The Old Man and the Manuscript
An Essay
by TOM JENKS

In his lifetime, Ernest Hemingway published more than a dozen books, averaging one every couple of years from 1925 to 1952, a productive quarter century for a writer who worked slowly and often complained how hard it was to write. Many of his readers imagine his life as a steady progression of accomplishment from youth to midlife and into old age—a notion reinforced by the many compelling photographs of the robust, white-haired, bearded Papa moving to ever greater literary heights. His elevation to fame coincided with America’s growth as a superpower and the rise of Time, Life, and other periodicals whose popularity rested on photojournalism, topicality, and sensation. Hemingway at the fiesta in Pamplona, the war correspondent raising money for ambulances for Loyalist Spain, Papa divorcing one wife for another and then another, the Old Man marlin fishing in the Gulf Stream, the greatest American author big-game hunting in Africa—he was never far out of the news. And as Hemingway readied each book for publication, excerpts appeared in the large-circulation magazines. He demanded and received record-breaking sums from publishers and film studios. Reviewers and critics could say what they liked—and they did—but so successful was Hemingway’s command of his audience that he could gloat, “If the book is good, is about something you know, and is truly written, and reading it over you see that this is so, you can let the boys yip and the noise will have that pleasant sound coyotes make on a very cold night when they are out in the snow and you are in your cabin.”

As an icon of mid-century American masculinity, Hemingway lives on everywhere, reinforcing the perception of his vitality and success: My local bookstore in San Francisco is named A Clean Well-Lighted Place, after the famous story. Mont Blanc offers a Hemingway pen. Travelers can take the Tanzania Hemingway African Safari. Consumers can order Hemingway photos from the J. Peterman catalogue and Hemingway furniture from Thomasville. Branches of one of Hemingway’s favorite European hangouts, Harry’s Bar, proliferate in many cities. Two of his granddaughters have been movie stars, and his novels continue to be popular, handily outselling those of many well-known contemporary writers.

In reality, however, the second half of Hemingway’s life, particularly the late period of his popular veneration, was a startling foreclosure on the promise of his talents. Emblematic as he was for his era, pervasive an icon as he remains today, his literary importance is equivocal—inspiring yet cautionary to anyone interested in the filaments of reason and passion that connect a life to art. In July 1961, weeks short of his sixty-second birthday, worn out by his efforts, his drinking, and the physical bravado that had caused him many injuries and illnesses, Hemingway put a double-barreled shotgun to his head and took his own life, an act he had contemplated off and on from his youth and preferred to a future in which he could neither write nor summon the physical strength that had always characterized him. His death, initially reported by his wife as an accident, shocked the world. He was the best known writer of the time, a Nobel laureate. Why had he done it? As the news sunk in, his readers were left with the mystery of his character and a desire to know more of him.

Since then, from the thousands of pages of incomplete, unpublished manuscripts Hemingway left behind, his heirs and publishers have brought forth five book-length works, beginning with A Moveable Feast (1964) and followed by Islands in the Stream (1970), The Dangerous Summer (1985), The Garden of Eden (1986), which I edited, and currently True at First Light, an uncertain blend of fiction and memoir, released to coincide with the hundredth anniversary of the author’s birth in July.

Certain to be an international bestseller (publishers in most European countries have paid record sums for a posthumous Hemingway), True at First Light in no way resembles anything like Hemingway’s best work. In fact, it can’t be viewed as a book in the usual sense but only as a published rough draft whose claim to our attention lies not in its characters or story per se but in an author whose failing effort at writing the book presents an unfortunate self-portrait of the deterioration behind the surface of his heroic image. A New York Times article announcing the book’s publication predictably featured a four-column color photograph of Hemingway and wife Mary looking glamorous on safari in Kenya in 1953. In the photo, as in the book, the players are the characters: there is the famous author, Papa, set against a picturesque background of native huts, stoutly drawing himself to full height and gazing importantly into the distance while his wife, Miss Mary, beams properly up at him. Billed as “A Fictional Memoir of His Last African Safari,” True at First Light is intimately narrated in the first person by a character named Papa and titillates by inviting speculation on what is fact and what is fiction, particularly with regard to Papa’s lust for a young African woman.

