In Search of Hemingway’s Brain During His Lousy Centennial Year

Ernest Hemingway was stupid. Haven’t you heard? It’s right there, in the latest issue of Harper’s Magazine .

Hemingway has been called a lot of things over the years–vain, anti-Semitic, sexist–and now this.

This ultimate insult comes as an aside in an article on the supposed resurgence of American short fiction in the 90′s. Making a case for the work of Lorrie Moore, David Foster Wallace, Denis Johnson, Rick Moody and others, the critic Vince Passaro writes: “Today’s short fiction tends to be smart, and wit is an aspect of the literary art form that Hemingway couldn’t master and that his followers, consciously or unconsciously, put aside. (His anti-intellectualism, perfectly American and perfectly tuned to the needs of an ever-less-educated reading public, meshed well with his own marked lack of intelligence.)”

It goes on like that for a while. Now all Harper’s readers, a half-million or so quietly angry men and women with college educations, have been supplied with some heavy artillery–” marked lack of intelligence “–to fire at the greatest and whitest of the great dead white male authors.

The year 1999 could have been such a damned good time for Hemingway. In Oak Park, Ill., where he was born July 21, 1899, there was the Hemingway Fiesta, with flamenco dancing and tours of Hemingway family graves. In Ketchum, Idaho, where he killed himself July 2, 1961, the Idaho Humanities Council sponsored a Hemingway workshop for 25 high school teachers as Hemingway pilgrims visited his grave and scholars gave lectures.

But amid the centennial hoopla, Papa has taken a beating. The publication of True at First Light , probably the least of the posthumously published Hemingway books, has shot some more holes in his shaky literary reputation. And the introduction of an Ernest Hemingway collection of furniture from Thomasville furniture makers–now available at Huffman Koos and other outlets where fine furnishings are sold–hasn’t helped much, either. Both True at First Light and the furniture line (“Kilimanjaro” bedside chest, anyone? or could we interest you in a “Catherine” slipcover love seat?) depend on Hemingway’s rugged public image for whatever success they might have in the marketplace and have very little to do with the writer of the perfect first paragraph of A Farewell to Arms and a number of indestructible short stories.

Asked to explain why he thinks Hemingway was stupid, Mr. Passaro said: “There’s a very appealing quality to the Hemingway milieu–the places and people, a very dashing and appealing sense about them. He romanticizes at a perfect pitch, but I just began to sense that he was not a very intelligent or pleasant person. After reading a lot more and a lot better people, my opinion of him just ratcheted down, down, down, down. Technically, he worked very hard. He figured out how to put sentences on the page. But he’s shockingly unintelligent for a writer treated as so canonically important.”

While calling Hemingway stupid may be a cheap shot, it’s hard to imagine a critic taking that same cheap shot at, say, James Joyce or Henry James. At its best, Hemingway’s writing was lean and brisk. He buried profundities of thought and emotion under a smooth surface of dialogue and description. James and Joyce and other writers of that more obviously intellectual ilk gave readers more to grab onto. They enjoyed showing off their erudition and the meanderings of their minds, and so they were willing to err on the side of messiness and wordiness.

“My old college professor used to say that Henry James wrote his stories on the surface of the mind,” said Hemingway biographer Michael Reynolds, on the phone at the Ketchum festival. “Hemingway writes his stories on the surface of the cafe table.”

But with so much important stuff buried, Hemingway leaves some critics wondering if there is really anything beneath the polish. “What is it that you learn about the world from Hemingway?” said Mr. Passaro. “Pretty girls, he can’t get them–and when he does get them, they bust his balls.”

The charge made by Mr. Passaro is not quite new. In a 1934 essay, a Hemingway friend and rival, Wyndham Lewis, implied that his fictional heroes, dumb in both senses of the word, reflected their creator: “Hemingway invariably invokes a dull-witted, bovine, monosyllabic simpleton, a lethargic and stuttering dummy … a village-idiot of few words and fewer ideas.” Gertrude Stein, in her 1933 book The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas , made a similar charge, comparing her friend Hemingway to a student “who does it without understanding it, in other words who takes training.” (Both criticisms made him furious.)

