Ernest Hemingway and I have a complicated relationship. It consists of both love and enmity, but also commitment, on my part, through sheer will. As a writer I cherish the words he put to paper – the pictures he painted for us of Paris in the fall, the oceans and snowy mountains, and the horrors of war. As a former bartender and lover of all things alcohol I understand his penchant for bourbon or a beer and a dimly lit, smoky bar. As a feminist, however, we part ways. Hemingway had a complicated relationship with all women; he loved them, many of them, but he also wrote and thought terribly about them, some of them. I’m quite certain, however, that had I been born during his time, I would have found myself drawn to this man, seeking him out as a writer and a woman because aside from all of his foibles, the way he thought about the world and life, until he committed suicide of course, is what women loved about him. Myself included. And, well, I seem to have an affinity for complicated men.
I read The Old Man and the Sea when I was in Junior High School. I was already a voracious reader devouring Sidney Sheldon and Stephen King and Ken Follett novels by the dozens. I had yet, however, to be introduced to the classics – To Kill a Mockingbird (which is still my favorite book and so much a part of who I am that I now teach African American history), Catcher in the Rye, A Separate Peace, Lord of the Flies, and, Hemingway. Like none other, Hemingway so vividly describes a scene that the reader is so awash in the depth of his words that you can almost taste the salty air, smell the snow, internalize the fear of an enemy, palpably feel the misogyny. As a preteen I had yet to discover what feminism was and what it would eventually mean to my life and life’s work. My father worked hard at making me an equal in a household of all men. But at twelve years old, all I knew was that I loved Ernest and A Moveable Feast and The Sun Also Rises and all of the words he wrote by hand drunk, after a night of imbibing at Sloppy Joes and those he edited at his desk in the early morning hours.
When I discovered the depth of his misogyny in my late teens I was heartbroken. How could he betray me like this? How could I continue to love a man who broke women’s hearts and then wrote that having a conversation with a woman is akin to “moves of a chess game” where you must be “careful not to stare and not look away.” (A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls). “To hell with women anyway,” he wrote in The Sun Also Rises. To be fair, a nurse broke his heart during the war and well that heartbreak, like many of his life experiences, emerged in a book.
I have to admit, however, that Papa and I do converge on one theme – marriage. Hemingway was quite familiar with the subject of marriage and while he did it often, he actually didn’t believe in the institution. He loved his wives, but he was a serial philanderer stating that he couldn’t perform when his mistress became his wife. Perhaps the surreptitious nature of the affairs was the aphrodisiac he needed to actually have sex. Secret sex does have its benefits. Hemingway felt that marriage didn’t allow him the life he deserved – one replete with drunken friends and fishing trips and routine rolls in the hay with whomever he desired. And while this is not my particular view of marriage, as I believe you can have all of those things within a marriage, except the latter, like Hemingway marriage is just not for me.
In high school I became aware of the second wave feminists that were working for a more just and equitable world for women. My best friend Deb subscribed to Ms. Magazine and I read stories about women becoming president and stay-at-home dads and the sexism that plagues my gender to this day. In college I became a full frontal feminist (shout out to Jessica Valenti) and attended pro-choice marches in the nations capital wholly believing to this day that the decisions I make about my body are solely mine and mine alone. And so feminism is what made me question my faith in him and this is where Hemingway and I began to part ways. I still revered him as a writer but the misogynistic nature of his writings began to weigh on me. It’s a difficult thing to love a man who has betrayed your sense of who you are in your body and who has disappointed your sense of the importance of half the worlds population.
My relationship with Papa remains a complicated one; still full of love and respect in many ways, but always teetering on the edge of complete failure. I try and remember that he was of another time and place. Still, I know that were he alive today, and I happened upon him in a smoky, dimly lit bar, I’d buy him a drink and bow in awe.