Saturday, August 11, 2012

This Day in Literary History (Hemingway, Critic Fight in Editor’s Office)

August 11,1937—Ernest  Hemingway, unexpectedly face to face with a critic who, he believed, had impugned his manhood four years before, slapped him, then ended up tangled on the floor of his editor’s office with his adversary.

The incident took place at Scribners’ publishing house, where the reviewer, Max Eastman, had been conferring with his and Hemingway’s editor, Maxwell Perkins.  The “editor of genius”—who was used to handling such talented, touchy souls as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, Ring Lardner, and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings—was startled that his most successful author and the man who had made him wish to quit writing were in the same room. But he determined quickly to keep matters on an even keel.

Easier said than done.

There have been other incidents of fiction writers taking theiir bitterness out on critics physically (e.g., Richard Ford spitting on Colson Whitehead, Rick Moody hitting Dale Peck in the face with a pie at a fundraiser, Stanley Crouch slapping Peck—twice—at a restaurant), but none matched Hemingway’s for the setting and the characters of the combatants.

The temptation to use this photograph of "Papa" in trunks was irresistible. His pugnacity became part and parcel of his Byronic legend. Sometimes, it could take endearingly comical form ("I started out very quiet, and I beat Mr. Turgenev"). Other times, it underscored the silly pride and code of machismo that interfered with people's appreciation of his work. In other instances, his willingness to go to, in one form or other, scrap with others had real consequences for his relationships with friends. (See my prior post on how Hemingway blamed Fitzgerald for not keeping proper time in a 1929 loss he suffered at the hands of Canadian novelist Morley Callaghan.)

Eastman, 16 years Hemingway’s senior, befriended the young reporter in 1922, and became even friendlier with him several years later, as the rising star of the "Lost Generation" of writers was turning for good away from journalism to fiction. In 1933, however, a breach in their friendly relations formed when Eastman belatedly reviewed Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon for The New Republic. Already predisposed against bullfighting, the subject of that book, Eastman was also surprised by the revelation of his friend’s character in that “treatise in sentimental praise” of the sport.

The title of the review, “Bull in the Afternoon,” suggested a sarcastic spin, at some variance with the admiration Eastman frequently expressed for the younger writer. But the title probably reinforced the bad impression left by the following:

“It is of course a commonplace that anyone who too much protests his manhood lacks the serene confidence that he is made out of iron. Most of us too delicately organized babies who grow up to be artists suffer at times from that small inward doubt. But some circumstance seems to have laid upon Hemingway a continual sense of the obligation to put forth evidences of red-blooded masculinity.”

Eastman also had become alarmed by the way that the style that had impressed him originally in Hemingway’s short stories—“so rank with the savor of brute fact, so concise, so complete”—had spawned a whole group of imitators: “a literary style, you might say, of wearing false hair on the chest.”

The veteran editor and writer thought he had made plain that the trauma of war, which made Hemingway “scared to death” under fire, led the novelist to “overcorrect this trait.” But that wasn’t the inference that Hemingway, or many of his friends, drew from the piece. Instead, they—and, more to the point, Hemingway himself—thought there was a suggestion that he was not genitally well-endowed.

Eastman, though impolitic, had been right about one thing: Hemingway was preoccupied by the threat to masculinity, from the beginning of his career to his end. You could argue that The Sun Also Rises and “Mr. and Mrs. Elliot,” featuring protagonists unable to conceive, symbolized the novelist’s maimed post-WWI generation.

But there was no such possibility in his posthumous memoir, A Movable Feast, in which, according to Hemingway, a deeply troubled Scott Fitzgerald related a complaint from wife Zelda that “the way I was built I could never make any woman happy and that was what upset her originally.” The denouement of that scene –Hemingway leads his friend to a bathroom, carefully examines him, and reassures him that there is no problem with how he is “built”--has a major problem: there were only two witnesses to the event--one (Fitzgerald) dead, the other having alienated him nearly 30 years before.

Too many incidents, extensively documented by biographers and other memoirists, leaves the inescapable conclusion that the man who constantly reminded himself to "write the truest sentence you know” was a fabulist who concocted entire untrue chapters of books. This was the man whose particular preoccupation Eastman had unwittingly brought to the surface.

