First-person singular: 'Hemingway's Boat' gets to the rugged heart of a complicated, captivating man
Every biography of a writer ought to deal with both lives: what happened to the writer, and what happened to the world because of the writer's work
Hemingway's Boat -- Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost, 1934-1961 by Paul Hendrickson (HANDOUT / October 28, 2011)
Ernest Hemingway, you could argue, had substantial good luck in both lives. He lived well, ate well, traveled widely, married often, did pretty much what he wanted to do, which included, he boasted, an ability to woo successfully any woman he desired (I'm being discreet in my verb selection). Early success meant he had plenty of money, multiple homes and — as Paul Hendrickson details in eloquent and voluminous fashion in his brilliant new book, "Hemingway's Boat: Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost, 1934-1961" (Knopf) — one wonderful boat, upon which he fished, pontificated and dreamed. Yes, Hemingway ended up taking his own life; but by then he was old and sick. And he died the way he lived: on his own terms.
In the second life, too, Hemingway had things his way. He was the most famous writer of the 20th century. His books were bestsellers. He won the Nobel Prize and all the other prizes, too, the lesser ones clustered on the ground at his feet like fallen leaves, no matter which direction he walked. He became that extraordinarily rare thing: the writer as celebrity.
Every biography of a writer, then, ought to deal with both lives: what happened to the writer, and what happened to the world because of the writer's work. A literary biography can't just be about dates and events. It must be about cultural nuances, tendencies, echoes, omens and portents. Why did the world sit up and take notice of Hemingway's novels? What was it about the man and his stories that so captivated the 20th century?
Hendrickson has the answers. Through painstaking reporting, through conscientious sifting of the evidence, and most of all, through vivid, heartfelt, luminous writing, Hendrickson gets to the heart of both Hemingway and his world. In "Hemingway's Boat," which is, among other things, a primer on how to use first-person narration without it seeming coy or distracting or self-aggrandizing, Hendrickson does what many thought was impossible:
He tells us new and crucial things about Hemingway.
"It's as if each new Hemingway book by each new Hemingway 'expert' wishes to contradict the last," Hendrickson writes at the outset, "which is one reason why I have been determined to try to anchor a Hemingway narrative, to ground it, in something that had existed in his world — that still exists, in its way — just as he had once existed in the world."
The "something" is Pilar, the boat he bought in 1934 for fishing and for entertaining his friends.
The point of our curiosity about Hemingway, Hendrickson muses, may be that it "doesn't even have to do with Hemingway; it has to do with us: namely that his life, which is to say, the way he lived it, or our perception of the way he lived it, has always had the capacity to stir up complex things, to make us uneasy, defensive, secretly troubled about our own far less glamorous and more sedentary selves."
It's the second life — the life of the world, with Hemingway at the center of it — that keeps drawing us back, back to the kid from Oak Park who lived in Paris and Key West and Havana and Idaho and also, always, in our dreams.
Hendrickson, author of "Sons of Mississippi" (2003), winner of the Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize, and "The Living and the Dead: Robert McNamara and Five Lives of a Lost War" (1996), writes sentences that seem lit from within — but not in a showy way. Rather, they glow with the yearning of the humble seeker, the diligent observer who understands that we'll never get to the end of the Hemingway story — yet we have to start somewhere.
And so we might as well start with the boat.