama. Although he wanted to capture the truth of things in writing, this was not the same as adhering to the facts. Indeed, Reynolds suggests that “whenever Hemingway put words on paper, he was creating fiction.” He had a way of making himself the center of the action, writing about “himself in the act of being a reporter,” Reynolds remarks. With Hemingway, Reynolds concludes, there was no such thing as nonfiction, only “degrees of fiction.” Rather than being outraged as some biographers are by their subjects’ prevarications,...

(The entire section is 1628 words.)