stalking the psychic jackals

Ernest Hemingway. There was the dazzling public persona to which he lived up to, but behind it there was a shadowland of deep war wounds and psychic jackals that stalked his later years…

He was truly spooked by the war wounds on the Italian front; all 237 steel fragments in his legs worth: body, mind, spirit and morally. Perhaps that was the origin of a contrast between the public and the private Hemingway that was to persist all through his life. Publicly he was a war hero, and a real one,too, considering the courage and instinctive presence of mind he had shown in an emergency. He thoroughly enjoyed the role  and played up to it like an old trouper. Privately though, he was, and for a long time would remain, a frightened man. It was not until the Spanish Civil War- or perhaps, not until some crazy plane rides over occupied China in the spring of 1941- that he overcame his fear of being blown up at night. Till then he had concealed the fear and challenged himself time and again by deliberately walking into new dangers.

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Then there was the notion of the immense charm he exerted on his friends,on women, and on older persons he respected. Partly the charm was due to his physical presence: he was tall, handsome, broad-shouldered, with heavy biceps, yet carried himself with a diffident and reassuring air. And even more of the charm depended, though, on his habit of paying undivided attention to each of several persons in turn. “Most people never listen,” he once said.

Since his death, and while living, Hemingway’s public image played an important role in cultural history. In fact it has a history of its own, and retains constant elements while growing through different phases as if it were a person instead of a persona. One phase was that of the young writer living in exile and speaking for the postwar generation with absolute integrity. Another was that of the sportsman, traveler, and discriminating drinker, often photographed with a glass in his hand beside the carcasses of enormous fish and mammals. Still other phases were those of the committed man defending the Spanish republic, of the war correspondent ranging through France with a private army, and, in the final years, of the square-faced, grizzly bearded veteran watching paternally over his flock of young admirers: Mr. Papa.

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The image in all its phases, after the first suburban episode of the war hero dazzling his neighbors in Oak Park, played its part on an international stage. Always it was rendered more persuasive by Hemingway’s zest for living, by his energy, his passionate desire to be first, and his inborn gift for projecting himself. In one of its phases, that of the sportsman and bon vivant, the image had a discernible effect on the notion of commercial imagery that surrounded him. He brought fisherman to Key West, bands of hunters to the high African plains, thousands of college students to the festival at Pamplona. Ski resorts in Tyrol and Idaho, bullfights all over Spain, restaurants in Venice, Milan, Paris, Havana- he had good times at all of them, he told with gusto what they had to offer, and the crowds came streaming after. Whether he really enjoyed the role is another matter; the effort to maintain the role of being the man’s man and an ambassador of male virility and conspicuous consumption.


(see link at end)…the suggestion that war would be the sum of their eldest son’s experience might have seemed a foolish overstatement, soon to be laughed off. He had been at the front a month and was a medical assistant, not a soldier.

The prediction that war was all he knew was less reckless than it sounded at the time, however. Hemingway died fifty years ago, shooting himself in the head in the early morning of July 2, 1961, at the house he shared with his fourth wife, Mary Welsh, in Ketchum, Idaho. The last ten years of the marriage, which began in 1946, had been marked by insult, paranoia and violence. “It is more than a year since he actually hit me”, Mary told her husband’s publisher, Charles Scribner, in 1950. An entry in her journal for October 1951 says: “E. followed me to my bathroom and spit in my face”. The information that follows is almost as startling: “Next day he gave me $200”.

Between the youthful war hero and his bullying reflection you can fit three failed marriages, two messed-up children, five car accidents, two plane crashes (on succeeding days), one self-shooting (beside the fatal one), murderous safaris, vertiginous celebrity, precarious wealth, and a peculiar type of literary success that seemed, in his eyes, to spell “failure”. The subtitle of Paul Hendrickson’s Hemingway’s Boat states the terms of the battle eloquentl

ough, though no more so than the title of Hemingway’s last original collection of short stories, published in 1933 when he was thirty-four, in which one may still – just – catch sight of the experimental modernist he had been for ten productive years: Winner Take Nothing. Read More:

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