Visiting “Ernest Hemingway: Between Two Wars”— an exhibition of manuscripts, photographs, annotations, and assorted Hemingway memorabilia at the Morgan Library & Museum (through January 31, 2016,) I was reminded of why I am generally wary of reading about writers—at least some writers.
When I first read Hemingway’s writing, I was an aspiring writer, looking for a literary mentor or role model. Certainly, A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway’s novel set in World War I, did much to influence my notion of how it could be possible (and desirable) to write. The chapter of the escape up the lake, from that book, as well as the short story “Cross County Snow” about two friends skiing in the Alps helped to form my romantic fascination with living in Europe.
But in looking for a literary model or mentor, I think it is important to choose a writer who can be a friendly and encouraging influence on you and your work. Hemingway was anything but that. He was belligerent, self-aggrandizing, sarcastic and disparaging of others—not the characteristics you would be likely to choose.
His treatment of F. Scott Fitzgerald is a clear example. Fitzgerald was the senior writer of the two. He had published three novels when Hemingway had still largely written only journalistic pieces. Fitzgerald gave Hemingway extremely helpful advice on how to rewrite The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway’s first novel, advice that Hemingway followed and which enabled the book to find not only publication but the acclaim which set Hemingway’s career on the upward trajectory that it subsequently enjoyed.
Fitzgerald never claimed credit for giving Hemingway that advice. But Hemingway never acknowledged receiving the advice either. In fact, in his memoir A Moveable Feast, Hemingway tried to give the impression that Fitzgerald had nothing to do with the novel’s revision. Thereafter, Hemingway continually disparaged Fitzgerald, as he did other writers to whom he felt indebted, for example, Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound. At one point, Hemingway pretended to want to reassure Fitzgerald about the size of his penis.
There is one famous exchange between the two writers which touches on a subject that I happen to have written about.
“The rich are not like us,” Fitzgerald once said to Hemingway, to which Hemingway replied, “No, they have more money.”
Hemingway often gets credit for having the better of that exchange, but it was actually Fitzgerald who made the more insightful remark. He was actually thinking as he spoke, feeling his way toward something he saw as a truth worth expressing. Hemingway, like many people with the “gift of the gab” wasn’t thinking at all. He was just on the look-out for the one-liner that would put him one-up on the other person. You can choose which of the two you would like to have a beer with.
Also you might look at Lillian Hellman’s treatment of Hemingway in her memoir Pentimento, or more recently Woody Allen’s literary fantasy-film “Midnight in Paris.”