Ernest Hemingway is one of my favorite writers. History sometimes paints him as a jerk and a brute, which is completely true, but it’s also not true.
Hemingway was mentally ill and may have suffered from a combination of psychiatric disorders, including disorders possibly caused by traumatic brain injury near the end of his life.
I recently finished Hemingway’s Boat, a biography of Ernest Hemingway that covers most of his life. Author Paul Hendrickson centers the narrative around Ernest Hemingway’s beloved boat,Pilar, the only constant in Hemingway’s life; a life that included 4 marriages, countless broken friendships, and estranged familial relations.
The book begins with (as far as we know) the last letter Hemingway wrote. When he wrote it, he was in the psychiatric ward of St. Mary’s Hospital at Mayo clinic. The letter was addressed to a nine-year-old boy in another hospital who was being treated for a congenital heart condition. The boy was the son of one of Hemingway’s friends.
Here is the letter (some grammatical errors kept intact).
I was terribly sorry to hear this morning in a note from your father that you were laid up in Denver for a few days more and speed off this note to tell you how much I hope you’ll be feeling better.
It has been very hot and muggy here in Rochester but the last two days it has turned cool and lovely with the nights wonderful for sleeping. The country is beautiful around here and I’ve had a chance to see some wonderful country along the Mississippi where they used to drive the logs in the old lumbering days and the trails where the pioneers came north. Saw some good bass jumping in the river. I never knew anything about the upper Mississippi before and it is really a very beautiful country and there are plenty of pheasants and ducks in the fall.
But not as many as in Idaho and I hope we’ll both be back there shortly and can joke about our hospital experiences together.
Best always to you, old Timer from your good friend who misses you very much.
Best to all the family. am feeling fine and very cheerful about things in general and hope to see you all soon.
The overall theme of the biography Hendrickson promotes is “Amid so much ruin, still the beauty.” It compels us to look at Hemingway’s troubled life through the lens of compassion.
The letter was the most touching part of the biography for me. Another part of the book that was really touching was an anecdote about Hemingway and one of his sons. Pauline, his second wife, demanded that Ernest spank one of his sons for acting out of line. Hemingway couldn’t bring himself to do it, likely because he was abused as a child. So he took his son into another room and told him to yell loudly as he hit the wall with a brush.
Hemingway could admittedly be a complete jackass, which Hendrickson doesn’t gloss over, but he was also incredibly sensitive. Fellow writer Gertrude Stein claimed this was the reason Ernest acted so macho. He was trying to hide his innate sensitivity, which he was taught to be ashamed of as a man living in the first half of the 20th century. This sensitivity was a filter to some of the greatest writing of our time.
Hemingway’s Boat is a good read, but I only recommend it if you’re REALLY into Hemingway. Much of it is dry, going into so much nautical detail that it’s reminiscent of Moby Dick. But you’ll probably enjoy it if you’re a nautical person.
What I liked most about the book was that it was incredibly well-researched, it focused on Hemingway’s mental illness rather than his alcoholism (a result of mental illness in many people), and it made him more human to me. The thing I liked least about it is that it completely skips over Hemingway’s third marriage to Martha Gellhorn. But I assume that is for legal reasons. Gellhorn made it clear she did not want to be a footnote on Hemingway’s life.
I give the book an overall 3.5 out of 5 stars, mostly because it is not something I would recommend to everyone. Also, the narrative gets a little off track toward the end and focuses too much on Hemingway’s son Gigi rather than the man himself. However, Paul Hendrickson’s research is remarkable. I would give the book 5 stars if I graded solely on research.