Hemingway revealed

Exhibit: "Picturing Hemingway" at the National Portrait Gallery shows off a life of image-building.

June 28, 1999|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Ernest Hemingway never saw himself the way Miguel Covarrubias, the brilliant caricaturist, saw him: a vulnerable Tarzan rubbing hair-growth elixir on his chest. Hemingway's image as the he-man of American letters was nothing to joke about.

"I don't think he would have found [the painting] particularly funny. He would not have laughed," says Frederick Voss, curator of the Hemingway exhibit now on display at the Smithsonian Institution's National Portrait Gallery. "One thing you can say for certain is that he did not have a sense of humor about himself."

Hemingway could be shy, or suck the air out of a room through the sheer power of his presence. Those who helped him knew he could be brutal and cruel. Friendships evaporated. He snarled at graduate students seeking an audience. Somehow, though, he became a cultural icon. People know the rugged, bearded face of "Papa Hemingway" even if they never have read the novels and short stories he added to the body of American literature.

"Picturing Hemingway: A Writer in His Time," is his story, told through photographs, books and artifacts. The exhibit is one of several events celebrating the centennial of Hemingway's birth.

Nowadays no writer in his right mind would cast himself in the mode of Hemingway. The testosterone excess is too easy to parody. Imagine a chorus line of Hemingway look-alikes singing, "Macho, macho man. I got to be, a macho man."

Our age has no place for Great White Hunters with toothsome smiles holding beautiful curved horns of dead kudus, or sitting beside a leopard killed by a rifle shot. Our age is one of endangered species. The kill brings no celebration, only revulsion.

Not so in Hemingway's time. Go back to the early years of this century. Teddy Roosevelt was the model of manhood, at home on the range or the White House. Young boys like Hemingway looked to Roosevelt and his stories of charging up San Juan Hill, or hunting in the still wild West.

If Hemingway's mother had had her way, her son would have gone to college, and the world may never have heard of him. But he wanted adventure and an escape from the broad lawns and narrow minds of Oak Park, Ill.

He joined the Kansas City Star as a $15-a-week cub reporter. A copy of the newspaper's stylebook and a few words from its pages are part of the exhibit: "Use short sentences. Use short paragraphs. Use vigorous English. Be positive, not negative." Voss sees in those words the seeds of Hemingway's style.

"Picturing Hemingway" does not examine the writer's prose. That is left for the literary seminars. The exhibit follows his life and the building of an image. He had an almost uncanny ability to be in the right place at the right time. World War I found him in Italy. He was wounded, photographed smiling from his hospital bed. A ring made from the shrapnel hangs in the exhibit.

His next stop was Paris. Again, he was in the right place. James Joyce was there, Gertrude Stein, Sylvia Beach and Ford Madox Ford. They took him into their small circle of literary minds. Ezra Pound called him "the finest prose stylist in the world." He was barely 25 years old.

Young and famous

Fame came fast. By the time he was 30, he was a star, author of "The Sun Also Rises" and "A Farewell to Arms." Of the earlier work his mother wrote that it was "a doubtful honor" to have written "one of the filthiest books of the year." No matter, critics loved him. Big, robust, handsome, he had the Hollywood look of Clark Gable.

"With that literary fame, you have the onset of his emergence as simply a public personality, a persona, a celebrity, whatever," says Voss. "He became his own most fabulous character and it happened to some extent with his own encouragement."

He went on safari in East Africa, hunted in Idaho, caught tremendous marlin off Key West. Always, it seemed, a cameraman was ready to document the conquering hero's moment of victory. If only a photographer had been on hand for one of Hemingway's more obscure campaigns, the battle of the chest hair.

It began with Max Eastman's review of "Death in the Afternoon," Hemingway's paean to bullfighting. Eastman considered the book's masculine tone overdone, forced. Perhaps, he mused, Hemingway lacked "the serene confidence that he is a full-sized man." At the very least he was guilty of "a literary style, you might say, of wearing false hair on the chest."

Hemingway "just went off the deep end on that. He was furious," says Voss. "He also misinterpreted it. He thought it was an accusation of impotence."

Hemingway wrote a vicious defense. Eastman said he meant no insult to the writer's manhood. The New York literati gossiped. Covarrubias had a laugh. Four years later Hemingway and Eastman met at a publisher's office. Hemingway was still seething. He might have considered throwing down a gauntlet of hair ripped from his chest. Instead he suggested they compare hair. Before long, the two writers were wrestling on the office floor.

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