Cours Fictions et réalités

Exercice - Ernest Hemingway


Read the text and answer the following questions. Before starting, look up in the dictionary these words: lavishly - gregariousness - cant - untenable - extolled - undermined.


A Hemingway Tell-All Bares His Tall Tales


Ernest Hemingway began his career blessed lavishly by the gods. As a rugged young journalist, with a radiant, adoring wife, he dazzled the expatriate and artistic community of Paris in 1922 with his exuberance, gregariousness and exceptional good looks, including “the most beautiful row of teeth” the writer Max Eastman had ever seen. As Mary V. Dearborn notes in her authoritative biography, Hemingway “virtually commanded affection, admiration and attention.” His first books of character sketches and stories showed that he had literary talent as well, with an understated style stripped of euphemism, piety and cant. “In the golden city at a golden time,” Dearborn writes, “he would appear a golden young man.”

With the publication of “The Sun Also Rises” in 1926, Hemingway put a stamp on his spectacular literary career. Rapidly hailed as an important American writer, he became first a celebrity and then a legend, with his voracious pursuit of the adventurous roles and violent rituals of masculine contest. As he aged, however, that myth of heroic virility seemed increasingly untenable. He extolled male camaraderie, but was driven to betray and demolish his friends. He deserted his Paris wife, Hadley Richardson, and in three more marriages became more demanding of women’s adulation and service, more selfish and abusive. As his third wife, the writer and journalist Martha Gellhorn, observed, “A man must be a very great genius to make up for being such a loathsome human being.” And after World War II, Hemingway’s claim to literary genius seemed suspect as well. “How can a man in his senses,” John Dos Passos wondered when “Across the River and Into the Trees” came out in 1950, leave such garbage “on the page?” The international success of “The Old Man and the Sea” (1952) redeemed his literary reputation for a while and secured the Nobel Prize. But his suicide on July 2, 1961 was so shockingly at odds with the hypermasculine persona he had cultivated and protected that it undermined critical evaluations of his aesthetic standing as well. Harold Bloom saw him the same way he saw Updike, as “a minor novelist with a major style.” His golden legend became the tragic saga of a man destroyed by his demons and hiding despair. Yet Hemingway’s outsize life and controversial achievement has continued to be a magnet to biographers, and Dearborn is the first woman to join their company. A perceptive and tough-minded biographer, who has written about other fabled icons of masculinity — Henry Miller, Norman Mailer — Dearborn has now tackled the big one. A feminist biography, then? Not exactly. Her chief asset as a female biographer, she insists, is her immunity to the hairy-chested, competitive Hemingway legend. Dearborn wants to opt out of the legend business and focus instead on “what formed this remarkably complex man and brilliant writer.” (…)

She also stresses his genetic predisposition to manic depression and suicide: “Mental illness coursed through the Hemingway family like one of the rivers Ernest wrote about with such beautiful economy.” This dark legacy was exacerbated by his experiences in World War I, his alcoholism and the five traumatic brain injuries he suffered over his lifetime. Nevertheless, she holds Hemingway culpable for inflating his legend from the very beginning. Returning to Michigan as a wounded soldier, he played the “professional veteran” in interviews. En route to Paris with Hadley, he was “constructing myths about himself before he got off the boat.” By the 1940s, he was regularly telling “tall tales” about his war heroism, “an exaggeration or lie in nearly every sentence.” These falsities, she believes, began to infect his fiction as well. In “For Whom the Bell Tolls” (1940), she charges, his “concerns about authenticity” in writing, political commitment, love and experience were cheapened by the “repeated use of the word ‘truly.’ Authenticity truly loses.”

Dearborn skilfully covers an enormous range of rich material; she is an indefatigable researcher. (…)

Showalter, E. (2017). A Hemingway Tell-All Bares His Tall Tales. New York Times.

Question 1

Why did Ernest Hemingway become “first a celebrity and then a legend” according to the text (paragraph 2)?

Possible answer: 

Because he was an excellent journalist and people were attracted to his extrovert personality and good looks. According to the text, everybody seemed to admire and like him right away when they met him. Moreover, his talent as a writer became evident after the publication of his first book of stories. He then became a legend due to his particular taste for violence and adventure.

Question 2

What does the author refer to when she talks about “that myth of heroic virility” (paragraph 2)? Why was this “untenable”?

Possible answer: 

Ernest Hemingway built around himself a character of a male who is strong and virile and defends “masculine” values such as “camaraderie” between men. However, this was contradictory with the fact that he was not a great friend nor husband. The author tells us he used to betray his friends and he did not treat her wives well. This “myth of heroic virility” was also at odds with the fact that he ended up committing suicide.

"untenable" is an adjective which means: (especially of a position or view) not able to be maintained or defended against attack or objection: "this argument is clearly untenable".


Question 3

How did Hemingway act towards women in his life?

Possible answer: 

Even though he was admired by women and was married several times in his life, Hemingway had a reputation for mistreating the women in his life. He abandoned his first wife, Hadley, and with the others he became more and more “selfish and abusive”. He was even described as “loathsome” by his third wife, Martha Gellhorn.

Question 4

Was Hemingway always considered as a great writer?

Possible answer: 

No, there were periods in his life in which his talent as a writer was questioned. For instance, when “Across the River and Into the Trees” was published in 1950, the writer John Dos Passos called it “garbage”. Furthermore, when Hemingway committed suicide, people started criticizing his aesthetic approach

Question 5

Did Hemingway contribute to the creation of his legend? Explain.

Possible answer: 

Yes, according to Mary Dearborn, Ernest Hemingway did contribute to the creation of the legend that surrounded him. He exaggerated his character and his stories to the point of lying. This became especially true after his experiences in World War II, and his alcoholism and brain injuries also made it worse.