Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Hemingway on Hemingway

Express Staff Writer

The Sun Valley Ernest Hemingway Festival begins later this month. The Express spoke recently with the author's only living son about his father's legacy.

In many social circles, the mere mention of the name Ernest Hemingway conjures up images of a confident, white-bearded man fishing for giant marlin in the blue waters of the Caribbean, stalking lions in the dark heart of Africa, or carousing with glamorous women and matadors in the heat of the Spanish sun.

Indeed, Hemingway's biography, by even the plainest of accounts, reads like a 20th-century fantasy. In between writing novels and stories that earned him worldwide acclaim, he partied with celebrities, was involved in combat in three major wars, ran with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain, survived two plane crashes, and, of course, hunted and fished at points across the globe, including Central Idaho.

Nonetheless, Patrick Hemingway, 77, Ernest Hemingway's only living son, maintains that a little too much is made of his father's eminent lifestyle and pursuits, and not quite enough of his achievements as a writer. Some of the stories about Papa—as his father was known—have been perpetuated in myth, he said, and often carry the deleterious effect of prompting people to focus their attention on a masculine ideal instead of the very real virtuoso that he was.

"This is a man who was in on a lot of the happenings of the first half of the 20th century. He knew a lot," Patrick Hemingway said from his rural retreat in Craig, Mont. "But the trouble with the myths about him is they might keep people from reading what he wrote. And that writing was pretty incredible."

Papa, Patrick said, might not always be revered by professors and students of American literature to the same extent as William Faulkner or F. Scott Fitzgerald, but should be. While Faulkner and Fitzgerald might be the epitome of classic American writers, Ernest Hemingway revolutionized the way American literature was written, read and understood.

"He was undoubtedly one of the greatest writers of the 20th century in any language," Patrick said.

In "The Killers," a renowned short story about two hit men who go to a small town to kill a former prizefighter, Ernest Hemingway introduced Americans to the gangster story, he said.

And in "A Farewell to Arms," Patrick's favorite of his father's novels, Papa broke literary barriers with his touching depiction of a sophisticated, out-of-wedlock love affair during World War I between a handsome American in the Italian army and a progressive English nurse.

But, Patrick said, it is not only his father's fiction that impresses. Papa's journalistic account of crossing the English Channel with American forces and landing on France's Omaha Beach during the D-Day landing of World War II—called "Voyage to Victory"—"is just a tremendous piece of writing."

Patrick, who edited the posthumously published Hemingway fictional memoir "True at First Light," about his father's final African safari, does not buy into the notion that Papa was a great writer because he could simply translate his seemingly incomparable life experiences into realistic, gripping fiction. Papa worked hard, he said, conscientiously devoting numerous hours every morning to writing, editing and conducting research, never as a hobby, but as a true profession.

"Writing is not just inspirational," he said, noting that "A Farewell to Arms" came largely from "imagination and research."

And, he said, even Ernest Hemingway needed to employ a certain degree of talent and creativity to make real life a compelling read.

"Not everything was his life story. Life stories can be pretty dull sometimes."

Patrick Hemingway is the first son of Papa's second marriage, to Pauline Hemingway, née Pfeiffer. Patrick spent several autumns in Sun Valley in the early 1940s, when Papa was enjoying Central Idaho as a quiet place to write and hunt. After his mother died in 1951, Patrick went to East Africa, where he spent nearly 25 years working as a safari guide and instructor in wildlife management. He has lived in Montana since 1975.

He said Papa's life was certainly romantic and exciting, but perhaps not as much so as many people imagine. Papa spent countless hours sitting or standing at desks, typing and editing his news stories and fiction manuscripts. And, he often had family obligations, including the rearing of his three sons, Jack, Patrick and Gregory.

As a parent, Patrick said, Papa was a strong and generous man, "a very good father." He taught his sons how to hunt and often brought them on outings in Idaho to pursue game birds, rabbits and antelope.

In Sun Valley, he said, Papa never really had anonymity—he was the subject of a Life magazine photo shoot the second year he visited—but did find friendly people who "weren't really aware of him in his profession."

To Patrick, Papa's time in Idaho was not meaningful because he had discovered some sort of Old West nirvana, where he would wish to spend all four seasons. In the early years, it was merely a place where Papa could write, enjoy the outdoors and spend time with his family and friends. In the later years, in the 1950s, he said, Idaho was a locale where Papa could simply have "a nice, fall vacation" from his life in Cuba.

And despite all the unwavering praise Patrick bestows on Papa as a writer and a father, one who worked on some of his best-known publications while in Idaho, he still questions why Papa bought a house in Ketchum in 1959. He views the house along the Big Wood River primarily as the place where Papa killed himself in July 1961.

But, Papa "was a very complicated person," he said, one who was "very sad" in his final years, hoping to recapture happier times.

And, since Papa's death, the myths have grown in size and number. Some are flattering, some are not, but Patrick doesn't "really keep track of all that stuff."

What's important, he suggests, at least for those who aren't family, is the writing, the lessons of language and life that were born from Papa's crafty manipulations of the real and the imagined.

And before anyone could cast a lasting doubt as to whether Patrick Hemingway is sincere, or might not know what genuine writing is, he perhaps laid the matter to rest in his humble introduction to "True at First Light." In a poetic final paragraph, he says he sees the work as "a child's teddy bear," which he will "take to bed now always," before closing with the words, "God bless you, Papa."

The inaugural Sun Valley Ernest Hemingway Festival takes place Sept. 22 to Sept. 24 in Ketchum and Sun Valley. Many of the organized events and activities, which include talks by Hemingway scholars and a "Hemingway Hangouts" guided tour, are free. For further details pick up next week's edition of the Express or visit

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