I Still Don't Like Hemingway, But...

Saturday, January 14, 2012

...if The Paris Wife is an accurate historical portrayal of his early literary life, then I feel like I can forgive some of his macho, sexist writing.

In case you lived under a literary rock for the last 12 months, The Paris Wife is the fictionalized story of Hadley Hemingway ne Richardson, who was Ernest Hemingway's first wife (out of four total).  Based on extensive research into the Hemingways' time in Paris, the novel starts in Chicago, where a young Hadley meets an even younger Ernest at a party.  Instantly drawn to each other, the two start an affair that eventually leads to marriage.  Despite the disapproval of both families, Ernest and Hadley set off for Paris, the happening scene for writers and artists in the very early 20th century.  Surrounded by such literary giants and Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein, Ernest sets about the serious business of writing.  Hadley, left to her own devices most of the time, loses herself in his career.  Over time, their relationship cannot withstand the darkness in his own soul, or his affair with a young editor at Vogue.

I've managed to read one and a half Hemingway novels, and a few of his short stories.  The one I remember best is Hills Like White Elephants,  about a woman who wants to have a baby with her husband but he wants her to have an abortion so he doesn't have to change his rather selfish lifestyle.  Not exactly endearing.  I've always been put off by his very violent ideas about manhood, and his rather apparent disrespect for women.  Having read The Paris Wife, however, I am better able to put his ideas in not just a historical context, but a more personal, emotional one.

What I didn't know about him before reading this book was that he was injured in the first World War, and that he spent most of the rest of his life trying to stare down death, terrified by his own morality.  Constantly afraid of being seen as cowardly or weak, he actively sought out experiences, like the bullfights in Pamplona, to convince himself of his own strength.  His war experiences, coupled with his depressive nature and the history of mental illness in his family, suddenly I see his overly-macho definition of what it means to be a man in a new light.  And while I still don't like his fiction, and I still think that he was a philandering sexist, at least now I have a context to put it in.  I now have compassion where before was only contempt.


  1. Nice way of putting it there at the end. I wasn't a huge fan of the little Hemingway I've read, but I had always liked A Moveable Feast, which is Hemingway's (at least true-ish) memoir of the same time in Paris that The Paris Wife covers. While reading The Paris Wife pretty much reinforced my opinion of Hemingway the man, I did at least come to feel for him a bit. If ever a writer could have benefitted from some good therapy, he's one.

  2. Thanks! I really did come away from the whole novel with a better understanding of what that time between the wars was like, at least in the 20s. The idea that everything can be taken away in an instant, and all anyone has is the moment...of course trying to live in the moment led to an awful lot of self-destructive behavior, didn't it?


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