Review by Alvah Bessie: ERNEST HEMINGWAY-A LIFE STORY by Carlos Baker

by Rebeca on June 5, 2009

by Carlos Baker; Scribners, 697 pages.

Reviewed by Alvah Bessie in the
Marin Independent Journal, Saturday, April 26, 1969

Although Carlos Baker says that no definitive biography of Ernest Hemingway is likely to be undertaken until after the year 2000, he has come very close to writing it himself. And since Baker had previously published a critical estimate of the American novelist’s work that is still in print, the reader will not find such an estimate here. This is precisely what its author says it is: the story of a man’s life from his birth in Illinois in 1899 to his suicide in Idaho in 1961.

It was a relatively incredible life in many ways and the man who lived it deliberately created a legend about himself in addition to leaving a body of fictional work that may or may not live beyond the year 2000. His biographer obviously feels it will.

This attitude is implicit throughout the long narrative and the story itself generally maintains the reader’s interest, for Baker writes very well.

Since this is an “official” biography (it is even copyrighted jointly by its author and Hemingway’s widow) the reader will understand the integrity of Baker’s achievement when he discovers that Hemingway bore little resemblance to the legend he so successfully created about himself – a legend that in time returned to plague him.

Given his estimation of the man as a writer it is most gratifying that his biographer resisted any temptation toward the sort of craven adulation to be found in A.E. Hottchner’s cheap little memoir called Papa Hemingway. To the contrary, Baker’s book reveals the fact that the man who could be loyal, generous, warm and modest to those he considered his friends could also be (and much too often was) cruel, petty, a braggart, a bully, an anti-Semite and a permanent adolescent.

He also practiced his cruelty on those he claimed to love, including his four wives, two of whom he rejected and one of whom rejected him. It is this third wife, the gifted writer Martha Gellhorn, whose treatment in the biography is the sketchiest and the least satisfactory, but it could very well be that she refused her cooperation to the biographer. The portrait that emerges bears little resemblance to the actual woman.

Given his honesty it is curious that Baker could still retain such admiration for Hemingway the artist once he had developed such cogent insights into Hemingway the man. For the two are inseparable and anyone who has read the bulk of his work is aware that he was in no way comparable to Tolstoi, Dostoevsky or Balzac – or even to Faulkner, Sinclair Lewis, Thomas Wolfe or Theodore Dreiser, most of whom Hemingway denigrated in one way or another.

Hemingway worshiped what he thought was courage, virility, endurance and “honor”; he feared and was obsessed by death; he did not understand (and was contemptuous of) women. He adored soldiers (especially officers), bullfighters and prize-fighters, hunters and sportsmen. It was crucial to him to be thought a man of courage, a lover “who bedded every woman he ever wanted,” a marksman, an authority on military science, a fighter and two-fisted drinker. And while Baker’s biography makes it plain how these qualities led step by step to the man’s pathetic disintegration, it also makes plain to the critical reader why his perception of life was so limited and his range as an artist so narrow.

Baker is gentle in the extreme when faced with Hemingway’s mendacity, preferring to call it “romantic pretending.” For Hemingway boldly claimed that he had commanded troops, had gone ashore in the Normandy invasion, was present at the breaching of the Nazis’ West Wall, “killed plenty Nazis” himself and was the first man into liberated Paris – when none of these things were true.

They were part of the legend he was compelled to create out of his own sense of insecurity, which was also manifested by his inability to accept criticism, to tolerate the idea that anyone could write a better book, make more money, shoot a bigger lion, catch a bigger fish, or be more widely admired as a person and as an artist.

As a political thinker Hemingway was a child, which explains why his picture of the Spanish Civil War was attacked by the men he so much admired: the American veterans of that war. Curiously enough, Baker features a scurrilous letter E.H. wrote to the last man to command the Lincoln Battalion – Milton Wolff – but fails to give equal prominence to Hemingway’s honorable apology a short time later.

This unfortunate slip in judgement aside, the book is a solid and almost final telling of the story of a man whose appetites were sometimes larger than life, but who was generally much smaller than the man that he – and that his biographer – thought he was.


{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Randall Radic June 6, 2009 at 12:34 am

An excellent review. And a great post!

Tom Becker February 2, 2011 at 5:41 pm

Having read most of Hemingway’s fiction, and some of it several times, and then having read Carlos Baker’s biography of the author, I must say I was very disappointed. The book was interesting at times but often rather tedious, full of insignificant details that added little to the narrative but instead tended to bog it down. Every time Hemingway or one of his wives caught a cold, for example, it was duly noted, and every person they were associated with at any point was named and often discussed. When you are dealing with perhaps the greatest American writer of fiction of the Twentieth Century, these things are unimportant. My biggest complaint, however, is that Hemingway came off as a total asshole almost all through the book. Worst of all was his murderous treatment of wild animals, which he would shoot in an instant. There are hunters who are not complete idiots, but Hemingway, in this book, comes off like one of the buffalo hide hunters from the mid-1800s. He slaughters game by the hundreds and is at it continually. The way he treats people is often rather callous, as well. When you are well-read as far as his fiction goes, something doesn’t jibe here. Sure, I knew Hemingway was an avid fisherman and hunter, but nothing in his fiction prepares you for this, shooting coyotes from an airplane or prairie dogs from a passing car. This is the sort of thing that total jerks engage in. How Baker got this info is questionable. He certainly wants the reader to believe that Ernest Hemingway was a jerk, a writer who minimized revision, couldn’t spell, and complained of overwork when all he did was hand in a manuscript that may have been typed once or twice by someone else. It is a damning account of the writer’s life, both in the way he treats his wives and in the way he is continually traveling the globe, going from one adventure to another and damn the expense. One gets the idea, even in this biography, however, that something is amiss with Baker’s treatment. This modern trend of turning every biography into a sleazy expose is to be lamented. I’ve read a number of them and each one makes the subject out to be some sort of egomaniacal monster. I don’t believe any of it, or at least, will believe some of it with a large grain of salt. One thing I’m still certain of is that Hemingway is a great writer and his work will live on for hundreds of years. The works that impressed me most are not the ones that the critics went ga-ga over but some of those that they barely recognized. Like Hemingway, I don’t give a damn what most of them think. This reviewer, a woman, obviously dislikes or is predisposed to dislike Hemingway for philosophical reasons. As an animal lover, myself, I have always been uncomfortable with his attitude toward animals. However, as a writer very familiar with most of his work, I can’t help but give him credit where it is due. The reviewer needs to read some of his works before she judges this biography, which I’d give a C-.

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