by Kenneth S. Lynn is an in-depth biography that covers the life of this mythic figure and vibrant literary genius. Just as the protagonists of his work, Hemingway lived life on a grand scale. He developed a persona that became as widely acclaimed as his works of literary fiction, known especially for his overt displays of machismo and masculinity. However, through this biography, Lynn reveals an insecure and deeply troubled man.
In 1906, the Hemingway family moved into a large house in Oak Park, Illinois. The house was designed by Ernest’s mother, Grace Hall Hemingway, and offered consulting rooms for Ernest’s father, Ed, as well as a conservatory where Grace could practice her operatic singing and offer music lessons. The house was spacious enough to support the large family in all of their endeavors, including Ernest and his siblings Marcelline, Ursula, Madelaine, Carol, and Leicester. From an early age, it was clear that Grace expected nothing less than greatness from her offspring.
Always the domineering figure of the family, she had been an unusually aggressive figure by the Victorian standards of her own upbringing, riding a bicycle, for example, at a time when that device was considered to be for men only. It was Grace who pushed the children toward excellence, but it was also she who created the nightmarish contradictions that would forever torment the psyche of Ernest. These paradoxes, especially those relating to sex and gender, inform some of his best-known works.
To most people, the name Hemingway conjures images of a big-game hunter, pugilist, bullfight aficionado, war correspondent, and excellent trout fisherman. However, through his intimate biography, Lynn reveals a fragile man who remained firmly under the thumb of his mother. Grace smothered Ernest with affection, but used it as a way to control her son and husband, often humiliating them. From his father, Ed, Hemingway inherited a love of all things wild. Ed, a good provider and expert woodsman, showed Hemingway how to fish and instructed him—as he did all the neighborhood children—in the art of identifying plants, birds, and trees. Ed committed suicide in 1928, an act that foreshadowed Ernest’s own suicide decades later in 1961, and the suicides of his younger sister Ursula, in 1966, and younger brother Leicester, in 1982. Ernest always attributed his father’s suicide to his mother’s incessant belittling of the man.
Throughout the biography, Lynn lays out his theory that Grace deliberately created a confused sexual identity for Ernest from a very young age. She was known to have dressed her son in girl’s clothing, and allegedly promoted an inappropriate relationship between him and his older sister, Marcelline. Lynn argues that, due to the actions of his mother, Ernest was haunted by ambiguous sexual drives for the entirety of his life. In support of this theory, Lynn points to Ernest’s work The Garden of Eden
, published posthumously in 1986, claiming that the novel is proof of the nature of Hemingway’s psychosexual development.
Lynn also extrapolates on the fact that Hemingway had a reputation of betraying his friends. Due to his fiercely competitive nature, he had a tendency to downplay the help he received throughout his career. He had a significant entourage of writers with whom he worked and who played a considerable role in his success as a writer, including Sherwood Anderson, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Perhaps even more than his desire to establish himself as a great American writer, Hemingway sought to create of himself a legend, and in this pursuit, he was aided by the likes of reporters, editors, and critics. Especially helpful was journalist Malcolm Cowley, who believed and disseminated Hemingway’s grandly inflated versions of himself. These dramatizations of himself were supposedly born of his service during World War I. Hemingway had volunteered for service with the American Red Cross and was struck by mortar fire when he was well behind the lines passing out chocolates to the Italian soldiers. After this event, Ernest spent time in a military hospital in Milan, where he met and fell in love with Agnes von Kurowsky, his nurse. These elements form the bulk of the story Hemingway tells in his novel A Farewell to Arms
. Beneath all of the posturing and self-aggrandizement, Lynn argues, lies the real hero, the one who tried to create new fictions for the twentieth century.
Hemingway was known to have battled with writer’s block all of his life. To him, the agony of the unfinished page was more terrifying than any wild bull or charging elephant. These psychological torments combined with his catalog of physical ailments to make his life unbearable. On July 2, 1961, he blew his head off with a shotgun. Tragically, “the battle he finally lost was with himself.”