The events that inspired the book are colorful, if decadent in a familiar Hemingway vein. In 1953–54, Hemingway attempted to re-create the idyllic African safari he had taken with his second wife, Pauline, whose uncle paid for the trip and whose wealth was one of the attractions that led Hemingway to abandon his first wife, Hadley. Twenty years later, peripatetically independent and married twice more, Hemingway paid for his safari with Mary by agreeing to write a series of articles for Look, which sent along a photographer. The Kenyan authorities, eager to popularize big-game hunting and to dispel tourists’ anxieties over the recent Mau Mau uprisings, in which armed freedom fighters from the Kikuyu tribe attacked white landowners, granted Hemingway honorary game-warden status, effectively setting him up as head man on his own preserve, an irresistibly flattering position to Hemingway, though he was well aware that he was being used to glamorize a sport already ruined by its popularity. As the safari proceeded, the ideal photo opportunity failed to materialize, and finally the Look photographer took a set-up shot of Hemingway, rifle in hand, on bent knee beside a leopard someone else had killed. Hemingway made the photographer promise not to run the picture until he got a leopard of his own. Later, while Mary was off Christmas shopping in Nairobi, Hemingway went native, shaving his head, wearing Masai clothes, and hunting with a spear. Ultimately, he speared a leopard, followed it into heavy brush, and finished the job with six blasts from a shotgun. In the celebration that followed, a group of local women, including one whom Hemingway wanted, caroused and cavorted with him in his tent, breaking Mary’s bed. One of the local men cautioned Hemingway that things were becoming unseemly, and Hemingway sent the women home, later tactfully replacing Mary’s bed. In letters written at the time, Hemingway extols the virtues of “African girls”—their impudence, cheerfulness, beauty, and ability to give him “a hard-on.” He boastfully refers to his African “fiancée” and suggests a sexual liaison that Mary knows about and condones. The letters are jocular, though not absolutely tongue in cheek, and so the door is open for gossip. Scribner, in publicizing the “fictional memoir,” has counted heavily on the whiff of safari sex to draw readers.

True at First Light opens with a prolonged movement in which Papa and his retainers are long-suffering in service of Miss Mary, who insists on killing a lion of her own, though she’s a poor shot and tends to flinch from the kill. Papa will have to do it for her while trying to give her credit and bearing her resentment. When not busy looking after her, Papa has plenty of time to play Bwana. He’s the local arbiter of disputes, a medicine man, and a quasi military leader charged with defending the area in case of a Mau Mau attack. The seroles afford the old man plenty of opportunities to swagger but yield trivial dramas, barely integrated as subplots to the story of Miss Mary, Papa, and his African “fiancée.” This intrigue, in fact offers scant satisfaction to readers looking for sensationalism, much less meaningful drama. The seduction between Papa and his Wakamba “bride,” Debba, occurs in vague, mutely couched passages of Papa’s self-serving reflections and, too frequently, in solemn, unwittingly risible bits showing Papa’s gun as his penis and his penis as his gun: “When we rode together in the front seat she liked to feel the embossing on the old leather holster of my pistol. It was a flowered design and very old and worn and she would trace the design very carefully with her fingers and then take her hand away and press the pistol and its holster close against her thigh.” The attraction leads to a scene in which they tryst on a riverbank while waiting for a troop of marauding baboons Papa must kill. Debba and Papa caress, and Papa declares his love: “I told her in Spanish that I loved her very much and that I loved every thing about her from her feet to her head and we counted all the things that were loved and she was truly and very happy and I was happy too and I did not think I lied about any one of them nor about all of them.” On cue, the baboons arrive, Papa springs to action, and in rapid fire kills three as the others run off. Debba comes forward and asks to hold the rifle. “It was so cold,” she says. “Now it is so hot.” A local woman holding Bwana’s gun is a breech of protocol, and the villagers are troubled. Later, when Papa beds Debba (in an amazingly convoluted, oblique passage that has little of the characters in it), there is further concern among the retainers that Bwana has forgotten himself. Petulantly, Papa gives up the girl and reports, “This was the beginning of the end of the day in my life which offered the most chances of happiness.” Whether we’re intended to take his assertion seriously or as an exaggerated expression of disappointment is unclear, but from that point on True at First Light pursues a drawn-out conclusion in which Papa and Mary go on, as if contentedly, with their marriage. Deleted from the book is further manuscript material showing Papa awake while Mary sleeps. He reflects uneasily on his life, then dreams that the “wife I had loved first and best and who was the mother of my oldest son was with me and we were sleeping close together. . . .” This clear reminiscence of Hemingway’s own wife, Hadley, whom he never forgave himself for betraying and whose memory he sentimentally held as an image of his lost innocence, makes a similar appearance at the end of A Moveable Feast and, more than a repudiation of his subsequent three wives, suggests misery and despair over the outcome of his life.

