Mary Dearborn on Ernest Hemingway: An interview by Bob Morris

Mary Dearborn is the author of six books: Mistress of Modernism: The Life of Peggy Guggenheim (2006), Queen of Bohemia: The Life of Louise Bryant (1996), and Mailer: A Biography (1991). Her latest book, Ernest Hemingway: A Biography was published by Knopf (2017). She received a B.A. in English and Classics from Brown University and a Ph.D. in English and Comparative Literature from Columbia University, where she was a Mellon Fellow in the Humanities. She lives in Buckland, Massachusetts.

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Before discussing your superb biography of Ernest Hemingway, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

My current partner, who I have been with for over thirty years, is a journalist, and helped me unlearn bad academic writing habits and learn to write anew. He remains my best editor. Second, my father, who always encouraged me to read and to value literature.

The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

I got my PhD from Columbia University, and was lucky enough to get my dissertation published very quickly by Oxford University Press. This gave me a published book, which substantially increased leverage my with agents and editors when I wanted to leave academics and write for the general public.

Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

I had always wanted to be a writer, but my fiction was subpar (mostly because of wooden dialogue) and my poetry even worse. I spent my 20s in English grad school at Columbia, basically reading and writing about books, which, looking back, wasn’t a bad way to spend my 20s—that is if I hadn’t been broke all the time.

I had a sort of epiphany after publishing my first book (my dissertation) at age 30—which was that I was a writer—a writer of nonfiction. I could be a writer after all. (Sounds obvious—it wasn’t.)

To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished thus far?

It made me do a lot of reading and writing. But I had to kind of educate myself when it came to reading and learning to write biographies. The biographical approach isn’t very welcome—to say the least—in academia. But I’ve always wanted to know what made people tick, and since the people in whom I was most interested in were writers, that meant I was drawn to literary biography.

What do you know now about writing non-fiction that you wish you knew when you began work on your first manuscript? Why?

I’ve learned that you don’t need to comment on a subject’s behavior all the time, and that you should try not to judge. This is really very simple—you learn to show, not tell. This became an issue first with Norman Mailer, who, though I love him dearly, often behaved like a horse’s ass. I didn’t have to point that out for the reader—I just had to show what he said and did. The result was my biography was said by several reviewers to be very fair, which I think is a great compliment. Of course, you still have to be careful not to stack the deck—selecting all incidents or statements that show your subject behaving like a sinner/ignoramus–or a saint.

This came up with my Hemingway work as well, though he was a much more complicated creature, and sometimes I did have to stop and comment on why I thought he was doing certain things or saying things in a certain way.

I think you have to have compassion for your subject — number one.

Of all the greatest biographers throughout history, with which one would you most like to be closely associated for an extended weekend of one-on-one conversation? Why?

This is an answer to a somewhat different question, but the biographer who is working today whom I most admire is Blake Bailey, whose biography of John Cheever won the National Book Award. He’s also the biographer of Richard Yates and Charles Jackson (of The Lost Weekend fame.) He’s now writing a biography of Philip Roth, for which I don’t envy him one bit!

What have you found to be the unique challenges of writing a biography as opposed to, say, a history of Florence during the Italian Renaissance?

Understanding another human being. While I don’t think of myself as taking a psychoanalytic or even psychological approach, an historian really has to act like a therapist in some ways: What are your subjects/patients trying to tell you when they say this? Do that? You need to listen to see if they aren’t recreating or responding to a much earlier episode in their lives—perhaps from childhood. One crude example: the way a lot of subjects interact with spouses can have a lot to do with their experiences with their parents. That may seem obvious, but you need to be sensitive to it.

What seem to be the defining characteristics of an environment within which great writing is most likely to thrive.

I have an answer to this that might seem to be off-the-wall: it’s a good sign when gay people are thriving in a civilization. Renaissances are often gay—the Italian one, the Harlem one. Less flippantly, I guess I would rephrase—that I believe that personal freedom bears artistic fruit.

Now please shift your attention to your biography of Hemingway. For those who have not as yet read your biography, hopefully your responses to these questions will stimulate their interest and, better yet, encourage them to purchase a copy and read the book ASAP.

When and why did you decide to write another biography of him?

First, I’ve done three biographies of subjects who spent a lot of time in Paris — Henry Miller, Louise Bryant, Peggy Guggenheim. I’ve found that to be incredibly fertile soil. And Hemingway’s the ultimate Paris-in-the-20s guy.

It was also inevitable after biographies of Henry Miller and Norman Mailer. They’re the three figures who’ve been instrumental in defining manhood in the last century. I don’t like to take this too far, because people often think I’m choosing the worst of the—to use a defunct term—male chauvinist pigs, when that’s not it at all. They didn’t really treat women any worse than other men do (well, with exceptions!), but that’s not the point, anyway. What can they tell us about relations between men and women in our recent history? How have they shaped them? Are they still relevant in a world that seems to have little more use for dead white (hypermale) men? (I think the answer to the last question is yes, needless to say.)

Early on, you observe, “I have no investment in the Hemingway legend.” Please explain.

