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Hemingway Almost Killed Me

The favorite books of one's youth can be dangerous stuff. One of the highest-risk authors for me turned out to be Ernest Hemingway. His writing almost killed me in at least in three ways. That wasn't his fault, of course; I was young, male, American, susceptible, born by a Hemingway-esque man not only from “the greatest generation” but also a war veteran and confirmed sportsman from the same region as Hemingway himself. So I came by it all honestly, and also am lucky to have survived this long.

I'm not sure which of his classics I first encountered but I read lots of them while still a teen - “The Sun Also Rises,” “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” “A Farewell to Arms,” and “The First 49 Stories” being the top four, and generally seen as his - or anybody's, really - best work. It can be fascinating and sometimes disillusioning decades later to reread books loved as a youth. Signature works by, say, Kerouac and Brautigan, so romantically adventurous at early exposure, can too often appear silly, even sad, from a more adult perspective. But early Hemingway holds up, and reveals much more of his skill and sadness to a more mature reader. But even though he had little political or other advice to offer, his example could be the most risky of all.

The new Ken Burns Hemingway bio-series shows in tragic detail how, doomed by a dysfunctional family, war, head injuries, alcohol, and warped expectations of romance, fame and adventure, Hemingway led a largely depressed and desperate inner life. Suicide occurred shockingly often in his lineage. Those around him suffered by association, whether human or other species (other than his many beloved, polydactyl cats). His work from the start was infused with death. But still he colored what and how an entire generation of readers, especially male westerners, saw what a good life could and should be. One could argue there was/is a lot of blood on his hands, both literally and historically.

My own father was one prime example. I think the Hemingway books were the only ones he ever gave me. Pop had grown up in the same region as Hemingway too, fishing and hunting in upper Minnesota and Michigan, then into the Navy in the Pacific in WWII and then to California for an overly successful career in “defense” (read: offense). So fatherhood for him largely meant teaching me - but not my sisters, of course - to shoot, fish, fight, and impress people, especially females. Nothing seemed really wrong with that, unless one was an animal of prey (or maybe a woman, or a liver). Then I was mostly on my own. But I kept reading Hemingway, along with everything else. 

I never got into hunting, thankfully, and after one trip into the Sierras - via private 4-seater plane - like “Hem” in his 1930s nonfiction book “Green Hills of Africa” - where I refused to pull the trigger on a beautiful deer, an easy shot. Even though I'd already been certified by the NRA as a skilled “junior marksman” following many rigorous weekends at the firing range, my mild affair with guns was already done. Fishing lasted longer. Hemingway's late novel “The Old Man and the Sea” seemed to me, as noted in the Burns doc, an almost comic caricature of Hemingway's style, even though it garnered him his Nobel. But it and the even later “Islands in the Stream” and others portrayed big-game fishing, and we also flew down into Baja and the Mexican mainland for drunken sail-fishing excursions. I did catch a few big marlin and other, tastier fish such as tuna. My dad actually had a marlin record for a time, taking over 4 hours to reel in an almost 600-pounder. But soon the killing there also seemed to me pointless at best, even though local folks were given the big fish as food. The boozing and smoking was at murderous levels too. Even as a young man I soon realized that was not a direction I should or could go. But I still yearned for the big adventures.

So, thanks to better role models both on paper and in real life, I narrowly escaped the two traps of excess alcohol and machismo. But it was the third Hemingway example that almost killed me young: Running with bulls. That cultural spectacle from the Spanish town of Pamplona famously appears in “The Sun Also Rises”, and it stuck with me as a cool adventurous thing to try someday - so much so that I put it on my list of life goals, scribbled out at 17 or 18 years old. About eight years later, much more educated and supposedly mature but still not too wise, while wandering Europe I drove down from my aunt's place in Paris to the mountainous Basque Pyrenees region of Northern Spain to see what might be possible. It was the Fiesta of San Fermin, held early each July, a weeklong bacchanal of parties, parades, drinking, singing, bullfights, and the famed/infamous 'running of the bulls.” Some version of this event has been held since 1591; Saint Fermín was a Pamplona bishop who travelled far and wide converting people to Christianity.