Hemingway’s seventy-year-old son, Patrick, who agreed to the publication of the African book on the condition that he be the one to edit it, is the son of Hemingway’s second wife, Pauline, and has refrained from deleting potentially unfavorable references to his mother as well as apparent slurs on Hemingway’s third wife, Martha Gellhorn, and on Adriana Ivancich, a young Italian woman for whom Hemingway unsuccessfully lusted during several years preceding the Kenyan safari with Mary. Apparent in Papa’s lust for Debba and in his impatience with Mary is more than a little transference from the failed seduction of Adriana. Throughout True at First Light, Papa is hard on women unless they are subservient and adoring; among his criteria for a satisfactory woman are beauty, docility, work, and discipline. In harsh passages that Patrick cut from the published version of the book, Papa recalls an early girlfriend: “Her greatest asset was that she couldn’t go out, not only in society but at all.” In a fit of distemper he reflects, “I remembered that more than half my life had been spent, at night, which should be the best time, with women who could not come enough or who could come too easily and who were always stubbing out cigarette butts and commencing their sentences with the word, ‘Darling.’ ” Patrick, who was living in Africa at the time of the safari, believes his father wanted to end the marriage with Mary, but she was domineering enough to force him back into it. Her primary drawback as Hemingway’s wife, Patrick relates, “was physiology. She kept him company drinking, and it killed her.” Hemingway was, by comparison, Patrick believes, “the product of very heavy natural selection—a five bottle-a-day man, like Churchill.”

Patrick told me he was impressed by his father’s total recall of the backdrop of the story, but the amazing thing is that Hemingway was writing the manuscript at all, given that the safari ended in two plane crashes. The first occurred when the Hemingways’ plane clipped an abandoned telegraph wire. In a forced landing, Hemingway dislocated his right shoulder, but no one was seriously hurt. Stranded overnight, they were reported in the press as dead, then rescued and taken to Butiaba, where another pilot was engaged to take them to Entebbe. On takeoff, the plane faltered, bumped down, lifted again, then crashed and burst into flames. Mary and the pilot escaped through a window too small for Hemingway’s bulk. The door frame had buckled, and Hemingway, unable to push the door open with his dislocated arm, used his head as a battering ram and butted the door open. He emerged, bleeding from the scalp and with first-degree burns on his face and arms. After a long car trip to town and cursory medical attention, celebration and drinking ensued. The next morning, Hemingway found his pillow soaked with cranial fluid.

During the following week, while meeting the press and exulting over premature obituaries and congratulatory cables from around the world, Hemingway struck a familiar pose of invincibility, though he was seriously injured—a suppurating wound in his skull; a collapsed intestine; a ruptured liver, spleen, and kidney; crushed vertebrae; a temporary loss of vision in one eye; dislocated bones; and severe burns. In the years that followed, though he continued to write and drink heavily and take foolish physical risks, he was in pain and ailing. He had difficulty keeping his weight and blood pressure down, and he grew anemic. By November 1955, the manuscript of the African book approached 700 pages, and Hemingway was bedridden with nephritis and hepatitis. And, though there were later intervals of relative well-being, he never fully recovered. By 1957, he was struggling with depression, and the African book had been put aside, first in favor of a series of turgid short stories and then in favor of “the Paris sketches,” which appeared posthumously as A Moveable Feast.

