Last night I watched Episode 3 of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s Hemingway documentary on PBS. I’d watched the first two episodes the night before. The doc is very well produced and has interesting writers talking about Hemingway’s influence, Tobias Wolff and Edna O’Brien among them. But nothing earth-shatteringly new.
Already, in the two first episodes, the division between the man and the myth is starkly apparent. By Episode 3, Hemingway is unraveling. Drunk all the time, self-medicating with pills and rivers of booze. Trading in one wife for another, as if he were discarding old clothes.
Imagine my shock when suddenly, in Episode 3, appearing on our huge TV screen, was my father, dressed in his soldier’s uniform, the photo I love and often use when writing about him on social media. I heard the narrator saying... a young veteran... James Jones... and I instinctively sprang bolt upright on the couch.
Here’s the background on this: In 1950, the publisher Charles Scribner sent galleys of my father’s first novel, From Here to Eternity, to Hemingway, hoping for an endorsement. What Scribner got back was a letter so vile, so cruel, so ugly, it is still hard for me to believe Hemingway wrote it. He compares my father’s writing to snot, he calls him a phony and a coward (a wounded combat veteran of Guadalcanal!), and Hemingway ends by saying he hopes my father kills himself.
The screen cut to Tobias Wolff. My heart was pounding. I was afraid he was going to defend Hemingway’s actions. He did not. Looking bereft and slightly embarrassed, Wolff explained that Hemingway wrote many such letters, attacking old friends, writers, even his own family. But this is the letter they chose to illustrate Hemingway’s state of mind at the time. And how sad and unfortunate, says Tobias Wolff.
This was the first time I’d heard that abominable letter read aloud. I knew about this letter, I’ve read this letter. I can’t even count the number of writers, critics, students, professors, and friends who have asked me about this letter. How did my father feel about this letter?
How the fuck do you think he felt about this letter?
At the time the letter was written and sent to Scribner, I wasn’t born, wasn’t even a thought in my father’s mind. My father didn’t meet my mother until 1957, long after his first novel was a substantial critical and commercial success.
But years later, he did tell me that he’d felt sorry for Hemingway. The man had thought his own work was finished, that he would never recover from whatever malevolent depressive state had taken over his mind. “He was not well,” said my dad. “And who can blame a man for that?”
When my father was dying, and I mean literally dying, as he lay on the couch in a bathrobe, fighting for breath, he told me we were now going to read some novels together, to prepare me for college. I was 16 years old.
Three of the books we read together were The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, and For Whom the Bell Tolls. He explicated the hell out of those books for me. He helped me learn what subtext is, and how emotion, sadness, grief for what is lost, bled from those pages. This, through Hemingway, is how my dad told me he was going to die.
This is what I remember most about my dad's last months, reading Hemingway with him. My dad explaining to me that dying isn’t the worst thing that can happen to a person, and my open-mouthed horror at this suggestion.
He still loved, truly loved, Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises, who carries the deaths of those he knew and lost in battle for the rest of his life, who writes about the poor steer in the bull ring, trying to calm the virile, wild bulls who know what’s coming—that’s him, my dad said, that is Jake Barnes, do you see?
He loved Robert Jordan in For Whom the Bell Tolls, who knew all along that blowing the bridge was a suicide mission, and is too wounded to run and chooses to die alone, waiting for the fascist troops to come up the mountain—he’s going to slow them down, you see, he’s saving others, people he loves, and that is what counts.
And at the end of A Farewell to Arms, my father pointed out the subtle, exquisite use of imagery—the café where Frederic Henry goes three times while he waits for Catherine to give birth. Three times he goes, and three times he orders the daily special, and it is in the repetition of that daily special, which, in the morning Frederic eats with gusto, but then he returns to the hospital to very bad news; and by the time he returns to the café in the evening for the third time, after both Catherine and the baby have died, he can’t even look at the food. The emotional impact of Frederic’s loss, my dad explained, hits the reader here. Here. And my dad would allow one lone tear to roll down his lined face, still talking, still explaining why Hemingway’s work mattered to him.
This is why I still teach Hemingway, and why I still will argue and defend his work.
At the end of the documentary, when Hemingway committed suicide by shotgun in 1961, there is a short clip of some important television journalist giving a little speech about which of Hemingway’s stories and books might be remembered in generations to come. I wanted to punch him. He didn’t even pick the best stories, or novels. What the fuck did he know, that TV anchor, about writing?
And last night, this kicked the old, blind rage, the sense of injustice that fueled my young adulthood, loose in my heart.