Hemingway himself distrusted big ideas, grandly stated. In the work of Leo Tolstoy, he loved the storytelling, hated the philosophy: “I have never believed in the great Count’s thinking,” he wrote in the introduction to Men at War , a 1942 anthology. “He could invent more with more insight and truth than anyone who ever lived. But his ponderous and Messianic thinking was no better than many another evangelical professor of history and I learned from him to distrust my own Thinking with a capital T and to try to write as truly, as straightly, as objectively and as humbly as possible.”

He often played the part of pugilist and sensualist to the hilt–he hit on other women even in front of his first wife, Hadley Richardson Hemingway; he beat up the poet Wallace Stevens in 1936–which must have helped bring about the idea that he was a brute. But there’s no doubt he educated himself well, after joining the Red Cross ambulance corps at the Italian front instead of going to college following a high school career during which he had a 90 average.

“He was probably the best-read American writer of his generation,” said Mr. Reynolds, who spent much of the last 25 years on his five-volume Hemingway biography. “His Cuban library had almost 8,000 volumes and he didn’t start assembling that until 1940. He only had a high school education and he was making up for it, but he sort of overcompensated.”

If Hemingway felt intellectual insecurity, or felt himself to be less talented than his literary rivals, he apparently took pride in having made up for what he lacked. In an October 1929 letter from Paris to F. Scott Fitzgerald, before his falling out with Stein, he brought up the touchy topic of who had more talent: “Gertrude Stein has never last night or any other time said anything to me about you but the highest praise.… As for the comparison of our writings she was … only saying that you had a hell of a roaring furnace of talent and I had a small one–implying I had to work a damn sight harder for results obtained.… Gertrude wanted to organize a hare and tortoise race and picked me to tortoise and you to hare and naturally, like a modest man and a classicist, you wanted to be the tortoise.”

Years later, when Lillian Ross interviewed him for her 1950 New Yorker profile–just issued, as Portrait of Hemingway , in a Modern Library paperback edition–Hemingway described the virtues of not being too smart, in the form of a boxing parable: “One time, I asked Jack [Britton], speaking of a fight with Benny Leonard, ‘How did you handle Benny so easy, Jack?’ ‘Ernie,’ he said, ‘Benny is an awfully smart boxer. All the time he’s boxing, he’s thinking. All the time he was thinking, I was hitting him.’”

Ms. Ross duly scribbled down such talk, but never bought the idea that Hemingway was a dummy. “He was sharp,” she said. “He knew people, he knew writing, he knew fakers.” She said she wasn’t surprised that a critic is making the Hemingway-was-stupid argument. “I learned about critics when I was a kid,” said Ms. Ross. “What they did to Keats–I never forgot that!”

Ms. Ross’ profile of the author–while written with affection and published only after he himself had read it over in full–did much to knock down the myth of Hemingway as literary superman in its day. Nonetheless, Ms. Ross and Hemingway stayed in touch over the years and he showed his intellectual mettle to Ms. Ross’ satisfaction in roughly 80 letters he wrote her.

In this year of Hemingway weirdness, a new book, Hemingway’s Fetishism: Psychoanalysis and the Mirror of Manhood , spills more of his secrets, particularly those having to do with his intense feelings about hair, androgyny and “his lifelong fascination with lesbian eroticism.” Drawing from parts of A Farewell to Arms , For Whom the Bell Tolls , To Have and Have Not , his ménage à trois (posthumous) novel The Garden of Eden and the short story “The Sea Change,” the author Carl P. Eby deflates the notion of Hemingway as a pig who wanted to control women, replacing it with a Hemingway who feared women and, sometimes, wanted to be a woman. Mr. Eby has found, in an unpublished letter to his fourth wife, Mary Welsh Hemingway, that Hemingway wrote, in closing, “Your girl Katherine sends her love.” Yes, Hemingway was referring to himself with this phrase. He also called Mary “Pete.”