He never worked on the African book again. After 1957, Hemingway’s labor on the sketches was periodically interrupted by other writing, including a 10,000-word article on bullfighting for Life. The assignment took him on a grueling tour of Spain in the summer of 1959, and, after he had gone home and spent a year producing a bloated manuscript of 120,000 words, he irrationally decided he had to return to Spain for more material. He was in no shape to go and suffered a collapse. He grew sleepless, paranoid, delusional. His memory failed him. Back in the States, he became suicidal and was hospitalized twice and given electroshock treatments. Some of the most painful images of Hemingway from this time are of him at his desk day after day trying to arrange the Paris sketches into a satisfactory sequence and, later, trying unsuccessfully to write a single sentence for a presentation volume of his work for President Kennedy. From the time of the African plane crashes on, Hemingway, in spite of sheer grit, produced nothing to rank with the work that came before. The critical consensus is that his early work—a number of short stories and two novels, A Farewell to Arms and The Sun Also Rises, produced in a five-year period from 1924 to 1929—is his best, though his stature survived the publications of his middle years and continued to grow.

Inevitably, the publication of a posthumous Hemingway brings renewed attacks on the motives of Hemingway’s publishers and heirs. In the Washington Post, Jonathan Yardley cholerically opined, “If Hemingway had wanted any of this material published during his lifetime, he could have arranged it in a trice. . . . But something in Hemingway—literary judgment? dignity? fear?—told him that this unpublished stuff ought to stay that way. . . .”

In The New Yorker, Joan Didion wrote more coolly but with similar concern: “In the case of the ‘African novel’ or True at First Light, eight hundred and fifty [manuscript] pages reduced by half by someone other than their author can go nowhere the author intended them to go, but they can provide the occasion for a chat show hook, a faux controversy over whether the part of the manuscript in which the writer on safari takes a Wakamba bride does or does not reflect a ‘real’ event. The increasing inability of many readers to construe fiction as anything other than roman à clef, or the raw material of biography, is both indulged and encouraged.”

Charles Scribner III, grandson of Hemingway’s original publisher, is in charge of seeing True at First Light into print. Braced for a critical onslaught, he’s quick to dispel the impropriety of posthumous publishing and likens those who oppose it to “reactionaries who opposed the cleaning of the Sistine ceiling because they were used to seeing it dirty.” Scribner also argues that uncompleted works—Mozart’s Requiem and Michelangelo’s dying slaves, for instance—have always come to light and that humankind is culturally richer, not poorer, for their revelation. Unfortunately, the aptness of the analogy between the dying slaves and the new Hemingway book bears no scrutiny if the quality of the work is a criterion.

The primary argument against posthumous publishing, apart from its being a violation of the author’s wishes (if, in fact, they can be known, and in Hemingway’s case there’s evidence on both sides of the question), is that the release of unfinished or substandard work damages the author’s reputation and, by implication, all of literature. In announcing True at First Light, Scribner enticingly reported, “This is it; there are no more books.” It was an ambiguous statement in that, although there are no more book-length, unpublished manuscripts, we can still expect to see more posthumous Hemingway. There remain a number of not-very-good unpublished short stories as well as a thin novella-length beginning of a father/son narrative reminiscent of the Nick Adams stories, and there will undoubtedly be further Hemingway correspondence to follow Carlos Baker’s edition of the “Selected” but not complete letters. It is unrealistic to think that the extant work of a great writer will go unpublished or that its relative merits can safely be assayed only by specialists—scholars, biographers, other writers—rather than by general readers, who are, after all, the ones in whom the author chiefly lives. Readers who enjoy Hemingway take him with his contradictions and are satisfied to find good in the not-so-good. Hemingway’s own belief was that in a writer’s lifetime his reputation depended on the quantity and median of his work, but that after his death he would be remembered only for his best.

