Sunday, August 29, 2021

Flashback, August 1936: Hemingway Weighs Price of Fame in ‘Snows of Kilimanjaro’

When Esquire Magazine published “Snows of Kilimanjaro” in its August 1936 issue, readers unfamiliar with the recent circumstances surrounding Ernest Hemingway would have regarded the short story, rightly, as one of the finest of his career, representing an artistic summit analogous to the African peak which served as the ultimate destination of his fictional character Harry.

With prior short stories and novels preoccupied with the theme of death, his return to the subject would not, at first glance, seem unusual. 

But this time, the treatment became more coruscating, even self-lacerating, as Hemingway created a protagonist with fears all too close to his own—and imagined a heedlessness in the face of danger paralleling the same tendency in himself.

In its own time, the story raised more than a few eyebrows because of its shot at F. Scott Fitzgerald, who a decade before had offered Hemingway both a useful introduction to influential Scribners editor Maxwell Perkins and astute editing advice, when the fledgling fiction writer needed both.

Fitzgerald’s recent series of confessional essays, later collected as The Crack-Up, had recounted, in what now seems oblique if elegant terms, his emotional anguish. Together with his 1934 novel Tender is the Night, that malaise suggested self-pity—or, put in more basic terms, weakness—to Hemingway.

Fitzgerald felt rightly aggrieved when he turned to page 200 in the August issue of Esquire only to read:

The rich were dull and they drank too much, or they played too much backgammon. They were dull and they were repetitious. He remembered poor Scott Fitzgerald and his romantic awe of them and how he had started a story once that began, "The very rich are different from you and me." And how some one had said to Scott, Yes, they have more money. But that was not humorous to Scott. He thought they were a special glamourous race and when he found they weren't it wrecked him just as much as any other thing that wrecked him.

The quote referred to the famous beginning paragraph of Fitzgerald’s short story, “The Rich Boy.” All things considered, his response to the younger writer he had considered a friend brimmed with restraint:

“Dear Ernest:

“Please lay off me in print. If I choose to write de profundis sometimes it doesn’t mean I want friends praying aloud over my corpse. No doubt you meant it kindly but it cost me a night’s sleep. And when you incorporate it in a book would you mind cutting my name?

“It’s a fine story– one of your best even though the ‘Poor Scott Fitzgerald etc.’ rather spoiled it for me.”

A change of the name from “Scott” to “Julian” for later collected editions of the story provided the merest figleaf concealing the author’s identity. The immediate effect of "Snows" was that it commenced “open season” on Fitzgerald, noted biographer David Brown’s Paradise Lost. The following month, New York Post reporter Michael Mok profiled Fitzgerald as an alcoholic wreck, his youthful promise evaporated at age 40. Not long after, Fitzgerald attempted suicide.

The very public jab at Fitzgerald puts Hemingway admirers such as me face to face with an unsettling situation in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro”: a writer creating some of his most subtle, controlled and beautiful work, but unable to hide his more obvious, uncontrolled and ugly emotions.

The denigration of his early champion and friend took as much chutzpah as it did rewriting history. Nobody—certainly not Hemingway—made to Fitzgerald the wisecracking rejoinder about the rich included in the story.

Instead, the remark came at Hemingway’s expense, when he grandiosely remarked to visiting friends that he was studying the very rich. As biographer Brown noted, the fact that the crack came from a woman—the Irish writer Mary Colum—could only make Hemingway smart even more.

Decades later, however, knowing how Hemingway’s life turned out, many readers might feel that certain women in his life might have even greater reason than Fitzgerald for annoyance about "Snows," including his wife, Pauline Pfeiffer Hemingway.

Or, I should say, his second of four wives. Hemingway had written about her in Green Hills of Africa with what passed for his highest praise: the good sport who shared his big-fame adventures on the continent.

But, fatally for their marriage, Hemingway also associated her with the end of his youthful innocence: as the woman who lured him away from his first wife, Hadley Richardson, and introduced him to a world of wealth he believed undermined his discipline as a writer.

Then, after the Catholic Pauline insisted that they follow the rhythm method in intercourse to avoid a third pregnancy that, doctors had warned, could endanger her life, Hemingway found himself not merely creatively cosseted but sexually dissatisfied.

Hemingway responded, in troubling fashion, to an urge that had last darkened his work the decade before: attacking in print, in thinly fictionalized form, people who had once meant a great deal to him.

In 1926, he had made his reputation with The Sun Also Rises, a roman a clef whose characters—drawn from a booze-filled trip to Spain to watch bullfights—included an anti-Semitic portrayal of the writer Harold Loeb.

A year later, in a move that then-wife Hadley warned him against, Hemingway had used The Torrents of Spring to satirize Sherwood Anderson, an older mentor who gave helpful advice on his early fiction.

