Poor Old Poppa

Hemingway at His Typewriter While on Safari

When I was younger, Ernest Hemingway was considered a literary god. After his suicide in 1961, the colossus of his reputation began to be chipped away. After re-reading his Green Hills of Africa (1935), I begin to understand why.

Literary reputations are a tricky business. Who reads Thomas Wolfe any more? Is he even in print? What about James Jones and Herman Wouk? I can even foresee that my beloved William Faulkner’s rep might come in for revision by a younger generation less than enchanted by his difficulty.

What hurt Hemingway for me, especially as I developed a more adult taste in literature, was primarily his pose of machismo. In Green Hills of Africa, he is the Great White Hunter, even though it is one of his companions who kills the trophy rhino and kudu.

Even worse if Hem’s practice of never referring to his wife by name. If the edition I read did not rectify it in the captions to the illustrations, I would have known her only as P.O.M.—Poor Old Mama. What was poor about her? Pauline Pfeiffer Hadley Hemingway was bright and understanding. There were no bitter recriminations, even though the safari was mainly Ernest’s little red wagon.

PKT3042 – 208725 AUTHOR – ERNEST HEMINGWAY 1995 NOTED AUTHOR RETURNS FROM AFRICAN TRIP New York: Mr. and Mrs. Ernest Hemingway shown as they arrived in New York, April 3, on the liner Paris. They have spent the last three months in East Africa hunting lions. Mr. Hemingway, the author of numerous books, states that Africa reminded him of Spain and that he would like to return.

But really, P.O.M. this and P.O.M. that? And never once Pauline or Hadley? If I were her, I would have knocked his teeth out with his own typewriter for refusing the acknowledge her individuality. It’s as if I would refer to Martine in my blogs as P.L.F.G.—Poor Little French Girl (she was born in Paris).

What Hemingway had going for him was his literary style. Joan Didion used to study his short stories as a model for her early writings. Until, that is, she surpassed him.

Of course, Hem refers to himself a couple of times as Poor Old Poppa, but not 100% of the time as he does with Pauline.

Horror Journeys

If you read Martha Gellhorn’s Travels with Myself and Another: A Memoir, you should probably start with the penultimate chapter entitled “What Bores Whom?” In it, she muses about a large group of hippies staying at her hotel in Eilath, Israel’s port on the Gulf of Aqaba. The gilded youth were mostly strung out on hash, and their conversation was mostly about how so-and-so was squashed out of his or her gourd. And then, quite suddenly, we get Martha’s thoughts about travel:

Thinking of those kids at Eilath has given me a new slant on horror journeys. They are entirely subjective. Well of course. If I had spent any time analyzing travel, instead of just moving about the world with the vigour of a Mexican jumping bean, I’d have seen that long ago. You define your own horror journey, according to your taste. My definition of what makes a journey wholly or partially horrible is boredom. Add discomfort, fatigue, strain in large amounts to get the purest-quality horror, but the kernel is boredom. I offer that as a universal test of travel, boredom, called by any other name, is why you yearn for the first available transport out.

Travels with Myself and Another gives us four journeys, all of which are quite horrorshow. But they are by no means boring, though I would have given money to have stayed at home. First there was her trip with then-husband Ernest Hemingway to China in the middle of her war with Japan. That was followed up by a boat trip in the Caribbean in 1942, at a time when Nazi U-Boats were sinking hundreds of ships there. The longest chapter is about a solo trip to Africa, starting in Cameroon, stopping in Chad and the Sudan, and finally a jaunt through East Africa in a Land Rover which she drove herself. Finally, there is a short chapter about a visit to Moscow around 1972 to visit Nadezhda Mandelstam, the widow of poet Osip Mandelstam—during which she could not get a single decent meal.

Although all four of her journeys are truly horrible, the author seems to revel in her difficulties. In a way, they make her observe more clearly. And her book is a travel classic despite all the “discomfort, fatigue, strain.”

I think I will read some of her war correspondence next to see how she regards travel when she is being fired upon.

The Happiness Trap

Ernest Hemingway Poses with a Water Buffalo in Africa, 1953-1954

Having just read Ernest Hemingway’s The Green Hills of Africa, I begin to understand why he shot himself in 1961. I had not read any Hemingway for over thirty years, and I realize now there was a reason for this. There was Papa H in Africa, frequently asserting how he loved the place and the people. Yet he is envious of another member of his hunting party, Karl, who is more successful in grabbing the big trophies. Even when he kills a kudu, which he has been trying to do for the whole length of the book, he has this dialog with Pop, the leader of the group, conscious that Karl has bagged a bigger kudu:

“We have very primitive emotions,” [Pop] said. “It’s impossible not to be competitive. Spoils everything, though.”

“I’m all through with that,” said. “I’m all right again. I had quite a trip, you know.”

The only problem is that I didn’t believe him. Again and again, Hemingway is hyper-conscious of competing, of looking good in the eyes of his fellow hunters and his native assistants. He talks about Droopy, a native tracker:

M’Cola [another tracker] was not jealous of Droopy. He simply knew that Droop was a better man than he was. more of a hunter, a faster and cleaner tracker, and a great stylist in everything he did.

At another point, Papa talks of his “wanting to make a shot to impress Droopy.”

Hemingway, too, was a great stylist—in his own way. The prose of The Green Hills of Africa at times rises to the level of poetry. In this, he falls victim to the happiness trap, of always wanting to be happy, of always overcoming hurdles and progressing from one triumph to another. But life is not like that. One must appreciate the little things, to behave prayerfully and thankfully when he has taken the life of some splendid game, to grab at the moments of happiness that are fleeting and resolve to slog manfully through all the merde with which a life is interlarded.