Fathers and Sons
Copyright © 1998 by Timeless Hemingway
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Ernest Hemingway's relationship with death is almost as complex as his relationship with his mother. It is important to note that during his infancy, Grace Hemingway closely adhered to a traditional model of motherhood, showering her first-born son with warmth and affection:
With his first breath of life, Grace had drawn baby Ernest into a deliciously intimate dependency. For six months he slept in her bed, where she allowed him to pat her face, squeeze up close to her and feed at will from her pillowy breasts. "He is contented to sleep with
Mama and lunches all night," she happily recorded in her scrapbook."1
As Hemingway grew out of this "intimate dependency," he yearned for the greater freedom and rugged experience of his frontiersman father. Grace, no longer symbolizing the nurturing mother, instead represented an obstacle to her son's manly self-image, a tyrant evoking fear in his desire to solidify
a distinctive masculine identity. In later years, this fear would become a scornful hate. To close friends, Hemingway never sugarcoated his true feelings for his mother: "It's all right, it's only the truth, I really do hate her."2 It was a hate so deeply embedded that he refused to attend her
funeral when she died in 1951.
Hemingway may have shown cold regard for the death of his mother, but the suicide of his father in 1928 haunted him for the rest of his life. His sentiments regarding the incident were intricately mixed. While in an omitted portion of Green Hills of Africa, he condemned
his father as a coward who "shot himself without necessity,"3 he privately confided to friends that his mother, "that bitch" (as he frequently referred to her), had a direct hand in his father's death. He strongly believed that such domineering women always drove such feeble men to such
deplorable fates. In The Sound of the Trumpet, Leicester Hemingway, Ernest's younger brother, recalls the tragic fate of his father. Having just heard a gun shot, a boy walks down the hall to his father's bedroom and curiously nudges at the door:
It opened, and in the darkened room, all shades drawn except one, there on the bed lay his father, making hoarse breathing noises. His eyes were closed, and in that first instant as he saw him there in the half-dark, nothing looked wrong. He put his hand under his father's head. His hand slipped under easily
and when he brought it out again, it was wet-warm with blood.4
A far more gruesome fate would await Ernest Hemingway some thirty-three years later:
At about seven o'clock on that Sunday morning, Hemingway, dressed in pajamas and bathrobe, went down to the basement to get the gun and a box of ammunition. But he did not kill himself in that dark vault. Instead, he came upstairs to the foyer, near the gun rack and just
inside the main entrance of the house. Knowing that Mary would find him there, he pushed two shells into the twelve-gauge Boss shotgun, put the end of the barrel into his mouth, pulled the trigger and blew out his brains … Hemingway's chin, mouth and lower cheeks were left, but the upper half
of his head was blown away. Blood, bones, teeth, hair and flesh were blasted around the ceiling, walls and floor of the room.5
With every suicide comes the inevitable question of why. In the case of Ernest Hemingway, the more befitting question is, why not? Since the age of nineteen, as an American soldier in the Italian army, he had flirted with death, both fascinated and frightened by its consequences. Maybe he would have liked
to die on that war-ravaged ground surrounded by his dead comrades, his legs perforated with fragments of an enemy trench mortar shell, for how better it was "to die in all the happy period of undisillusioned youth, to go out in a blaze of light."6 This was the pursuit of death, to die as a hero, to leave the
world in a noble state of virility, in silent pain.
In the final years of his life, Hemingway's courtship of death intensified, as did his vulnerability to freak accidents and physical ailments. Kenneth Lynn is the most proficient in condensing this drawn-out list of injuries and illnesses into a single sentence:
Even the concussion of the brain, the ruptured liver, spleen and right kidney, the temporary loss of vision in his left eye, the loss of hearing in his left ear, the crushed vertebra, the sprained right arm and shoulder, the sprained left leg, the temporary paralysis of his sphincter, and the first-degree burns on his
face, arms and head that he suffered in the second of two plane crashes in Africa in January 1954 did not serve to wean him from the bottle, with the result that seemingly minor stresses on his system were thereafter apt to result in shocking collapses.7
After his second plane crash in January of 1954, Hemingway took delight in reading his obituaries, which though quite favorable emphasized his "constant efforts to court death."8 To this allegation, he replied, "Can one imagine that if a man sought death all his life he could not have found her before
the age of fifty-four? It is one thing to be in the proximity of death, to know more or less what she is, and it is quite another thing to seek her. She is the most easy thing to find that I know of."9 His body had become a vehicle for his own self-destruction; the countless injuries and illnesses symbolized his
decorations in valor, scars that would forever mark his physical vitality.
