Q&A: Paul Hendrickson, author of Hemingway’s Boat

This July 2 marked the 50th anniversary of Ernest Hemingway’s suicide. In the half-century since his self-destruction, every facet of Hemingway’s life and work has been dissected and analyzed by scholars and biographers. The results vary. In Hemingway’s Boat: Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost, 1934‚ 1961 (Knopf) coming this September, Paul Hendrickson offers a refreshing take on Hemingway’s life by framing it within the 27 years he owned his fishing yacht Pilar. LJ Media Editor and Hemingway aficionado Mike Rogers chats with Hendrickson about the volume.

Hemingway bios have been done to death, but your book takes a different tack. How did you approach unfurling his life without repeating what had been done before? How long were you researching this?

To use an image from the source notes: I’ve stood on the shoulders of a lot of predecessors. Their influence has been large and instructive. I knew I didn’t wish to do a conventional biography, indeed probably wasn’t capable of it. My abilities seem directed elsewhere‚ some form of hybrid genre, trying to employ elements of biography but also thinking journalistically and in a documentary vein as well. My previous books have taken this approach. I was after some sort of evocation, interpretation, impression of the man.

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Early on, I came to the notion of trying to use Pilar as a structural framing device, a storytelling prism. As I suggest in the source notes, the idea may have been planted as long as three decades and four books ago. This is all part of my idea that our books find us more than we find them, and sometimes the finding can be a half-alert thing winding on for years. In terms of the active research and writing, I signed a contract after the previous book, Sons of Mississippi. That was 2003. I studied the man for a couple years, went to Havana in May 2005, started the first stabs of writing right afterward. There were many starts and stops, runnings aground.

I feel that most people picture Hemingway as a bully and a braggart, which he very much could be, but he also could be very warm, especially with strangers. When doing your research and talking to his friends and family, what kind of personality emerged? Sometimes he seems to be different people at once.

I think all of us have different personalities and put on the mask, but Hemingway’s life seems extreme in this regard. Something soft could come up as quickly as something unspeakably horrid. Some of this has to do, I am convinced, with manic-depressive illness. Ill children, or children otherwise at risk, deeply touched him. He could go out of his way to be kind to a stranger, and he was just as capable of spitting in his wife’s face. (He did that to his fourth wife, Mary.) The French have that expression: Notre demon est le mesure de notre ange. Our devil is the measure of our angel. In my judgment, some previous Hemingway chroniclers have too gleefully wished to seize on the bad. They’ve had plenty of material. But that is not the whole story.

You mention Hemingway’s amazing capacity for learning and becoming expert at everything from writing to big-game fishing at an alarming speed. He’s often thought of in the physical sense, but you indicate that he also had an amazing intellectual capacity, which he played down. Tell us about this.

He had this genius, among his many geniuses, for learning everything and almost anything with astonishing speed: lore, know-how, the names of streets in Kansas City, the art of shaking daiquiris, the intricacies of big-game fishing. The gift almost seems to defy the word “learn.” He’d find something out from his betters and then lap them on the track as if they were standing still. He did it, of course, with relish, because he needed always to be first. I am at a loss to say where such a genius came from, though certainly his artistic mother and his medical father were gifted people. But that doesn’t explain it near enough.

Regarding the intellectual capacity: this is a man who never went to college, but who wished to read everything, and pretty much did. He wasn’t a speed reader, as such, but his reading habits, like his ego, were voracious. So, of course, he came to know so much. But the native ability was just there. And you’re right: he wished to present himself in some sense as the man of the outdoors shying from all intellectual discussion. That was part of the mask. In truth, he was a bookish man in glasses, trying to get his work done and finding it harder with each passing year. But that gets us into the fame equation, which is another matter.

I’m glad you mentioned that after EH reached roughly 40, he seemed to be aging faster than normal, so by his late 50s he looked 20 years older. It’s as if his life was so large, and he did everything so intently, that time moved faster around him.

Precisely. And he seems to have understood it that way. You find him speaking in his letters, early letters, about how time is “short.”

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You dedicate whole chapters to Hemingway’s acquaintances such as Arnold Samuelson and Walter Houk and a goodly portion to his son, Gregory, who inherited many of his father’s demons on top of his own. Why dedicate so much space to them?