I'd bought Hemingway's “Death in the Afternoon” in Paris. It's his 1932 exploration of all things bullfighting, said in the Burns documentary to be his effort to show he still had it at the ripe old age of 33; he'd thought his popularity was already waning after his run of classics in the 1920s. And indeed some judge some of the writing in “Death” to be among his very best. “At the first bullfight I ever went to I expected horrified and perhaps sickened by what I had been told would happen to the horses,” he begins. ”I suppose, from a modern moral point of view, that is, a Christian point of view, the whole thing is indefensible...”. As already a confirmed vegetarian and animal lover, I figured I'd abhor bullfighting, but still wanted to see what it was all about after reading so much about it. I read this book like an anthropologist. Pure machismo? Brazen torture and slaughter? Deep cultural phenomenon? All of the above? I'd go see for myself.

But before the bullfights, my real incentive: The running of the doomed bulls, or encierro, from encerrar, “to corral or enclose” - which is what occurs, as the six bulls set to be “fought” and killed in the yes, afternoon are loosened early in the morning to run through enclosed streets to the big arena. It began, as I vaguely recall, at 8am each morning of the fiesta. Now, this was a punishing time to be up and running for one's life, as the fiesta, and the severe heat of the day there (I seem to recall a bank clock/thermometer reading 42 degrees centigrade one scorching afternoon, as in, 107F) meant the celebrating, including prolonged massive amounts of cheap Spanish wine, started late, after long afternoon siestas. It was safe to say that at least 90% of the males - all males - in the way of the bulls each morning were also fighting off severe hangovers. Or perhaps I was mostly projecting.

Hemingway was at San Fermin in 1925, the same age I was when there, and writes in “Sun” of yes, awakening with a bad headache, guzzling coffee, hearing the rocket go off that announces the bulls set free on one side of the town to run the corralled streets to the bullring, and running to see. “There was a great shout from the crowd, and putting my head through the boards I saw the bulls just coming out of the street into the long running pen. They were running fast and gaining on the crowd.....there were so many people running ahead of the bulls that the mass thickened and slowed up going through the gate into the ring, and as the bulls passed, galloping together, muddy-sided, horns swinging, one shot ahead, caught a man in the running crowd in the back and lifted him into the air. Both the man's arms were by his sides, his head went back as the horn went in, and the bull lifted him and then dropped him.....”

That running human is soon reported dead, as Hemingway gets more coffee and toast in another café. “All for sport,” remarks a waiter in disgust. Almost 60 years later I was not aware how many people got gored, surviving or not, as I stood in the crowd in that same runway. I remembered this passage from the book though. I'd put on the mandatory cheap white shirt and red bandanna to look like I belonged, but I wasn't so sure if that was true. But no matter, there went the rocket, and suddenly all the drunks and hungover drunks milling around me went very quiet, listening. Within a couple minutes that seemed much longer the sound of running and yelling could be heard, and then, as in that famed fiction, here came a cluster of fast-running men (all men). I couldn't yet see any bulls but took off too. 

After ten yards or so I glanced back and there they were, coming up fast as men jumped out of the way, pressed themselves against the wooden railing on one side or storefronts on the other, or even dove to the ground against the edges. I looked forward and saw that most of the stores had their metal grades down over the entryways, but a few did not. Men were cramming themselves into those like the proverbial frat boys into a phone booth. I looked back again and saw a bull about ten feet behind, passing a man pressed up against the wall; even though almost by him, the bull leisurely, seemingly for “fun,” slanted a long sharp horn over for a quick slash of the man's shirt, if not his skin. That was enough for me - I jumped into a doorway full of bodies, shoving in between a couple guys and almost pushing one out into the road. The six bulls thundered by.

