How It Was

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

Retiring in the shade after a recent upheaval of some sort—the birth of a child, separation from a spouse, moving across country, retirement—we can find ourselves compelled to take stock of what we’ve done in life. Sometimes going beyond the easy tasks of a financial or friendship inventory, we might be tempted to make serious value judgments of ourselves by asking such questions as, “What am I really doing here? Am I entitled to this? Or to more? Maybe less?” In How It Was, Mary Hemingway allows herself two deviations from the formulaic methods of evaluating one’s circumstances from time to time: first, after seven or eight years in the writing, her book appears fifteen years after her husband’s death in what seems to be recollected tranquillity; second, she shows no sign of cautious moralizing or self-justification of her life up to the present. Instead, she clearly relishes the remembrances of her life, despite its many frustrations and traumas. This last feature of How It Was characterizes the book as a fine work—because the author herself is extraordinary, and her reading public has much to learn from her.

Actually, the extraordinary nature of the author is only one of several criteria that can be used in a critical study of any autobiography. Certainly one can’t be held literarily responsible for the plot or character development of one’s own life in retrospect. But what any writer of an autobiography is responsible for is accurately deciding upon the relative worthiness of sharing his or her experiences with the audience. Mary Hemingway accepts such responsibility, and through her life story, advocates not existing through another person’s being, but molding what one has to start with into something one can be pleased with should it suddenly cease at any moment.

How It Was might be subtitled “How It Is,” for Mary Hemingway, today as in the past, approaches life with a childlike awareness and appreciation which never seems to slack regardless of the troublesome distractions. Even after the wrenching impact of her realization of her husband Ernest’s death, such an approach enabled her to deal with the finality of loss. The author believes that it is a person’s willing exploration of new places, people, and thought processes, which not only keeps life energized and fulfilling, but also keeps the individual resilient enough to accommodate life’s capricious twists. “There may be people people who design a pattern for their lives and manage to follow it precisely,” she states. “But I marvel that happenstance governs so much of the human condition.”

One of the more interesting apsects of How It Was is the author’s discussion of how increasingly taxing her husband’s reputation became for him. And if fame is difficult for its target to deal with, it can be doubly difficult for one once removed. The author and her husband shared and delighted in a long and loving marriage. But eventually the love and the fame came to cross purposes. Elated by her husband’s well-deserved success, Mary Hemingway’s immediate reaction was to leap into it wholeheartedly with him (as she had done in other circumstances throughout her life), yet she was simultaneously spurred to protect him from fame’s erosion of his inner character. How she handled this particular internal battle, well-documented by numerous journal entries and letters, is profitable reading.

Mary Hemingway’s robust approach to life and to the wide sampling of stout personalities she has encountered, when coupled with the genuinely tender relationship she shared with Ernest Hemingway, proves once again something academia and scholarship would do well to learn: intimacy with so strong a person as Ernest Hemingway can be accomplished only by another, equally strong individual. No matter how close critical analysis and research may bring a scholar to an artist such as Hemingway, it is obvious that all that can really be known about the author via that route is the art itself. It is a mistake to equate the art with the artist. (Mary Hemingway cites, for example, their joint contempt for critics who tried to weave Ernest’s work together with extrapolated neuroses and psychological idiosyncrasies into a mutually revealing marriage.)

How It Was, on the other hand, is a very valuable access to learning more about the last seventeen years of that great writer’s life. And, it is not mere proximity...

(The entire section is 1836 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

Best Sellers. XXXVI, January, 1977, p. H5.

Harper’s Magazine. CCLIII, December, 1976, p. 89.

Los Angeles Times. November 21, 1976, Books, p. 1.

New York Times Book Review. September 26, 1976, p. 3.

Newsweek. LXXXVIII, September 27, 1976, p. 98.

Saturday Review. IV, October 2, 1976, p. 24.

Time. CVIII, October 18, 1976, p. 104.