I’m not interested in men who can fish, fight, or hunt well — or any of the other things that go with that territory. (Though I often love to read fiction about these subjects—namely, Hemingway’s stories.) Why would I care how manly a guy appears? In fact, that’s more likely to predispose me against him. What are these guys trying to prove? Or, to be a little less hostile about it, I could just say that this kind of thing doesn’t interest me.

Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

I had never understood just how crazy Hemingway could be, and I don’t just mean falling-apart-at-the-end-alcoholic stuff. I mean out of his mind. These were usually bipolar episodes, the worst of which came when he turned fifty and wrote that awful book Across the River and into the Trees. He was stark raving. Claimed he’d done all these wacky things he never got near—like saying he used to ride in rodeos. It was awful.

To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

I don’t think I’ve ever looked at any of my subjects’ lives as minutely as I did Hemingway’s. I believe this came from something that really shouldn’t have concerned me much at all—I wanted to show the Hemingway scholars that I’d found new stuff. This led me to ferret out details I probably wouldn’t have bothered with otherwise. Of course, my actual readers didn’t care about these new nuggets and details, but I think the end result was a happy one: the details enriched the story.

Please explain the defining characteristics of the relationship between EH and his mother, Grace Hall Hemingway.

They were way too much alike! How they looked, how they moved, how they sucked the air out of a room. How prickly they were and quick to take offense. How long they held grudges. How handsome they were, how brilliant, how versatile, how charming. How talented.

The defining characteristics of his relationship with his father, Clarence Edmonds Hemingway, M.D.

I think Ernest always felt he let his father down, and he did, a bit. In the months before Ed Hemingway killed himself he kept telling Ernest how much he’d love to go camping with Ernest and his other son, Leicester. Ernest never even took the invitation seriously—he was too busy being famous. Though Ernest wasn’t good at admitting difficult truths about himself or his own shortcomings, I bet on some level he never forgave himself for not going camping with his father that last year.

Please explain the failure of three of EH’s four marriages. First, Hadley Richardson (1921-1927).

Though in retrospect Ernest idealized Hadley, I think at the time he was fairly cut-and-dried about moving on to a new wife. He had fallen in love with wife #2, Pauline, but it didn’t hurt that Pauline was witty, chic (a Vogue editor), and had money. I think his friends told him that he had outgrown Hadley—who was a tad frumpy, dowdy, and not as quick on her feet as Pauline. This sounds pretty shallow (and I guess it was), but I do think Ernest really was genuinely in love with Pauline.

Next, Pauline Pfeiffer (1927-1940)

Pauline put Ernest first in absolutely everything. She out-and-out said, for example, that she was more interested in being a wife than a mother (with somewhat disastrous consequences for the kids). Most important, she put his career first—Ernest’s writing was her top priority. She even pre-read the books Scribner’s sent to him every month, to see which ones were worth his while. She did this in great good humor, and I think this was his happiest marriage. Fond as I am of Pauline, however, I don’t think this was good for him at all in the end. As to why he left her: I completely blame Martha Gellhorn. I’m one of those who believe she went down to Key West intending to sink her hooks into him. And she did—he never knew what hit him.

Then, Martha Gellhorn (1940-1945).

Martha and Ernest were way too competitive for a good marriage. She was with him during his finest hour—the Spanish Civil War—and it was her finest hour as well, come to think of it. But they couldn’t continue. She wanted to go report the war in Europe, and he was content lying around Cuba and going out sub-chasing on his boat.

Hemingway seems to have had an urgent need for constant female companionship and yet he also seems to have viewed himself as a “man’s man.” In your opinion, what do his countless relationships with women reveal or at least suggest?

Well, one myth is that he was a womanizer, a great cocksman — quite the contrary. I think he slept with at most seven women. But he did need to be married. He seems to have been able to be close to women (I’m thinking of Hadley, Pauline, and Mary—not so much Martha) in a way he couldn’t be close to men. He had fallings-out with almost every male friend he had. But he also—and he wasn’t unusual for his time in this—needed women to wait on him, clear away problems for him, flatter him, provide an audience. In the end he actually was closer to women than to men, I’d say.

Over a lifetime, many other persons can also have a significant impact on one’s personal growth and that was certainly true of EH. Here are several, listed in alpha order. First, Sherwood Anderson

Treated him so incredibly badly (turning on him, writing a parody of his work, writing him a mean, crowing letter) that on this score alone he should burn in hell (just kidding). Anderson was really princely about it. He admitted to being deeply hurt and disappointed, but he left it behind him.

John Dos Passes

They diverged politically after the Spanish Civil War, which made Dos P. very anti-Soviet and later right-wing. Dos P was the friend who could put up with Ernest’s bullshit the longest—he didn’t seem to need to compete with Ernest. He genuinely liked Ernest, and I think the feeling was mutual. But this all changed in the Spanish Civil War, and not just for ideological reasons, but because Ernest seems to have just decided to start bullying Dos P.

F. Scott Fitzgerald

Don’t get me started!!! Yet he loved Fitzgerald, and knew what was best about the man and his work.