Back out into the road, there was collective elation; we'd survived. Some took off trotting in the directions the bulls had run, to “play” with them in the bullring. This struck me as overly tempting fate, and indeed I learned later that more were hurt there than anywhere else. The bullfights wouldn't begin until late in the afternoon, when more shade had hit the arena (tickets in shade cost significantly more, but were worth it if you could get them). It was time for food and some “hair of the dog,” I could check another pointless accomplishment off of my list.

I'll spare the details of the bullfights here. The whole phenomenon is so complex, mannered, subtle, with so many unwritten rules and rituals that Hemingway's “Death” book runs well over 300 pages. But yes, the bulls are taunted, bled, then killed. Call it torture. Occasionally, rarely, one is spared if he bullfighter is unable to do things “right.” Occasionally a bullfighter is gored; more often, a horse in the ring is hurt. Stepping back and viewing it all as the proverbial Man from Outer Space, it is one of the most bizarre and cruel human rituals of all. One can imagine it took centuries to develop in the hot Spanish plains, perhaps mostly out of boredom; it will likely take as long to die out, if it ever does. Seeing it a couple of times, once to say I did, twice to be sure, was more than enough. Anyway, after surviving the encierro, tomorrow I'd head back downhill to the coast, to the lovely city of San Sebastian for cooling dips into the water and some delicious seafood.

“The gun-penis-death thing is so sad as well as ugly,” observed the renowned and scarily prolific current writer Rebecca Solnit about Hemingway in 2015, in an essay titled “80 Books No Woman Should Read.” I take exception to her title's proposal, even if made partly in jest, for literature has never meant to be any kind of “safe space” - quite the contrary. But Solnit seems sadly right about the man himself. “If you learn a lot from Gertrude Stein you shouldn't be a homophobic, anti-Semitic misogynist, and shooting large animals should never be equated with masculinity.” He did volunteer himself into three wars, on the right sides of each, and “saw combat” in at least two of them, so it wasn't all fake bravado. But, as his four wives and many others could and sometimes would attest, he was a personal nightmare much of the time. But his books and image undeniably colored what countless men figured was the best way to live. Solnit went on to describe his writing as “mannered and pretentious and sentimental,” adding that “manly sentimental is the worst kind of sentimental.” Which is all harsh and largely true, at least from our time's viewpoint, and I also have real reservations about judging such things from presumably more enlightened and much later times, and about “cancelling” writers from that perspective (Solnit also called Hemingway's prose “Lego blocks,” but I'm not sure what that might means; kids' toys?). As the Burns documentary notes repeatedly, Hemingway so heavily dominated modern American fiction for a time that nothing was the same after it. One can't just wipe that away even at this late date.

In any event I was glad to have read him, was glad I was not him, and even more glad to have survived him. But I've never forgotten that running bull's horn passing within inches of me, and the bull's wide frightened and furious eye seeming to stare for a long second into mine as he passed, unknowingly on his way to death just a few hours later.

2 Comments

  1. Jonah raskin June 14, 2021

    Great piece and no bull, pun intended
    Hem can be bad but please let’s not cancel him. One wonders if Solnit is a man hater?

    • Mark Laszlo June 15, 2021

      Re: Ernest Hemingway, i was pre-shocked. And no-one can ever cancel Hemingway’s contribution to literature. No man-hating feminist. No-one has such a right. Those who trash classic minds would impoverish the treasury of world culture from envy.

      Everyone, to some extent is a product of their time. Civilization progresses – if we are fortunate enough that it does not regress – from where it is at any historic moment. Bad ideas, customs and laws can change when it’s ready to happen. Everyone has both good ideas and bad ones. Nobody sees through all the bad ideas of their time. If any progress is made, it’s by keeping records of good ideas along with the bad. We need to pick and choose between good and bad messages from the best contributors to civilization’s progress.

      20 years ago, a man in Mississippi sued when his son at elementary school was assigned Tom Sawyer by Samuel Clemmons, who humanized blacks to white America as slavery ended. They had no greater white defender. He knew them and described them with sympathy. His sin to the ignorant father was to give Jupiter, his good-natured runaway slave, a slave dialect, that blacks spoke in his time. And Clemmons character Jupiter was ignorant, because slaves were denied education. The local Board of Education banned the book.