At the time I edited The Garden of Eden Charles Scribner Jr., the current Scribner’s father, related that Hemingway had on more than one occasion boasted that he had a box of manuscripts that would go on being published long after his death. It is exactly the kind of thing Hemingway would have bragged about, though he would have had his doubts as well. He specifically asked that his letters not be published, and after his death they were published anyway. He left written indications that he considered the Paris sketches publishable, in spite of previous reservations about the harshness of the book. Some of the murkiness and conjecture with regard to his final wishes derive from his own extremes of overexposure and intense privacy as well as from the vacillating hope and despair of a man increasingly infirm.

My initial reluctance toward editing The Garden of Eden (before reading it, I twice declined it, believing that there was enough bad Hemingway in the world and that my time would be better spent on contemporary writers) was overcome when I finally read it. Substantial portions were embarrassingly flimsy, but other parts had been successfully revised by the author, and, in working on the book, I had the advantageous prospects of a highly developed, presentable story line as well as an awareness that it contained significant, unrevealed aspects of Hemingway that would fascinate readers and show him to advantage, trying to transcend his previous work, his celebrity, and his sometimes reckless habits. In particular, Hemingway effectively dramatized his hero, David Bourne, as androgynous and as rejecting the role of big-game hunter characterized by his father. Much of the writing was masterly, and I had but to follow Hemingway’s inspiration to bring the book into form. Patrick, in working from the manuscript of the African book, had fewer advantages and concedes that he did not use literary excellence as a criterion in his edit. Yet it’s unlikely that publication of the African book will diminish Hemingway. In 1971 and 1972, Sports Illustrated published most of the material now in True at First Light. Scholars and many Hemingway fans have already read it. John Updike, writing about The Garden of Eden in 1986, noted that “Hemingway, after a semi-eclipse in the sixties, when his fascination with violence and war seemed desperately unworthy, now stands as a classic as surely as Hawthorne. And in a critical volume on Hemingway published in 1996 by Cambridge University Press, the editor of The Hemingway Review, Susan Beegel, offered a study of Hemingway scholarship, which concluded, ”His critical reputation today is stronger than at any time since his death.”

Hemingway’s character is manifest in everything he wrote, yet for all his books, and for the hundreds of books and thousands of articles written about him, he remains somehow unrevealed, undiscovered. In the foremost biography, Carlos Baker meticulously supplies the external facts of the life to assess Hemingway on his own terms, with a minimum of analysis, which is probably just as well, given that Hemingway biographers and scholars often fall into unsparing and tangled speculations on the writer’s hidden nature. There has long been a proliferation of analyses of Hemingway’s character disorders, said to stem variously from his mother having dressed him as a girl when he was a toddler, her domination of his father, her moral rejection of his writing, post-traumatic stress from his war wounds, his father’s suicide, Hemingway’s insecurities about his masculinity, his need and fear of women. The endless theorizing spun mostly by literary academics operating as amateur psychologists fails to satisfy, merely adds complexities rather than penetrates them. Hemingway’s own testimony and self-interpretations were reluctant, conflicted, and intentionally murky. He was determined not to be analyzed. He once commented that after he died his life would be worth only as much as his body, a statement that rings ironically given all the industry now founded on that stout, bearded, safari-clad hero, the man’s man, the indomitable writer.