Hemingway buffs know about the time he “accidentally” dyed his hair red in Cuba. Well, guess what? In another letter to Mary, Hemingway wrote that he “remembered how you used to talk about Catherine in the night and how her hair was and so decided would make red– … So now I am just as red headed as you would like your girl Catherine to be and don’t give a damn about it at all.”

In an unpublished bit of the Garden of Eden manuscript unearthed by Mr. Eby, the protagonist David Bourne, in bed with his wife, Catherine, says: “You’re Catherine.” And she replies: “No. I’m Peter. You’re my wonderful Catherine. You’re my beautiful lovely Catherine. You were so good to change.”

Far from playing the role of great white hunter on the 1953-1954 safari that gave rise to the 800-page manuscript that got whipped into shape as True at First Light , Hemingway wanted to go native–not as a Masai warrior, but as a Masai girl. On that trip he shaved his head–which is something Masai women do. Mr. Eby calls this “inherently transvestic.” He also wanted to pierce his ears. Mary said No.

So Hemingway is more psychologically complex than the feminists imagined. But does psychological complexity equal intelligence? Isn’t it possible that he was a simpleton who had a knack for writing distinctive prose? Mr. Passaro compared Hemingway’s mind to those of nonliterary artists: “We don’t ask painters to be intelligent, or photographers, or musicians,” he said, “but I, for one, do ask writers to be intelligent.”

It’s a view that Harold Bloom, the Falstaffian professor at Yale and New York University and author of The Anxiety of Influence and Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human , disputes: “Don’t underrate his intellect,” Mr. Bloom warned. “His is a very sharp, discursive intelligence. There is a real limitation in his powers of imagination when he works on a large-scale book–in For Whom the Bell Tolls , he fails in his attempt to write a Tolstoyan novel–but he did not lack intellect. In the end, he wanted to be a greater writer than he was.”

The Hemingway style was tough and tight–and hard to maintain over the long haul of years that ended with him shooting himself in the head with his 12-gauge Boss shotgun. The critic Leslie Fiedler paid a visit to him in Ketchum in those very last days and he was shocked, according to Jeffrey Meyers’ Hemingway , to see “his doubt and torment, his fear that he had done nothing of lasting worth.”

Hemingway’s best work shows the impossibility of always living by the code of grace under pressure, a mode of behavior he learned from the British soldier’s cheerful stoicism in the works of his beloved Rudyard Kipling. Hemingway and his most honestly rendered characters wanted to live by that code, but couldn’t. In the chasm between that romantic ideal and daily life he found his true subject. Hemingway himself wanted to be a fine, masculine sportsman and writer … but then again, he wanted to be a Masai girl.

What Hemingway may not have known was that he was at his best when he showed his familiarity with the territory of weakness and doubt. True at First Light and Green Hills of Africa are rotten books because they cast the author as a macho hunter as they extol the virtues of courage and honor in the hunt. The story “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” is great, on the other hand, partly because it deals with cowardice and hesitation; in it, Hemingway questions everything he held dear in his daylight hours.

Whatever the thing is behind a story that good–if you can’t call it intelligence, call it imagination or talent or inspiration–Hemingway had it. He eroded it or even destroyed it, probably just by drinking huge amounts of alcohol, but he had it at some point.

He had roughly 20 good years of apprenticeship and early success, followed by a 20-year decline during which he won the Nobel Prize but couldn’t pull off what he might have been able to do had he guarded that original quality of mind that allowed him to write “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” and “Ten Indians” and “Hills Like White Elephants” and “The Killers.” Those stories are so clear and so beautiful that, unlike the works of Tolstoy or James, they can indeed seem like pieces of writing produced by a simpleton. That’s how good they are.

So hail, Hemingway, our literary idiot. Maybe it’s true that he wasn’t exactly a genius–and maybe that was his secret strength.