I think the first time I became aware of Ernest Hemingway was in the wake of his death. In 1961, my dad took me by L to the Bryn Mawr, a discount movie theater on Chicago’s north side, to see a reissue of Gone With the Wind. I guess I had just turned eleven. I was already a movie enthusiast, but I remember thinking GTTW tedious. (I haven’t watched it since.) We were on our way to the stairs up to the L to take us home to Evanston when my dad saw a headline on a paper on the newsstand by the doors to the station. I can’t remember the exact words, but the essence was that Hemingway was dead.
My dad was pretty quiet as we climbed the stairs. I may have asked about that, and I think he may have said that Hemingway was a writer who had written a lot of stuff he had liked.
Later, I saw some of my father’s early attempts at short stories and the Hemingway influence was palpable. (He chose not to pursue writing fiction. He put all his attention to writing PR for universities and supporting his family. Since I was in that family, I appreciated that.)
My dad would not have been mistaken for striking a Hemingwayesque kind of figure. Thin, balding, kind but not given to expressing his emotions. He had a suspicion of people who strutted and postured (which Hemingway did compulsively). Some of this, I’m guessing, had to do with experiences in the army during WWII where he saw lots of bullies and moral idiots pushing around people who didn’t have the rank to stand up to them. (He did a number of things in the army, including typing transcripts of courts martial, writing for papers distributed to those in the service, a little translating while in France. He saw no combat, but after the war was stationed in a French town and was shocked and scarred by the violence some of the French took on each other to settle wartime scores.)
But I could see a connection between him and the writer he admired. Hemingway may have often been a gasbag in person, especially when he had too much to drink or was hitting on a woman, but the best of his writing reflects the stoicism of a midwest WASP upbringing, and my dad, too, was a stoic midwest WASP. (My mom was a Pittsburgh Jew, and I have always been thankful for the mix of his reticence and her explosiveness – well, thankful for those influences on my work. My mother’s explosiveness in person when I was a kid was sometimes enough to drive me from the house.) Sometimes his stoicism was dangerous. If he didn’t feel well, he wouldn’t complain. A few times, my mother overcame his reluctance and dragged him to a hospital, and the doctors told her she might well have saved his life. (Of course, this is what she told me, but he didn’t contradict her.)
These thoughts come to mind because of (you guessed it) the Burns-Novick PBS documentary, Hemingway. I suppose a lot of people who write for their livings will do as I couldn’t help but do – compare my ideas of what a writer should be and do with what Hemingway was and did. On the one hand, he promoted an image that tipped into the embarrassing. On the other hand, some of those sentences nearly bring me to tears. It’s wrenching to find that someone who could write wisely could also live so foolishly and wastefully.
But his obsession with writing – to him it was life and death – is something I can’t claim I can (or would want) to match. Writing seems often to have been torture to him. For me it is a pleasure and a relief. I love finding stories to tell, I love sharing them with others, I love reading and watching the stories others come up with. Hemingway felt competitive with other writers. I find the company of others who share this enthusiasm brings me great pleasure.
Saturday I finished a two-day intensive of teaching playwriting. My basic lecture on technique. I taught three hours Friday night and about another five on Saturday. Anticipating the class (and guessing how long it would take), I couldn’t help but wince at the work ahead. Once online with the group, though, the time sped by and I was so grateful to have their company. Grateful, too, that the assignments they wrote overnight were so good and gave evidence that the theory I asked them to assimilate was something they not only grasped but ran with.
I don’t imagine I have written anything to compare to Hemingway at his best. (Well, he did try to write a play and it wasn’t any good. Yes, my plays are way better.) But I don’t envy him. His life collapsed into agony and self-destruction. I mostly am enjoying myself. I can’t wait to tell or read the next story.