It can be said that in both his life and work Hemingway never reached very far beyond his body. He was an intensely physical individual and a writer of few ideas. By his own admission, he was often unable to articulate what he knew and too “stupid” to think life out. The fact that writing was hard for him didn’t stop him. His stamina was legendary, and writing was like physical exertion—he sweated a lot and produced reams of often redundant prose, which he would hone thoroughly. Plotting, which depends on thinking, was never his strong point. His famous dicta for writing—write one true sentence and then go on from there; never empty the well but always stop when there is still something in the deep part of the well and let it refill at night from the springs that feed it; you can omit anything if you know what you omit, and the omitted part will strengthen the story and make people feel more than they understand—describe his efforts but have none of the intellectual rigor and brilliance of James Joyce’s incursions on the fortress of Aristotle’s Poetics or the persistent expansion of insight into the art of writing that one finds in Henry James and Virginia Woolf. Nor did Hemingway ever achieve the conscious development of expression Eudora Welty went on to display in the course of her individuation as a writer. There tend to be two types of writers: those who are trapped inside their own stories and keep retelling them (John P. Marquand was a famous example in Hemingway’s own time), and those who are able to encompass and transcend their own stories and are thus free to take whatever experiences come to them, from whatever quarter, and use them on wholly invented story lines whose emotional truths are not overdetermined by the writer’s personality (in this category I would place Zora Neale Hurston and William Maxwell). Great work can be accomplished by either type of writer, but whereas the former primarily conveys the experience of life, the latter offers illumination, an increased clarity and connection to the meanings of life. The result is an enhancement of life’s possibilities that comes when the unrecognized (or only semi-recognized) elements of experience are fully delivered in a revealing dramatic pattern and through an authorial presence that moves toward definitive interpretation. It is axiomatic that when the characters in a story make accurate recognitions, those connections are open to the reader, but when characters mislead themselves and miss the turn in the road, the reader’s destination greatly depends on the author knowing the way home. Life is full of experience, much of it apparently random and confusing, and if we begin reading a story for diversion and to find out what literally happened, our pleasure is increased and sustained by the perception of how and why it happened (the metaphysical aspect of storytelling, in which life’s paradoxes are set in relief).

Experience was terrifically attractive to Hemingway. His manner of being in the world was certainly through his sensations, even more, if anything, than his legend conveyed. His pursuit of hunting, fishing, boxing, bullfighting, war, sex, eating, and drinking appeared again and again in his fiction, and his gifts of perception and description were sensory, as is the much admired opening of A Farewell to Arms: “In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.” The surface of the writing is pure physical description as it is experienced by someone with a genius for picking up this kind of detail. But as keen as Hemingway’s ability to pick up sensations was, his primary genius lay in his lyricism. He could, almost musically, convey the sense of someone not only registering it all but evaluating, according to a developed feeling, what he’s experiencing. It’s this gift that underlies his words, giving them their on-key integrity and power.

The basic range of evaluations in matters of feeling is from good to bad, and these were the cardinal judgments Hemingway applied to his own experience and that of his characters. The words “good” and “bad” and the phrase “truly good” have become hallmarks of the numerous parodies and “Bad Hemingway” writing-contest entries published each year. True to form, in his African book, Hemingway divides his cast of characters into two types, “the good ones” and “the bad ones.” The latter are adherents of a new religion Papa casually leads, a religion ultimately and self-pityingly revealed as that of the damned, for whom the underlying question is: What can you believe in when there’s nothing left to believe in? In the African book, as in Hemingway’s other work, the response is nostalgia and narcissistic remorse over the lost Edenic past.

Of all the writers who have sought to “explain” Hemingway without undoing him, Reynolds Price came closest to the truth in his 1972 essay “For Ernest Hemingway,” which proposes that Papa’s lifelong subject was saintliness. Price wondered if that theme wasn’t “generally as secret from him (a lapsing but never quite lost Christian) as from his readers? And doesn’t that refusal, or inability, to identify and then attempt understanding of his central concern constitute the forced end of his work and our failure as his readers, collusive in his blindness? Hasn’t the enormous and repetitive critical literature devoted to dissecting his obsession with codes and rituals, which may permit brief happiness in a meaningless world, discovered only a small (and unrealistic, intellectually jejune) portion of his long search?” Price’s argument suggests that Hemingway’s search was not for survival or techniques of survival but for goodness, and thus what his own forefathers would have called victory.