Maxwell Perkins

One weird thing about Max was how differently he related to his three most famous clients — Wolfe, FSF, and Ernest. He really didn’t edit Ernest (in fact God help you if you touched his prose other than to fix the spelling). He was mostly just a friend to him. But there’s no getting away from the fact that Ernest’s writing went downhill after Max’s death. It’s tempting to say that Max would have stopped him from publishing some of the wretched stuff (like Across the River) but I don’t think he would have per se—Max wouldn’t have dared to. But there was something about Max that kept Ernest on track, and he went off the rails after Max’s death.

Ezra Pound

Without Pound, Ernest’s career may never have got off the ground. Pound did more to enrich modern literature than anyone else, hands down, and Ernest was no exception. But something happened to Pound. He just lost it and became a nutcase and a pretty terrible old fool. (Note, however, that the two of them never had a falling-out.)

Gertrude Stein

Extremely important stylistically. Extremely. Also, coincidentally very much like his mother—in build, talent, charisma. After a certain point Ernest couldn’t stand her—perhaps inevitably.

Agnes von Kurowsky

I think she had Ernest’s number, somewhat—that she knew he was conceited and full of himself but was charmed by him against her better judgment. She was older, though, and wised up pretty fast.

C. G. (“Pete”) Wellington

The Kansas City Star association, especially with its editor, was absolutely crucial for his writing — right up there with Stein (and maybe Anderson).

Which of Hemingway’s works do you most admire? Why?

The stories. The simplicity of emotion, the economy, the latency of the emotions—why everyone loves him.

I also love Green Hills of Africa, where he comes closest to having a sense of humor about himself. It’s also kind of a love story to Pauline.

In your opinion, which of his works reveals the most about him personally? Please explain.

Under Kilimanjaro, which is one of the posthumously published African books (not the novel, True at First Light). It is a no-holds-barred (not that he says anything shocking) compendium of jottings, descriptions, flights of fancy, autobiography. It’s just all-Hemingway, all-the-time; that is, unvarnished. There’s nothing literary about it.

Two others: Snows of Kilimanjaro (one of my very favorite stories) and The Garden of Eden. The latter for obvious reasons—the gender stuff. It’s important to note, however, that he did not believe it could be published in his lifetime.

In your opinion, why did he treat so many people so badly? He treated several like prey.

Cussedness. Inability to love.

What are Hemingway’s defining characteristics as a parent ?

He was not a good father. Let’s leave it at that.

In your opinion, what is the relevance of the phrase “band of brothers” to Hemingway’s relationships with the men whose company he preferred?

Hemingway loved nothing better as a young man. Guys off on hunting trips together, etc. Off at war together. He tried to recreate these situations very often as a young man—everyone come skiing with me! come hiking! — giving up on them only after it was clear everyone else had moved on to have careers, families, etc. Look at how he kept wanting Archibald MacLeish and others to go on safari with him—he was even willing to pay (or let Uncle Gus pay) for him to go. He hung onto this as an ideal long after most people grow out of it. Soon enough he may have realized he couldn’t have gotten along with a bunch of equals for very long—and he replaced them with people like his Cuban “posse,” who weren’t really equals at all.

As I read your discussion of various recurrent themes in your biography of Hemingway, I was again reminded of a theme that was central to the life and work of James Joyce: [begin italics] suffocation [end italics]. Which theme (or perhaps two) do you consider to be of comparable significance in the life and work of EH? Please explain.

Suffocation in Joyce! I’ll have to think about that. Barely contained fear in Hemingway’s work. A Clean Well-Lighted Place. The shell-shocked heroes of stories like Big Two-Hearted River. Death (as in bullfighting) was always a preoccupation, so I suppose that’s what the fear is. But I’m more interested in how, over time, he tries to keep the fear at bay.

EH had so many residences after Oak Park and Kansas City. Where did he seem to be happiest? Why?

Cuba. He liked being off the beaten path. He also craved isolation, as many alcoholics do. (It is very bad for them—allows them to keep drinking.) He also liked not having artists, writers, and competitors around—he surrounded himself with toadies, because any “real” people/friends were too threatening to him. This sounds harsh, but I’m afraid it’s true.

Plus he loved the Gulf Stream — no question about it.

Guns have an especially diverse range of metaphorical significance in Hemingway’s life and work from his youth until his suicide. Which is of greatest interest to you? Please explain.

He was all about guns — literally, lived by the gun, died by the gun. His father killed himself with a gun, he killed himself with a gun. Having him pointing a gun on the cover of my book is, I know, upsetting to some people. But that’s him.

Here’s one of your many observations in the book that caught my eye: “What happened to Hemingway was a tragedy for him; a tragedy for his family, who had to endure it and were often damaged in the process; and a tragedy for us.” For those who have not as yet read your book, please explain what prompted this observation.

Because we never got to read what else he had to write!!!! Look at Snows of Kilimanjaro — he admits it. He just gave up. The tragedy is in the giving up. Why/when/how did that giving up become inevitable?

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Mary invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

Her website link

The New York Times review link

Washington Post review link

Mary’s Page at Amazon US  link

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