Zelda Fitzgerald, who did not suffer fools gladly unless she married them, had his number from the start: “Bullfighting, bullslinging, and bullshit” goes her famous dismissal of Ernest Hemingway’s first novel. The more professional Hemingway got, the more his point of view curdled into self-pity; all he could do was marshal that semaphore of a style in the service of male blowhards beset by women, children, the elements, fish, and themselves. And the piety of his followers didn’t help. John O’Hara claimed the following about Across the River and Into the Trees, presumably while sober and eating ham and eggs: “The most important author living today, the outstanding author since the death of Shakespeare, has brought out a new novel…The author, of course, is Ernest Hemingway, the most important, the outstanding author out of the millions of writers who have lived since 1616.” The “of course” is a delectable touch.
He’s best read when young. A three-page story about a fever-stricken boy who confuses Celsius with Fahrenheit temperatures called “A Day’s Wait” inspired me in eighth grade to buy the Scribner’s paperback of his collected short stories. Reading the deflowering scene in “Up in Michigan” — a scene devoid of romance — was my first acquaintance with Adult Fiction. Few American writers conjured the erotic pleasure of eating: a story called “The Battler,” A Farewell to Arms‘ Lieutenant Frederic Henry keeping anxiety over his wife’s labor at bay by stuffing himself with tapas. He introduced me to Pernod and casual racism and anti-Semitism.
His long fiction only touched the hem of goodness once. The posthumous The Garden of Eden would rank higher were it not for its discursiveness and lack of polish: the only time he examined the machismo he had done so much to promote; a queer novel, a discomfiting one in which the reader can sense the material sprinting away from Papa (“a pansy with hair on his chest,” good ol’ Zelda also remarked in the 1920s). Don’t skip it, though, if the Hemingway cult still mystifies you.