I believe Hemingway might have scoffed at Price’s ideas and still felt secretly tempted by them—the kind of temptation he would have felt honor bound to resist. Hemingway’s attitude was not essentially religious, though he sometimes ambivalently held himself as if it were. Rather, he reached for correlation in the world of values he couldn’t stop caring about, and religion offered an approximation. Religion is the provider of images and forms for the self in search of value. But religion can also cause self-devaluation. Hemingway suffered because he could not live up to the ideal of those images. He repudiated interpretations that found Christian symbolism (or any symbolism) in his work, especially in The Old Man and the Sea, but his sense of martyrdom to life accords with Price’s assessment that he was nonetheless in search of saintliness and willing to sacrifice himself to find it. Hemingway’s torment proceeded from a desire for perfection (ideal feeling) combined with the knowledge that what he desired most intimately could not be attained, except perhaps briefly. His titles tell the story—To Have and Have Not, Men Without Women, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Winner Take Nothing—the last of these ostensibly drawn from an old book on gaming, though Hemingway had written the passage himself in biblical imitation of seventeenth-century style: “. . . the conditions are that the winner shall take nothing; neither his ease, nor his pleasure, nor any notions of glory; nor, if he win far enough, shall there be any reward within himself.”

His pleasures naturally led to hedonism and then to gluttony. He countered his excesses with quasi-military disciplines that were alternately self-punishing and self-indulgent. Likewise, in the best of his work he offset his exaggerations by deleting them and by a laconic style in which his feeling found an expressive restraint. But in midlife he found it increasingly difficult to bring proportion and coherence into either the work or the life. He boasted that he lived well, a debatable assertion given his divorces, self-inflicted injuries, and early death, but certainly he achieved a level of wealth that enabled him to do whatever he wanted without much regard for anyone else. He chose his friends for their admiration and loyalty over their honesty or equality with him. His kindnesses were generally reserved for his social inferiors or those whose luster added to his own or served his advantage.

Hemingway’s chief discovery, hardly an original one, though he felt it more strongly than some, was pain and lacrimae rerum—tears in the nature of things—to which he responded not with sympathy toward himself or others but with rage. His temper was violent, volcanic. Throughout his life, he successfully portrayed himself as a durable stoic whose esteem was the ultimate worth. He lived in his own world and managed to bring readers wholly into the darkness with him. That infantile darkness is one of the greatest attractions/seductions of his work. He appeals especially to the young, or to that which remains adolescent in readers—the inchoate, inarticulate confusion of feeling in a world indifferent to feeling, and the spite that attends that recognition. He faced the world with a grievance, and for all his apparent enjoyments, and his fiesta concept of life, his primary literary mode was world-weariness.

True at First Light candidly shows Papa at his worst: self-conscious, self-pitying, self-indulgent, self-aggrandizing. The book is so unformed, fragmentary, digressive, and anecdotal that no one can say what Hemingway’s intention might eventually have been. There are numerous themes he seems to have wanted to explore; however, it seems clear that the existence of the book owes more to a determined habit of writing than to any clarity of purpose. I think it is reasonable to say that in drafting the manuscript, Hemingway was, more or less, just writing. There’s little tension in the book except the knowledge that it is Hemingway doing the writing, aimlessly, for the most part, yet with hope—his occasional successes must have tantalized him, as they do the reader, but he’s clearly very tired. Too much of the dialogue between characters reads like the author talking to himself.

And here is the crux: for the most part, Hemingway had only one character—himself. He had always worked directly from life experience, modifying it as needed for the sake of story. His dictum of not thinking about his work when he wasn’t doing it guarded his unconscious. Yet without reflection there’s little growth, certainly none past one’s own original character. Hemingway’s dictum of telling a story by leaving things out involved his leaving out literal and often melodramatic elements as well as aspects unfavorable to himself, a method reinforced by his posthumous editors, who have carefully excised the worst of his anti-Semitism, misogyny, homophobia, and other unflattering traits. Hemingway tended, as well, to leave out character development and the naming of insights. Crucially, for those of us who came after him, he has left out not what he knew (which was his claim) but what he didn’t know. In much of his early work, there was an effective tension between the emotional impotence of the Hemingway hero and the harsh attacks on others (the beginning of The Sun Also Rises, for instance, is notable for its extreme ugliness toward Robert Cohn). By the time of the African book, Hemingway’s Herculean ability to sustain a hermetic world—a punishing one—was gone, and out of the broken vessel leaked petulance, sarcasm, fatuity, and puerile venom.

