“The masters of the short story come to no good end,” wrote Ernest Hemingway, in a bitterly prescient moment. He was, of course, a master of the short story who came to his own no good end with a shotgun.
But now is not the time to speak of endings. This week marks the 118th anniversary of Hemingway’s birth. Today, no living fiction writer towers over American culture the way Papa once did. His cultivated blend of machismo and existential stoicism captivated a lost generation shattered by war. His elliptical style mesmerized readers for decades — and remains so highly contagious that students still fall prey to its impassive tone and declarative simplicity. The International Imitation Hemingway Competition ran for nearly three decades, ending in 2005 , but the number and quality of entries that poured in over the years suggest it could have gone on forever.
Isn’t it pretty to think so?
I’ve always had an uneasy relationship with this Nobel Prize winner. I got to know the young woman who would eventually be my wife in a seminar on Hemingway. The earth moved, though not at first. If she was attracted to the testosteronic writer, I don’t know what attracted her to me. Hemingway and I were both raised by Christian Science mothers in the Midwest, but beyond that, the similarities end. He had more wives than I’ve had dates. He rushed into danger to get material for his writing; I rushed into writing to get away from danger.
But as I studied his life, all that boxing and boasting and bingeing struck me as symptoms of deep insecurity. Surely, a real man wouldn’t be quite so self-conscious about being a real man, right?
Those tensions are richly explored in a new biography by Mary V. Dearborn, but I can’t help feeling that, for most of us, the secret to appreciating Hemingway’s work lies in staying away from Hemingway’s life. His bravado, his pomposity and, frankly, his inconsolable sadness risk overshadowing his art. What the New Critics called “the biographical fallacy” is always irresistible, but it’s especially tempting when dealing with a writer who aggressively encouraged it. Trying to match up every event in a story to the author’s life is a swell way of reducing a great work of fiction to a flawed autobiography.