By the mid-1930s, Hemingway was lashing out—again, in veiled, fictionalized terms—this time against a trio of women. Two of the three would form the composite character "Helen" in "Snows":

* Jane Kendall Mason, who had engaged in an intermittent four-year affair with Hemingway while he was in Havana, spurred the creation of two of the most misogynistic works in all his fiction: “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” and To Have and Have Not.

* Helen Hay Whitney, an heiress who, speculates Paul Hendrickson in Hemingway's Boat, offered to help bankroll a future Hemingway safari—helping to inspire the “Helen” character in “Snows.”

*Pauline Pfeiffer Hemingway, the Arkansas heiress whose uncle had not only furnished the money for the Hemingway’s Key West home but also for the recent safari that gave rise to Green Hills of Africa

How could Pauline not have thought of herself when she read passages like this in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro”?

“It was strange, too, wasn't it, that when he fell in love with another woman, that woman should always have more money than the last one? But when he no longer was in love, when he was only lying, as to this woman, now, who had the most money of all, who had all the money there was, who had had a husband and children, who had taken lovers and been dissatisfied with them, and who loved him dearly as a writer, as a man, as a companion and as a proud possession; it was strange that when he did not love her at all and was lying, that he should be able to give her more for her money than when he had really loved.”

Character assassination remained among the instruments that Hemingway employed throughout his life. Friends who found themselves at the receiving end of his inexplicable cruelty were, more often than not, bewildered by what might have caused the disruption in their relationship.

But, with Hemingway’s multiple eruptions in the mid-1930s, the motive may have been fear. Fame and fortune were complicating his life, propelling Hemingway towards creating a macho image he found increasingly difficult to maintain.

Although the printed version of “Snows” gave the protagonist’s name as, simply, Harry, the manuscript called him “Harry Walden”—a more explicit recognition of the simple life that Hemingway felt he was abandoning.

In an August 1968 article for American Heritage Magazine, Hemingway scholar Carlos Baker spelled out the consequences: “One of Hemingway’s recurrent motivations to literary creativity throughout his life was the conviction that he might soon be going to die without having completed his work or fulfilled his unwritten promise to his talents. At the time when he wrote this story he knew very well that he had climbed no farther than the lower slopes of his personal Kilimanjaro.”

Hemingway compressed his self-doubt into a single memorable sentence in “Snows”: “Now he would never write the things that he had saved to write until he knew enough to write them well.”

Four italicized vignettes in “Snows” offer a glimpse of the stories Hemingway desperately wanted to write, in some of the most lyrical passages he ever wrote, including this one of an Austrian village he had visited with Hadley:

In Schrunz, on Christmas day, the snow was so bright it hurt your eyes when you looked out from the Weinstube and saw every one coming home from church. That was where they walked up the sleigh-smoothed urine-yellowed road along the river with the steep pine hills, skis heavy on the shoulder, and where they ran down the glacier above the Madlenerhaus, the snow as smooth to see as cake frosting and as light as powder and he remembered the noiseless rush the speed made as you dropped down like a bird….

And an even more nostalgic look back at Paris in the Twenties:

And in that poverty, and in that quarter across the street from a Boucherie Chevaline and a wine cooperative he had written the start of all he was to do. There never was another part of Paris that he loved like that, the sprawling trees, the old white plastered houses painted brown below, the long green of the autobus in that round square, the purple flower dye upon the paving, the sudden drop down the hill of the rue Cardinal Lemoine to the River, and the other way the narrow crowded world of the rue Mouffetard.

In his 1938 short-story collection, The First Forty-Nine, Hemingway concluded his preface with a note ironic and poignant in retrospect: “I would like to live long enough to write three more novels and twenty-five more stories.” In fact, he wrote three more novels published in his lifetime and about twenty short stories not collected till after his death in 1961.

But, except perhaps for For Whom the Bell Tolls, none of these approached in quality the works up to “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” that had made him such an icon of creative self-discipline. As an enthusiastic but none-too-adept amateur boxer, he knew the risks of softness and lack of alertness. Yet he had fallen victim to these dangers in the arena that mattered the most to him: writing.

Moreover, he had, with an uncanny sense of foreboding, anticipated the fate that overcame him in his last decade. As with his short story, a trip to Africa precipitated a medical crisis—in this case, two plane crashes in Uganda in 1954, in which he had suffered a fractured skull, a ruptured liver, a collapsed intestine, several broken vertebrae and a burnt scalp. 

As his fictional stand-in Harry had done in not cleaning his wound with iodine, Hemingway incurred further risk after the crashes by continuing to drink heavily. And his fourth wife, Mary, took on the same role of nurse assumed by fictional counterpart Helen in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” in tending to a husband who alternated affection with outbursts of contempt and abuse.

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