What A (Hemingway) Man Wants

by Dish Staff

TNR recently pulled this review by Max Eastman of Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon by from their archives, which purportedly causes Hemingway to track Eastman down in his New York City office and show him just what was under shirt. You can see why:

Why then does our iron advocate of straight talk about what things are, our full-sized man, our ferocious realist, go blind and wrap himself up in clouds of juvenile romanticism the moment he crosses the border on his way to a Spanish bullfight? It is of course a commonplace that Hemingway lacks the serene confidence that he is a full-sized man. Most of us too delicately organized babies who grow up to be artists suffer at times from that small inward doubt. But some circumstance seems to have laid upon Hemingway a continual sense of the obligation to put forth evidences of red-blooded masculinity. It must be made obvious not only in the swing of the big shoulders and the clothes he puts on, but in the stride of his prose style and the emotions he permits to come to the surface there. This trait of his character has been strong enough to form the nucleus of a new flavor in English literature, and it has moreover begotten a veritable school of fiction-writersa literary style, you might say, of wearing false hair on the chestbut, nevertheless, I think it is inadequate to explain the ecstatic adulation with which Hemingway approaches everything connected with the killing of bulls in the bull ring.

Reviewing The Letters of Ernest Hemingway, Volume 2: 1923-25, Edward Mendelson offers related insights into Papa’s psyche:

What makes the book revelatory is not its biographical detail but the spacious view it gives of Hemingway’s mind at work in his long, eager, and unguarded letters to boyhood friends. For the past fifty years, ever since his embittered older sister Marcelline reported that their mother had dressed the young Hemingway as a girl and had tried to raise the two of them as twins, and ever since his posthumous novel The Garden of Eden (1986) revealed his androgynous fantasies, the conventional reading of Hemingway explained him away as the product of sexual confusion and category-crossing. This turns out to be as simplifying and crude as the he-man image it supplanted. These letters make clear that both the he-man and the androgynous fantasist were surface expressions of a deeper wish that shaped Hemingway’s life and work, a driving impulse that ultimately had nothing to do with sex.

The wish, Mendelson argues, has to do with the breakdown of heroic male code the young Hemingway upheld, which included belonging to a band of brothers – but which failed as he became an adult, at which point he fantasized that “he could merge instead with a lover”:

Everyone quotes the most obvious examples. A Farewell to Arms: “There isn’t any me. I’m you.” “We’re the same one.” “I want us to be all mixed up.” For Whom the Bell Tolls: “I am thee also now…. You are me now.” “I am thee and thou art me and all of one is the other…. I would have us exactly the same.” The Garden of Eden: “Now you can’t tell who is who can you?” (this after the woman enters the man with her hand). Everyone interprets these as gender-crossing, but they express the same wish for dissolution that recurs throughout Hemingway’s letters to his band of brothers, where, in one enthusiastic paragraph after another, he refers to each of them with the single phrase “a male.”

What Hemingway wanted—both as he-man and as androgyne—was a lasting intimate connection that did not require him to be a separate individual person—something no one can have. Virginia Woolf, in a review that infuriated him, perceived the price he paid for his wish. Hemingway’s characters, she said, are like people overheard in a restaurant talking in rapid slang, “because slang is the speech of the herd.” Those who speak it are “seemingly much at their ease, and yet if we look at them a little from the shadow not at their ease at all, and, indeed, terribly afraid of being themselves.”