Last night I watched Episode 3 of the Hemingway documentary on PBS. I’d watched the first two the night before. Very well produced, 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 Facebook. 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, Charles Scribner sent galleys of 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 cuts to Tobias Wolff, looking bereft and slightly embarrassed, explaining 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 an unfortunate, says Tobias Wolff. My heart was pounding. I was afraid he was going to defend Hemingway’s actions. He did not.
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 till 1957, long after his first novel was an enormous 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 sixteen 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.That is what I remember most about my dad’s last months, reading Hemingway with him. At the end of the documentary, when Hemingway committed suicide by shotgun in 1961, some important television journalist gave 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 close to 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.