Sigmund Freud once wrote, "It is tragic when a man outlives his body."10 For Ernest Hemingway, the statement might better read, "It is tragic when a writer outlives his talent." In the winter of 1961, Hemingway was asked to be one of the contributors to a book honoring the recently inaugurated President Kennedy.
The man who had once written a 60,000-word draft11 of A Farewell to Arms no longer had the mental stamina to pen a few sentences in praise of his president:
Although he worked for hours, none of the dozens of attempts he made came close to satisfying him. A smell of desperation filled the room, Mary remembered. The next thing that happened was that Dr. Saviers arrived to take his patient's blood pressure. Sitting on the couch with his sleeve rolled up, Hemingway
broke down and wept. That one gift which had meant everything had now deserted him.12
Ernest Hemingway's gift for writing may have deserted him in the months prior to his death, but his "idealized self," which we have come to see as the wish-fulfilling by-product of his conflicted gender identification during childhood, is forever immortalized in print. Like Nick Adams, Jake Barnes, Frederic Henry and Francis Macomber,
Ernest Hemingway was a man who ultimately maintained control. Their progression as characters is similar to his progression through life. He is Nick Adams struggling to cope with the death of his father. He is Jake Barnes struggling to understand the incapacities of his masculinity. He is Frederic Henry struggling to connect the separate
pieces within himself. Finally, he is Francis Macomber, whose conceptualization of heroism is consummated only in his death.
Like his characters, Hemingway was a tenacious survivor, accepting the external forces outside of his control, yet refusing to allow such forces to culminate in his private destruction. If he were to be destroyed, it would be by his own hand. His suicide, therefore, could be considered the ultimate act of self-preservation. Throughout his life,
he had seen first-hand how things were taken from others—his father was robbed of his masculinity, his comrades in war were robbed of their lives. No one would rob Hemingway of the heroic death he alone had chosen for himself.
In an obituary, John Wain recalls of Hemingway: "His vision of life embodied itself in fables concerning physical activity and the outdoor world, but there is never any doubt that for Hemingway, as for all sensitive men, the real battleground is inward."13 The most momentous battles Ernest Hemingway ever fought were within himself.
He fought these battles in his literature as well as in his life. His reading public often found themselves blinded in the smoke of such battles, in the paradox upon paradox displaced by this consciously elusive writer. While to them suicide may have denoted a denouement of defeat, to Hemingway it was his one truest victory. No other paradox could
have been more brilliantly constructed.
The greatest story Ernest Hemingway ever composed was that of his own life. It seems only fitting that such a story should end in death, as all eventually do. How he chose to live, how he chose to write and how he chose to die were the accomplishments of a thoughtful man, to whom every peril and peregrination of life was a boyhood adventure,
a glorious challenge, an intrinsic test of self-discipline and manhood that must always be met with the utmost dignity, the utmost fortitude and, of course, "grace under pressure."
1. Kenneth S. Lynn, Hemingway, 43.
2. See Scott Donaldson, By Force of Will: The Life and Art of Ernest Hemingway, 293.
3. Ibid., 296.
4. Qtd. in Hemingway, Kenneth S. Lynn, 379.
5. Jeffrey Meyers, Hemingway: A Biography, 560, 561.
6. See Scott Donaldson, By Force of Will: The Life and Art of Ernest Hemingway, 305.
7. Kenneth S. Lynn, Hemingway, 529.
8. See Ivan Kashkeen, "Alive in the Midst of Death: Ernest Hemingway," Hemingway and His
Critics, ed. Carlos Baker, 162.
10. Quotation in a New York Times obituary, September 24, 1939. See George Seldes,
The Great Quotations, 263.
11. See Arthur Waldhorn, A Reader's Guide to Ernest Hemingway, 113.
12. Kenneth S. Lynn, Hemingway, 589.
13. See Hemingway: The Critical Heritage, ed. Jeffrey Meyers, 427.