Again, it’s the way I seem to know how to work. I come from a journalistic rather than an academic/scholarly background. When I found out there was someone alive, who was barely known, who had been intimate with Hemingway in the early 1950s (Walter Houk), I could hardly keep myself from trembling. I have been visiting him and talking to him since 2004, and as you suggest, he becomes a character in his own right in the story. I went toward Arnold Samuelson for a variety of reasons, but related to what I have just said. He was long dead, but he was a part of the Hemingway story that hadn’t been looked at very closely‚ and as a journalist, that aspect fascinated me.

As for Gregory, for whom I have such a feeling of compassion, in spite of (and in a way because of) how ruined and self-ruined his life was, I had interviewed him (I had interviewed all three Hemingway sons) for The Washington Post in 1987, and I never forgot that encounter. His life is so tragic‚ and in other ways heroic‚ and I just wanted to tell his story. The question, of course, was how to fit his story to the wheel, no less than Samuelson’s or Walter Houk’s. It was a structural puzzle, the same kind I’ve faced in other books.

One other point: I speak in the book of the phenomenon and technique in astronomy known as “averted vision.” The idea is that sometimes you can see the essence of a thing more clearly if you’re not looking at it directly. It’s as if what you’re really after is sitting at the periphery rather than at the center of your gaze. I suppose that partly explains my methodology and hope in pursing these so-called “shadow stories.” In some ways, each one helped me to appreciate all over again, and in new ways, the myth-swallowed life of Ernest Hemingway.

In light of posthumous works like The Garden of Eden, which certainly is a remarkably brave book for a guy who made his bread and butter writing war and hunting and fishing stories, and despite how much analysis Hemingway’s work has undergone, do you think he’s misunderstood?

I believe he’s been much understood. I am arguing in this book, half a century after Hemingway’s suicide, for a far more benevolent view of him than popularly exists. In our collective imagination, he is a great writer and a pretty terrible human being. Speaking, for instance, just of his relationship with his sons: he forsook them, and he did not. In spite of everything‚ all his boorishness and depression and alcoholism and bipolarism‚ he tried to be their father.

The son he forsook the least, in spite of everything, was the one who disappointed him most‚ Gregory, his youngest, a lifelong transvestite and ultimately a transgendered man/woman, or woman/man, a medical doctor who ended up dying squalidly and alone in a Miami women’s jail cell in 2001, and who, it is my belief, was merely acting out, had been acting out, and for nearly his whole life, so many of the tortured, ambiguous tensions his father felt. They were both far braver than we knew, father and son, and this is why, for all the tragedy and sometimes rank squalor of their separate and joined stories, the book I’ve written is about uplift‚ or seeks to be. They both tried to cope with the complicated, powerful emotions swirling around them. Amid so much ruin, still the beauty.

Society has changed greatly since Hemingway’s death, but his books still sell briskly and he remains a household name and even is beginning to appear as a character in novels. Where do you see him in another 50 years?

I think he will absolutely be with us. Scribner, his publisher, reports that in 2010 his work sold 350,000 copies in North America alone. He exists iconically, he is sitting there on the back of our eyeball, and yet all you need to do is go to the work and then you’ll understand all over again why he endures. Pick up The Sun Also Rises‚ 60,000 lyrical words that he wrote straight off in something like seven weeks in 1925. The world had a new kind of writing on its hands‚ painterly, in the way of an Impressionist canvas.

Hemingway’s books are about the living of this life, the being of this life. For all the coarsened personal history, there is something so human about him. I’d go so far as to say something “spiritual” about him. He still stands for a great many tensions unresolved in American males‚ and not only males. Indeed, I think we’re only just beginning to see how deep and slyly understanding he always was of the female psyche. Some 20th-century writers, in my view, will be around more for their myth than their work. In this regard, I think of Kerouac and Truman Capote, to name two. The Hemingway work backs up every bit of the man, and the man reinvents himself for us in this new century.

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Michael Rogers About Michael Rogers

Michael Rogers (mrogers@mediasourceinc.com) is Media Editor, Library Journal and Managing Editor of LJ Reviews.