Hemingway, not pleased at all by what he saw as Eastman’s insinuation about "some circumstance," reacted in an over-the-top manner in a 1933 letter to Perkins: “I am tempted never to publish another damned thing.” Then his mood turned from self-pity to fantasies of bullying violence: “And it is a commonplace that I lack confidence that I am a man — what shit. … Whenever and wherever I meet any one of them their mouths will make a funny noise when they ever try to say it again after I get through working over them.”

Now, Hemingway vented on Eastman in particular, “a groper in sex … a traitor in politics.” (Ironically, Eastman—a backer of radical politics in WWI, when he edited The Masses and Liberator—was now not only turning against Soviet Communism as practiced by Stalin but even reconsidering the more benign political form of Socialism, while Hemingway was engaged increasingly with helping the left-wing regime in the Spanish Civil War). He promised to break the jaw of Eastman, 16 years his senior, the next time they met.

Hemingway’s encounter with Eastman four years later came against this background of deep resentment. But other factors also contributed to this particularly explosive situation.

First, the fracas occurred in a period when, for various reasons, the novelist alienated one friend after another—people dating back to his days in Paris, such as Fitzgerald, Archibald MacLeish and his wife, John Dos Passos and his wife, Gerald and Sara Murphy. So many of these friendships, noted Paul Hendrickson in his perceptive study,
Hemingway's Boat: Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost, 1934-1961, "would never be the same after the 1930s."

Often, the unraveling came in the form of things spoken or written by Hemingway far more hurtful than anything Eastman might have expressed.  

Second, the novelist really shouldn’t have been in New York at all. Of all the accounts of the incident I've come across, Michael Reynolds' Hemingway: The 1930s is the only one that has noted a particular conjunction of events: Hemingway was in the city with his mistress, Martha Gellhorn, preparing to fly back to the Spanish Civil War. Already high-strung over the lies needed to prop up his crumbling second marriage, he entered Perkins’ office only to find Eastman there.

After a perfunctory shaking of the hands, Hemingway bared his chest, asking “Is that false hair?” He then opened Eastman’s shirt to reveal the older man’s considerably less hairy one. The gentlemanly Perkins, trying to keep things light, then exposed his own.

Then, Hemingway to Eastman: “Look here, what did you say I was sexually impotent for?”

Eastman denied any such intention. The two took to arguing over the particular passage when Hemingway took the open book and pushed it in Eastman’s face.

Eastman, wrestling rather than punching Hemingway, ended up on the floor with him before Perkins was able to separate them. After some more words, Hemingway stalked out.

Predictably, the melee got into the newspapers three days later. Hemingway, on his way to Europe, told a New York Times reporter that his friend-turned-adversary “didn't throw anybody anywhere. He jumped at me like a woman, clawing.... I just held him off. I didn't want to hurt him."  He concluded with an offer to Eastman to meet him “in a closed room where no one can interfere,” and an offer to pay $1,000 to go to Eastman’s favorite charity or defray his medical expenses.

His last comment before striding up the gangplank was an offer to go into any room Eastman wanted, "and he can read his book to me.... The best man will unlock the door."

Eastman’s version, predictably, was different (“Tell Hemingway I fight when I’m attacked—either by a natural-born ruffian, or a self-made one.”)

Years later, Eastman left two different reminiscences of the man whose wrath he had provoked. Both recount essentially the same facts about the fight in Perkins’ office, but they end on far different notes. The chapter on Hemingway in Great Companions, published in 1959, concludes with a 1946 chance encounter between the two men in Havana that ended up in an unanticipated friendly conversation over drinks.

Five years later, his longer, career-length memoir, Love and Revolution, included dark speculations from two (unnamed) doctors that Hemingway’s “rapid shifts between smiling friendliness and explosive hostility” were occasioned by “alcoholic degeneration” or “alcoholic psychosis.”  

Hemingway’s suicide in 1961, surprisingly enough, had led Eastman to be less forgiving of his friend’s boorish behavior and more clinically judgmental. Hemingway's focus in the 1930s, however, had shifted in ways that would make readers of his time and ours uncomfortable. Far too many readers would come to agree with John Irving's recent carping about Papa's "macho crap." (For an effective rejoinder--and sharp analysis of Irving's own fiction--see this post from "Bark: A Blog of Literature, Culture, and Art.") It was all unnecessary, and all too tragically indicative of the forces that would eventually tear Hemingway apart.

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