      Theodor Geisel, the classic children’s book writer and illustrator’s “To Think It All Happened On Mulberry Street” is now withdrawn from publication, because of one drawing that included caricatures of blacks. My mother read it to me at bedtime to help me learn to read in 1961. It was about a little boy’s fantasy he embroidered when he saw a horse drawn produce peddler’s wagon there. He imagined a whole parade.
      And i saw a real peddler’s wagon like it on Mulberry Street, in an old
      New York neighborhood. The book was hilarious to Mom and me. And she was as kind and respectful to black people as they come. I don’t blame people for feeling hurt by satiric depictions of their ethnicities. I feel that way when thinking of some drawings made of my own. Yet it is a great error not to look for the difference between satiric depictions that are vicious and those drawn w/o malice. That difference can be seen in the contexts of the art and artist.

      Peter Sellers got the last laugh in his last film “The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu”. Orion Productions was picketed by an Asian citizen’s right’s group. Orion canned it. But i had enjoyed it already, with my mother, who had no prejudice for anyone. Those humorless Asian Americans did not get it that Sellers was not making fun of them. He was making fun of movies that made fun of them. But Peter Sellers had died before it’s release. Their thoughtless fury missed him. I sympathize with Asian Americans and residents suffering persecution as Donald Trump’s scapegoats, but Peter Sellers could not have caused them any real problems with his hilarious spoof of Fu Manchu movies.

      I had a teacher who told lots of ethnic jokes, but if you knew him you’d soon see his intention was to ridicule prejudice and relieve people’s pent up fear and anger about it.

      I’m gobsmacked! Were statues of the USA’s founders really taken down in San Francisco? What ignorance! Did students there get to study the Declaration of Independence and Constitution of the USA 1st? I am very sympathetic to American Indians and Blacks, but then, to condemn in effect, the many great ideas in those documents, because they prejudiced Indians and Blacks, is like throwing the most precious jewels away. I am not a Marxist, but fairly leftist. With lip service, free speech is under assault from both right and left now. For the tortured, dialectic Marxist’s part, taking down US founder’s statues, is to trash the whole idea of the USA and Her fundamental principles. The “self evident” truths. The natural rights. The whole Bill of Rights, that is the 1st page of the Constitution, is canned with those statues. And dogmatic, ambitious Marxists have brought on the deep disgrace of leaving it to hypocrite republican fascists to protest their canning.

      I have been called many things, even “feminist”. I am for equal rights of
      genders. Yet, i take exception to that label on myself now. Seems to me most feminists are not for true equality but matriarchy. Thousands of years ago, matriarchy was the rule in the world. And every year, queens made human sacrifices of kings.

      Now, do feminists know not to throw out the baby with the bathwater?

      Those who make great contributions to civilization’s culture and ideas are of course human. Inevitably, they miss some things, leaving those who come after to correct their mistakes when society is ready to accept the corrections. In time, in hindsight, enough people can see and repudiate their errors while saving and cherishing what they said and did that was good and right. But progress is never made by trashing the treasures they gave us.

      Among other things Hemingway did was speak for the Left, without dogma or fanaticism, in an era of mass conforming, regressive conservatism. If he had not spoken better than them, they would have defaced and buried the Left far more than they succeeded in doing.

      So Hemingway is one of my models for humane, free minded leftism. My mother, Pete Seeger and Martin Luther King also.

      “Are you a communist?”
      “No I am an anti-fascist”
      “For a long time?”
      “Since I have understood fascism.”

      “But are there not many fascists in your country?”
      “There are many who do not know they are fascists but will find it out when the times comes.”
      ― Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls

      Criticism is integral to literature, but there are people who’s achievements give them eminent statures that can never be reduced, no matter how hard anyone tries. Ernest Hemingway is one of them. The proof is in reading him.

      “Great men are almost always bad men…” John Dalberg-Acton

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