The thesis of this book—by turns biography, literary criticism and meditation—is that, yes, Ernest Hemingway was a cruel bastard but that his admittedly vile behavior to his loved ones has been scrutinized to the exclusion of any good that he ever did. Paul Hendrickson, formerly a staff writer for The Washington Post and currently a faculty member of the creative writing program at the University of Pennsylvania, has redressed the imbalance. He uses Hemingway’s boat, Pilar, as a motif and dominant image in this chronological narrative.
Not only was Hemingway not vile through and through, Hendrickson writes, he was trying to be a saint:
I have come to believe deeply that Ernest Hemingway, however unpostmodern it may sound, was on a lifelong quest for sainthood, and not just literary sainthood, and that at nearly every turn, he defeated himself. How? “By betrayals of himself, and what he believed in,” as the dying writer with gangrene going up his leg, says so bitterly in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” one of Heming-way’s greatest short stories.... Hemingway once said... “I have always had the illusion it was more important, or as important, to be a good man as to be a great writer.”
So Hendrickson tells us not only of incidents when Hemingway spit in his fourth wife’s face and machine-gunned sharks so they would “apple core” his friend’s record bluefin tuna, but also of his kindness to various people, the most important of whom, in terms of Pilar, are Walter Houk and his wife, Nita. In the 1950s they were often guests of the Hemingways on Pilar, and their marriage reception was held at Hemingway’s Cuban home, Finca Vigia (Lookout Point).
Houk has written in magazines and journals about fishing with Hemingway, and even peddled a memoir around; but, in Hendrickson’s opinion, it did not sell because it did not have enough dirt. He quotes Houk as saying, “My whole experience with Ernest Hemingway is the conventional diswisdom. He didn’t wreck my life. He treated me kindly. He treated my wife, Nita, kindly.” It was Walter Houk who urged Hendrickson “to try to rescue Hemingway from his seemingly set-in-stone image of immortal writer and immortal bitch of a human being....”
Hendrickson does so, in Hemingway’s words, well and truly. The book is not without its problems—it is a bit of what Henry James called a “loose baggy monster”—the main flaw being that the controlling image of Pilar weakens as the book progresses; and the theme of parents and children, always present, wrests the book from the boat. Hendrickson succinctly expresses this theme in the section on Arnold Samuelson, the aspiring writer who became a mate on Pilar for a year, and on Samuelson’s relationship with his children: “The terrible things we do and hand to our children, wittingly and unwittingly.”
These terrible things include blaming an ex-wife’s death on a son’s arrest for cross-dressing—which is what Hemingway did to his youngest son, Gregory, known as Gigi, who fought valiantly against what appears to have been manic depression and a cross-dressing compulsion often accompanied by violent outbursts. Having had a sex-change operation, he ended up dying in a holding cell in Miami, dressed in drag and going by the name of Gloria. He died of a heart attack almost to the same minute and on the same date as his mother, Pauline, had died 50 years earlier in California (after she had an excruciating telephone conversation with Hemingway), a mother who confessed to her son that she could not stand “horrid little children.”
This part of the book is agonizingly sad, as is the last chapter on Hemingway’s decline and suicide. But a few days before Hemingway shot himself, hearing that a friend’s son was sick and entering the hospital, he wrote the boy a letter from his room at the Mayo Clinic: “Saw some good bass jumping in the river,” he wrote, and “I hope we’ll both be back there shortly and can joke about our hospital experiences together.” Scholars are fairly certain this letter was the last thing Hemingway ever wrote, and it is amazing he could write it at all, as he had been unable to write a line for months. As Hendrick-son comments several times in his text—it is the motto of the book, really—“Amid so much ruin, still the beauty.”
Paul Hendrickson’s Hemingway’s Boat, despite its faults, is not only the best book on Hemingway I have ever read, but it is also one of the best books I have ever read, period. Where Hemingway was contemptible, Hendrickson says so; but he also reminds readers that Hemingway could also be, and longed with his whole heart to be, noble and good and true.