The old man and the sea
He loved to rock the boat
Hemingway’s Boat: Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost, 1934-1961. By Paul Hendrickson. Knopf.
PAUL HENDRICKSON’S bibliography lists 76 biographical works about Ernest Hemingway, nine of them by wives, siblings and children, followed by memoirists, respected biographers and hangers on, pretenders and doctoral students. “Scholarly forests have been clear-cut in the service of explaining his so-called fetishes,” he writes. That does not mean there is nothing new to say on the subject, but Mr Hendrickson, a former journalist and American author of non-fiction, intends to tell it differently: “I want it to be less of a biography than an interpretation, an evocation, with other lives streaming in.” Having picked his way through this thick undergrowth of biographical criticism and research, he believes that by focusing on Pilar, the 38-foot cabin cruiser Hemingway purchased in New York in 1934 for $7,495, he has found a fresh way of telling a familiar story.
Pilar was designed for catching big fish in the Caribbean. By describing Hemingway’s life on board, Mr Hendrickson can concentrate on fishing, friendship and fatherhood. Because he likes Hemingway more than many other recent biographers have done, Mr Hendrickson lavishes pages on cordial relationships that blossomed on the boat with otherwise anonymous characters: an American diplomat in Havana whose wife typed Hemingway’s letters; an aspiring writer who knocked on Hemingway’s door in Key West seeking advice and was co-opted as a crewman. Both tried to write about their experiences, but their memoirs went unpublished and unknown until Mr Hendrickson came along. Pilar was also the scene of time spent with wives and children, and those reflections do not sweeten Hemingway’s reputation. His youngest son, Gregory, a tortured transvestite who eventually changed sex, once called his father “a gin-soaked monster”.
Hemingway’s fiction is sometimes said to express the anxiety of American men about their masculinity. Mr Hendrickson argues that behind the mask of hyper- masculinity lies “tuning-fork tremulousness”, which is why Hemingway’s writing survives, and also why there have been “years of innuendo and psychosexual speculation”. The idea that this he-man might actually have been gay is, he thinks, shallowly rooted—though Gregory did provide ammunition by calling his father “Ernestine, dear”. Mr Hendrickson, who regards Gregory as a tainted witness, concedes the possibility of a certain amount of sexual role-swapping between Hemingway and his wives. But this obsessive biographical speculation has managed to obscure Hemingway’s considerable literary achievement, especially in the years before he bought Pilar.
By the mid-1930s Hemingway found it easier to catch huge marlin than to write. In 1954, when he won the Nobel prize, his friend, John O’Hara, declared extravagantly that he was the most outstanding author since Shakespeare. But what Hemingway heard loudest in those years was criticism. While sailing on Pilar he read a good deal of it, and he found it intolerable. “I am supposed to lay back and come in with ‘War and Peace’ or be considered a bum,” he said. Hemingway’s pain is part of the personality that Mr Hendrickson evokes; and his assiduous research among those friends who shared life on the boat humanises the later Hemingway’s image as a bullying old booby.
Pilar is now a museum piece “like some old and gasping browned-out whale” in the garden of Hemingway’s house outside Havana. That image contributes to the strong feeling of melancholy that pervades this book. Mr Hendrickson says he sometimes feels we have lost all sense of who the man really was. By evoking and interpreting Hemingway’s smaller moments, the author has found an ingenious way of showing how this unhappy and vulnerable man was generally nicer outside his family than in it.