Among the book’s many promising, though ultimately desultory, themes—the problems of a primitive soul in a modern age, for instance, or the paradoxes that world religions place on local cultures—the dominant one is marriage. Papa’s attitude toward Miss Mary is paternal, complicated with a desire for the sort of grace a woman might bestow on a child or a servant. And in his ambivalence there is his hatred of being old, tied to Mary, and unable to regain potency as reflected in his young African “fiancée.”

It is painful to watch him pretend to himself to paint Miss Mary with affection and respect while actually showing her as an unsatisfiable, competitive bitch. “I wished that I could make her happy,” Papa says, but in fact it’s himself he wishes he could make happy. The vulnerability that informed the young Hemingway voice—need underlying the hard masculine pose—ultimately found no accommodation in his characters' relations. They end in failure and brutality or in sentimentality but never in intimacy. Such vulnerability was too dangerous.

It has been proposed, by Charles Scribner III and others, that the intent in the African book is comedic, or at least ironic. As Patrick Hemingway puts it, “Tragedy supposes characters of some consequence. People want to believe themselves tragic, but really they’re very funny.” In other words, Hemingway was intentionally parodying himself. This interpretation stretches Hemingway’s capacity for irony. The book at times does attempt a comic tone and, in its mix of genres—fiction, memoir, and theatricality—takes abrupt turns along a gloomy path. We see a fat old man disporting himself, and it seems ridiculous, silly, fantastical, but not funny. Hemingway was not gifted with humor. As a fictional memoir, the book can be understood as neither fiction nor memoir but as the record of an already ill and failing man’s attempt to keep his grip on the thing that was his life, trying by any means and failing into mawkish, adolescent efforts at humor. Moreover, it is impossible to tell if he understood how unflattering the self-portrait was, or, if he did understand, how he might have modified it had he been able. The African book seems to show an author aggressively, helplessly bent on participating in his own undoing. It is an unpleasant read, painful not so much in its particular failures of art but in the raw exposure of deadness—the descent from religion to nada, codes that fail, love that fails. And these are not, as Hemingway frequently portrayed them, inevitabilities but the result of life-long choices.

Ernest Hemingway’s story is, essentially, that of an exceptionally gifted and sensitive boy, very different from his family and surroundings, who cut himself off from them and staked his life on his wits and his writing—a daring, resolute, and lonely act of self-invention.In True at First Light, Miss Mary says of Papa, “My husband is a delicate and sensitive man. . . . He hides it carefully.” She delivers this line with a good deal of vindictive irony, but the truth of the assertion remains, indicating what Hemingway’s maturity might have been had he not been caught, self-trapped, in a disintegrating pose of manhood. Patrick Hemingway should perhaps be commended for his courage in letting his father’s confusion show, or for loving his father sufficiently to find beauty in the confusion. In any event, Patrick has not protected Papa from himself, nor could the story of the African safari have been brought out at more than slim novella length if it had been diligently edited to protect Papa. At best, his unpublished novels were partial attempts to find a way out of the box he’d put himself in—his public myth and artistic franchise—without, however, relinquishing the box. If the business of life is to know how to live with oneself, know how to live with others, and know on what level to understand things, Hemingway’s work reflects the dilemma of an author/character who prefers to remain a mystery because he is unable to reveal his subject. Much of what he wrote demonstrates a denial of love, or the fear of needing love, carried all the way to complete self-destruction. As his heirs, we’re constantly challenged to reach more auspicious conclusions.


Originally published in Harper’s.