Of the writing of biographies of Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, there is, it seems, no end. Two more have just come down the pipeline, and the prospect of reading them tempted me to cap the quote and add that “much study is a weariness of the flesh.” Nor was it encouraging that both are biographies à thèse: David S. Brown’s Paradise Lost, written by a professor of history, purports to show that Fitzgerald was a “cultural historian” first and foremost, while Mary V. Dearborn’s Ernest Hemingway proudly bills itself as the first Hemingway biography to be written by a woman. As everyone who reviews books knows all too well, most of them can be judged quite easily by their covers, so I expected a double-barreled dose of pulpit-punching obviousness. What I ended up getting was something gratifyingly different.
While neither book glitters with high literary style—always a deficiency when mere mortals dare to write about the lives of major novelists—both are written soberly and well, and their authors manage to steer clear of the rigid thesis-mongering to which Earl Long alluded when he said that Henry Luce, the single-minded founder of Time and Life, was “like a man that owns a shoe store and buys all the shoes to fit himself. Then he expects other people to buy them.” To be sure, neither book is “definitive” in the way that, say, W. Jackson Bate’s Samuel Johnson is the book to read about Dr. Johnson if you’re only reading two, but the fact that so many biographies of Hemingway and Fitzgerald have been written suggests that there is something about them that will forever elude easy definition.
If they had much else in common, I’m damned if I know what it is, though a case can be made that they shared a fair amount of doubt about their masculinity. Hemingway, needless to say, was a textbook bully, snuffling out weakness in others in order to paper over his own middle-of-the-night terrors. It says everything about him that he gossiped in print about the size of Fitzgerald’s penis. As for Fitzgerald, he was a charming, chronically unsure drunk who doubted everything about himself but the size of his talent, about which he had no doubts at all. They were far too ill sorted to be friends but went through the motions anyway, which is one reason we persist in thrusting them into the same Bruckner-and-Mahleresque pigeonhole: Scott & Ernest, Inc., Great American Writers of the Lost Generation.
The trouble with Hemingway, seen from the privileged vantage point of hindsight, is that he looks increasingly like a great influence but not a great author in his own right. No 20th-century writer would leave a deeper mark on his contemporaries, and as late as 1948, Evelyn Waugh, no respecter of reputations, unhesitatingly described him in print as “one of the most original and powerful of living writers.” Yet all but the very finest of his short stories now sound mannered and artificial, while the novels come off as little more than sustained exercises in mirror-gazing and pose-striking. I would like to like him more than I do, but the truth is that I find him almost unreadable, and my chronic distaste for his work is more than merely an allergy.
What is it about Hemingway that so many of today’s readers find so off-putting? The fact that he proved to be so imitable is a big part of the problem, and it didn’t help that most of the imitation was popularization. Among other things, the author of “The Killers” inadvertently invented the detective story, not to mention film noir, and inspired a generation of hack writers, all of them men, who longingly mistook his self-constructed legend for reality. Herein lies the real strength of Dearborn’s book, which is that she has, as she puts it, “no investment in the Hemingway legend. . . . I cannot see what the legend has to offer to a female reader.” All she cares about is how a hack reporter came to write such exquisitely wrought stories as “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” and “Hills Like White Elephants” and, in time, to blow his brains out, and she tells that story clearly, intelligently, and with a realistic but disillusioned sense of admiration for so sadly flawed a man and writer. Hemingway, she says,
seemed to find it difficult to give and receive love, to be a faithful friend, and, perhaps most tragically, to tell the truth, even to himself. By the end of World War II, and while still in his forties, he had done himself out of many of the rewards of the good life: He had three failed marriages behind him, had few good friends, was not writing well, and had surrounded himself with flunkies and sycophants. . . . Even at his peak, sentimentality and a garrulous streak sometimes crept into his writing.
While nothing in Paradise Lost is as concisely penetrating as this, Brown has the advantage of writing about a vastly more attractive person—though one who was no less self-destructive, and who went about the process of his self-destruction far more efficiently, entering into a marriage with a woman whose mental instability sucked him dry and drinking to self-flagellating excess in a futile attempt to tolerate the intolerable. All things considered, it is something of a miracle that Fitzgerald produced anything good enough to be read after his death, much less that he somehow managed to turn himself almost by sheer force of will into a full-fledged master.
To read about Fitzgerald’s career is to be put in mind of the characteristically astute remark that H. L. Mencken made about The Great Gatsby, his masterpiece: “There is evidence in every line of hard and intelligent effort.” Not only is Gatsby a miracle of craft, a novel short enough to aspire to perfection and good enough to approach it, one in which every character is memorable and every sentence unostentatiously lapidary, but Fitzgerald also wrote a not inconsiderable number of short stories of which the same things could rightly be said.
At the same time, there was far more to him than his craftsmanship. Brown is squarely on the mark when he says that Fitzgerald’s work embodies “the disquieting notion that we have drifted far from our inheritance as the children of pioneers to fashion a culture that teaches its young to love too much the privileges and protections of wealth.” That is why it retains its immediacy: If anything, we have drifted farther still in the same disorienting direction, and Fitzgerald, like so many moralists, knew that he was himself exemplary of the flaws of the culture whose frivolity he chronicled and indicted. This knowledge is the source of the gravity that heightens the force of his best work, whose lightness of touch cannot conceal its ultimate seriousness, a seriousness that makes the Hemingway of The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms look like a mere merchant of self-pity by comparison. Yet he remained a romantic to the last, as well as a true believer in the promise of the Midwest that spawned him and that he regarded to the end of his life as “the warm center of the world.”
In the end, it’s hard not to suppose that Hemingway and Fitzgerald were, quite simply, two kinds of people, one of whom never wrote a more self-revealing sentence than “Hail nothing full of nothing, nothing is with thee” and the other of whom summed himself up no less completely when he spoke of Jay Gatsby’s “extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again.” Perhaps that was what made Fitzgerald the greater artist and better man: He knew that the readiness is all.
– Mr. Teachout is the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal, the critic-at-large of Commentary, and the author of biographies of Louis Armstrong, George Balanchine, Duke Ellington, and H. L. Mencken. Billy and Me, his second play, opens in December at Palm Beach Dramaworks.