Friday, April 9, 2010

Ernest Hemingway: A Writer's Life by Catherine Reef

There are times when I love to lose myself in a big, fat literary biography, but then there are others that call for a more concise, compact volume. I was recently seeking the latter and Ernest Hemingway: A Writer's Life by Catherine Reef filled the need perfectly.

My April reading plans include A Moveable Feast, and Molly's review planted the idea that a better understanding of Hemingway's life might increase my appreciation of the book. A few days later, I came across Diane's review of Ernest Hemingway: A Writer's Life, and then happily discovered the library had an available copy.

Prior to reading this biography, my knowledge of Hemigway's life consisted of these key facts:
  • He was an avid hunter/fisherman
  • He fought in the Spanish civil war
  • He had several wives
  • He drank heavily
  • He shot himself in the head
While aimed at 9-12 year-olds (I think that range is a little too young), Reef's 150-page book was exactly what I needed to fill in the gaps. I learned more about Hemingway's childhood, time in Paris, hunting and fishing expeditions, war experience, writing career, marital turmoil, and the mental illness that eventually lead to taking his own life.

Some favorite passages:
... Grace [Hemingway's mother] handed Ernest a cold, careful, cruel letter that compared a mother's love to money in a bank, which could be counted and spent. A mother draws from a limited amount of love as she cares for her son through childhood, Grace explained. It was up to the son, as he grew older, to make deposits in the account through good behavior and tokens of affection, to prevent her love from running out. (page 41)

Ernest admitted he would go on loving Hadley [his first wife] "for a little while at least." He had begun to foresee the changes that marriage would bring and to mourn the loss of fishing trips with his pals. A "guy loves a couple or three streams all his life and loves 'em better than anything in the world - falls in love with a girl and the goddam streams can dry up for all he cares," he lamented to Bill Smith. "Only the hell of it is that country has as bad a hold on me as ever." (pages 45 - 46)

He practiced his art in the most basic way he knew, telling himself, "all you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know." ... He crafted paragraphs from these honest statements, making every word count. He believed that if he did his job right, then readers would understand the emotions that lay beneath the actions he described. (pages 48-49)

"There is no flesh whatever to his writing, no softness, no roundness, no color, no flow of muscle under the skin," observed Fanny Butcher, a leading literary critic, in 1929. "There is nothing but uncompromising bone." (page 6)

My husband's grandmother, author of two novels published in the 1930's, was acquainted with Hemingway and, according to family lore, "didn't think much of him". He may not have been a particularly likable person, but this book provided an interesting look at the man behind the classic novels.

Bottom line: Highly recommended, even if you're not planning to read A Moveable Feast anytime soon.


  1. I think I would have benefitted by reading this one first, but alas, I did not know that it was available. I think I will try to read it sometime though; it sounds terrific, and having an extensive knowledge of American Literature is not required :)

  2. I'm glad you liked this one Joanne. I also want to read A Moveable Feast as well as Island Beneath the Sea by Hemingway.

  3. This sounds like an intriguing book. I haven't read Hemingway in a very long time, but I've been considering A Moveable Feast, since it's one I missed along the way.

    Thanks for the review...and I loved the excerpts.

  4. I am a big Hemingway fan. I know all the criticisms, but I think his writing is excellent. I read A Moveable Feast when I was young and it has never left me. I read it again four years ago and still loved it. I've spent a fair bit of my reading life immersed in some biographies and in his work.
    There's a really great book, JoAnn:

    Michael Palin's Hemingway Adventure written by Michael Palin and
    photographed by Basil Pao

    This is also a dvd at Netflix called:
    Michael Palin: Hemingway Adventure.

    Both are excellent and informative.

  5. "One true sentence." So simple, and so difficult. I have mixed feelings about Hemingway, but there is no denying that when he hit the right note, it sang.
    Thank you for this.

  6. I'm glad that you enjoyed reading this one. In fact, I find myself drawn more to the children's/YA biographies rather than the huge adult versions...makes it much more interesting!!

  7. I kind of agree with Grandmama. But I hear A Moveable Feast is excellent and just might try it someday.

  8. Molly - This would be worth reading at any time. I'm going to check and see if she's written any other literary bios.

    Diane - I never would have thought to read a YA bio, but this was just what I needed. Thanks!

    Laurel Rain-Snow - I read The Garden of Eden a few years ago and loved it, but before that I haven't read Hemingway since high school. Glad you liked the excerpts. I though they were all very telling!

    Nan - I've just added the DVD to my Netflix queue and will look for the book at the library. Thanks so much for letting me know about them!

    DS - The "one true sentence" really struck me... sounds so simple *sigh* I didn't care for the novels assigned in high school, but loved The Garden of Eden. I think I'm going to like A Moveable Feast, too.

    Staci - This book has opened my eyes to YA biography. I'm sure there are many other really good ones out there!

    Care - That's one of my favorite stories from my husband's family! I've had it in my mind that A Moveable Feast is somehow different from his novels... we'll see.

  9. I love that quote about the one true sentence. I think Hemingway had good reasons for saying that and it surely came out in his work. Bare as his writing may seem, it's full of suggested meanings. As his theory about the "Iceberg", a writer doesn't really have to say everything out loud. The strongest emotions sometimes come from those left unspoken :)

  10. Mark David - I loved the "one true sentence" quote, and agree with the theory about the "Iceberg", too. After I read A Moveable Feast, I'd like to revisit some of Hemingway's novels.

  11. No wonder he was a troubled soul with a mother's love like that. Have you heard of the six-word memoir -- legend has it he was challenged to write a story in 6 words. He wrote: "For sale: baby shoes, never worn." I love the youtube video of other submissions.

  12. Kim - Yes, I saw that Hemingway 6 word memoir... sad. I actually have a review of the book coming up. You mentioned it to me after I reviewed Anthropology (120 word short stories), and I had to find it!

  13. Thanks for a great review and the sound passages. I have only read The Old Man and the Sea, and have always suspected that a background in Hemingway's life shall increase my pleasure of perusing his works. This book goes right in my list. :)

  14. Matt - This was perfect for background information and, I think, gives just enough information to allow for better appreciation of his work. I'm looking forward to A MOveable Feast... and who knows, I may even reread The Old Man and The Sea - lol!


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