With the number of Ernest Hemingway biographies and sketches to choose from — there are at least 7 published since 1969, including one last year — one might believe that a new Hemingway bio in 2017 is akin to a new Starbucks in town.
This is not the case.
I just read Mary Dearborn’s creation, “Ernest Hemingway: A Biography,” and it is as good as advertised.
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In fact, her prose captivates the reader’s attention throughout all 752 pages for a number of reasons. Dearborn brings a PhD’s eye to her work, a woman’s perspective (the first ever for a major Hemingway bio) and many years of experience in writing biographies. (She has written books about Norman Mailer, Peggy Guggenheim and Henry Miller.) It also contains new material not previously available to readers.
Among that new information, according to Dearborn, is Hemingway’s medical records and the strange charts he kept of his own blood pressure, calorie count and weight, which he recorded every day. He weighed himself several times a day and kept jars filled with his own urine. Dearborn sees this obsessive behavior mirrored in the character of Nick Adams in the story “Big Two-Hearted River,” who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. Dearborn believes this behavior similarly allowed Hemingway to cope with his mental illness.
The myriad medications Hemingway was ingesting to lower his blood pressure, alleviate his delusions, depression and obsessive behavior include reserpine (a antihypertensive drug), which was discontinued following reports that one side effect was depression. The anti-anxiety drug Librium and Tuinal, a sedative, were dispensed for a calming effect, and according to his loyal friend A.E. Hotchner, Hemingway received 11 shock treatments in one month in 1960.
Dearborn, whose PhD from Columbia is in English and comparative literature, sifted through mounds of Hemingway papers at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Penn State University and Princeton University for several years conducting research for her book. She told me in a phone interview that it had taken seven years (including “a couple of delays”) to complete her book.
Other interesting information includes an issue that Hemingway grappled with for years: his son Gregory’s issues with gender identity. (Gregory is his youngest son, whose mother is second wife Pauline Pfeiffer.) Dearborn said she believes Gregory started dressing like a woman when he was 13 and that the Hemingway family even fired a maid over Mary’s missing underwear.
Hemingway wanted a to have a daughter, which he told Gregory on numerous occasions, especially when he was in a “mean mood.” Gregory Hemingway wanted to please his father, and in doing so he struggled with gender identity his entire life, dying tragically as a woman, Gloria, alone in the Miami-Dade Women’s Detention Center in 2001.
Dearborn also addresses Hemingway’s curiosity about gender switching, his obsession with hair, particularly. For example, in “The Garden of Eden,” released posthumously, when Catherine, the protagonist’s wife, cuts her hair like her husband’s, gender reversal ensues, and in “A Farewell to Arms,” Catherine Barkley tells Frederic Henry that they should be more alike, with her cutting her own hair and him letting his grow out.
Other fascinating facts and sections in the book include the inspiration for the name of his boat Pilar. We already knew that it is an annual festival in Spain, but “Pilar was also a code name agreed to by Pauline and Ernest for their telegraphic contact; it became their favorite girl’s name.”
Ever wonder who first called Hemingway Papa? The answer: Pauline bestowed him with the name because the Hemingways’ wealthy friend Gerald Murphy liked to call younger women ‘Daughter’ — including Pauline. “Ernest picked up the nickname as well,” Dearborn writes, “and Pauline entered into the spirit of things by using the name ‘Papa,’ first for Gerald and then for Ernest. That summer, ‘Papa’ caught on as Ernest’s nickname and spread like wildfire.”
Additionally, Dearborn addresses his nickname in high school, Hemingstein; his skirmishes with the great American poet Wallace Stevens and with actor Orson Welles; in-depth studies of his many concussions (which may have exasperated his mental illness); his time in Paris; and his longtime relationship with his editor at Scribner’s, Max Perkins.
If you are looking for an expertly written book from a woman’s perspective featuring new material about Ernest Hemingway, then Dearborn’s “Ernest Hemingway” is the book for you this summer. As with JFK, there will continue to be new books about Hemingway released periodically, and Dearborn’s masterpiece celebrates the author’s life in a meaningful way, deserving a spot on your bookshelf.
Wayne Catan teaches English literature at Brophy College Preparatory in Phoenix.