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  • Karl Thunemann


Ernest Hemingway was born in 1899. That makes him an Edwardian. It also doomed him to the 20th century sequence of world-wide wars, economic depressions, and political quandaries — arming him with only 19th century code that accepted two life-controlling binaries: that of mother versus father and that of who one is versus who the public demands that you be.

Two other famous American writers are often linked because John Steinbeck (1902) and William Faulkner (1897) were also born Edwardians, but they took the quandaries in quite different ways because of place. Steinbeck was a California man and Faulkner was a Southerner. Steinbeck was a man of the people; Faulkner was located on a racist abyss.

Chicago (Oak Park is Chicago) made Hemingway a city man who knew the underlying rural world only by fishing and hunting or through war. That is, through exceptional conflict struggling for control, which was thought to be the core of being a man — but always with the covert and sometimes transgressive collaboration of a woman.

These were characteristics I knew through Bob Scriver, though the racism that oppresses Native Americans is rather different than that which has trapped Blacks. Scriver’s mom, who was as overbearing and insistent as Hemingway’s — indeed, looked like her — had a small but powerful husband who held her in check the way Scriver tried to do with me in a much later and much less effective way. Both Bob and his brother Harold were big game hunters, but Harold protected his younger brother by guiding him on WWII army intake to claim his only skill was playing the cornet. This meant he dodged bullets by being in a military band located in Edmonton. An allergy to fish protected him from doing much more than tying flies.

America admired all this and if the writer (Hemingway) tried to separate from his own intensity and torn emotions, the public turned him back to being the person they wanted: a strong man, even violent; an entitled white man who had important men for friends, an economic powerhouse.

I was the writer and Scriver was my first editor as well as being the reason for writing in the name of promotion. After I finished the ultimate, “Bronze Inside and Out,” a biography of Bob Scriver that was published in the Edwardian way as a book, I wrote alongside Tim Barrus on the Internet. There was no editing. There was no publicity or criticism. Instead of racism, there were gender questions. He was gay; I was celibate. He read all the existential books for nonconformists who were born in 1950. I was Unitarian-Universalist but more Transcendentalist. My grandmother grew up in Michigan not far from his grandmother, but I grew up in Portland, Oregon, yearning for rural Roseburg which is nearly California.

But this is about Hemingway, though I preferred Steinbeck which is part of my point of view and closer to the way I write and what I write about. Hemingway’s example and his promotion by the media affected all our lives. (They turned on Steinbeck because he stood with the poor.) As this recent videography graphically illustrates, the 20th century was a destructive time that made rubble of cities as well as Hemingway’s body, particularly through concussion and alcoholism which was then as socially approved as smoking. Hard drugs and marijuana had not yet taken hold of many. Anyway, his main drug was adrenaline, which he mainlined at bullfights, though he was more like the bull than the bullfighter. Oppositely, he loved cats as he loved women, soft and dependent.

America admired all this and if the writer tried to separate from his own intensity and torn emotions, the public turned him back to being the person they wanted: a strong man, even violent; an entitled white man who had important men for friends, an economic powerhouse. A man who could slap his wives in the face without them leaving, an act his father could never perform. The guy they wanted to be and saw in the movies.

Another thread appears when we can see under the myths. Hemingway’s father was carrying something probably genetic and I would like to know more about that. In addition to his own suicide in 1961, the novelist’s father, sister, brother, and niece took their own lives. If this aspect intrigues you, these links take a variety of tones. America doesn’t know what it thinks about suicide — it just keeps doing it.

To keep up the comparison, Scriver’s paternal grandmother lost most of her conceived infants and his father was premature. No ancestors were known to be psychotic. He himself had “too many red blood cells” due to living at a high altitude (4377 ft) and was advised to give blood often. Blackfeet adaptation along these lines have helped make them outstanding athletes. But Scriver found giving blood was so painful that he never did it. High sensitivity was part of his “gift.” It was also a burden.

Hemingway did not have too many blood cells. He seems to have had high tolerance for pain, accepting war operations for wounds without anesthetics, seen as a kind of toughness. But he also seemed to have little empathy.

“The term dark personalities refer to a set of socially aversive traits (such as spitefulness, greed, sadism, narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism) in the subclinical range. … The dark personalities have been associated with some of humanity’s greatest vices and also humanity’s key virtues. He became so habituated to alcohol and adrenaline that he needed higher and higher doses of both. But he may have had another of the genetic inheritances that have been suggested. (None are really proven.) (Wikipedia)

These genes tend to come in clusters and media debate them constantly. It’s arguable that Hemingway’s genius at writing was the result of the intense destructive pressure of his body makeup being barely contained by the discipline of his mother (which he came to despise) and the intelligence of his father (who was a doctor, disintegrated late in life). His writing style was directly opposed to their values. This is another binary, nearly at the level of plate tectonics under continents, geologically throwing up heights into mountains. He had a brilliant editor, but Maxwell Perkins was controlling earthquakes — when they came. When they stopped, the writing was stuck. The Ken Burns/Lynn Novick series comes from people whose ground is war and sports. They are suited to the story. I would be interested to see what they could do with the family of McCormick, another “American” figure with the genes for madness, this time keyed into the death of agriculture, murdered by the industrial revolution. This is a strong thread in America — what these revolutions of culture did to individuals unique to their time and place, vulnerable but productive.


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