Sunday, June 08, 2008

Three Ways of Looking at Hemingway: A.E. Hotchner, Nathaniel Rich and Joyce Carol Oates

By EDWARD NAWOTKA / Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News

Ernest Hemingway's reputation as hunting- and fishing-obsessed outdoorsman, fond of both drink and women, makes it sound as if he would have been as at home in Texas as he was in Cuba or Key West.

The only problem would have been his inability to play football. As quoted by A.E. Hotchner in his new book The Good Life According to Hemingway, he admits "I was not good at football ... I couldn't figure out the plays. I used to look at my teammates' faces and guess who looked like they expected the ball." The Good Life, a compendium of stories and aphorisms, is one of a trio of new books offering a perspective on the writer's legacy.

Mr. Hotchner, 87, calls himself "The Last Man Standing" among Hemingway's old friends. He met Hemingway in 1948 and traveled extensively with the writer, adapting For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Nick Adams Stories for television. After Hemingway's death in 1961, he wrote three other books about the man nicknamed "Papa."

The words he collected here, Mr. Hotchner claims, don't appear in Hemingway's work, but are nevertheless familiar ("Courage is grace under pressure" is credited to him, for example, as is "Never mistake motion for action"). It's vintage stuff, with Hemingway talking about his writing, famous friends, explorations. Of course, vintage isn't always desirable. Take, for example, Hemingway's opinions of women. (You can look up the quotes on your own.)

Mr. Hotchner – "Call me Hotch," he says when I reach him by phone at home – says he compiled this book as one last attempt to "show off Hemingway's use of language and imagery" to a new generation of readers. "Hemingway kind of invented his own language and left out adjectives," Hotch explains.

Indeed, it is Hemingway's terse, unembellished writing rather than his mythic lifestyle that has had the strongest influence on American letters.

"I see more fiction submissions employing that type of plain style than any other," says Nathaniel Rich, senior editor at The Paris Review.

Mr. Rich used Hemingway's larger-than-life persona as a model for Constance Eakins, a fictional writer at the center of his new novel The Mayor's Tongue. A highly entertaining, erudite book, The Mayor's Tongue tells parallel stories that eventually dovetail. The first is about an old man lamenting the disappearance of his best friend. The second concerns a recent college grad who befriends Eakins' biographer (a figure who, coincidentally, sounds a bit like Mr. Hotchner) and finds himself compelled to search for the long lost Eakins in Italy.

Eakins is depicted as part monster, part man and all myth, the type of adventurer scribe largely absent from today's literary scene.

"The he-man writer no longer really exists today," Mr. Rich says by phone from his office in New York, "It's anachronistic and grotesque, though deeply appealing."

In Wild Nights, Joyce Carol Oates offers her own portrait of Hemingway, albeit one taken from the very end of his life as he contemplates suicide. The story, titled "Papa at Ketchum, 1961" is one of five fictional accounts of the deaths of other writers, which include Poe, Twain, Dickinson and Henry James.

Here, Ms. Oates takes the opposite tack of Mr. Hotchner and Mr. Rich, depicting the writer, Papa in this case, as entirely diminished, "a sick broken-down old drunk with quivering eyelids, palsied hands, swollen ankles and feet" and no sexual capacity.

She imagines Hemingway as a bitter misogynist who, she asserts, would have murdered his fourth wife, Mary (here called "the woman"), along with killing himself. It's a powerful, if merciless, and original portrait. It also stands in almost direct contrast to Mr. Hotchner's treatment.

Which you prefer ultimately depends on how you choose to remember Hemingway. He was, it seems, many things to many people. Of all these, perhaps Mr. Rich's doppelgänger, one hewn entirely from imagination, is the closest we might ever get to the truth.

Edward Nawotka is a freelance writer in Houston.

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