The Sunday Edition

Ernest Hemingway became a prisoner of his hyper-masculine legend

In the first biography of Hemingway written by a woman, Mary V. Dearborn explores the author's troubled relationship with masculinity.
American author Ernest Hemingway was an icon of masculinity. (CENTRAL PRESS/GETTY IMAGES)

American novelist Ernest Hemingway was infamous for his machismo. He was brash, adventurous, tough-talking and hard-drinking. He once got into a fist fight about the hair on his chest. He patrolled the coasts of Cuba, hunting for U-boats to fire at. He loved deep-sea fishing, boxing, and bullfighting.

Hemingway also found it difficult to be honest with anyone, including himself. He could be shockingly cruel. By the end of his life, he had abused or betrayed many of the people who loved him. After three failed marriages, a string of head injuries and lengthy struggles with alcoholism and bipolar disorder, Hemingway killed himself at the age of 61.

"He could not show his vulnerability. He could never let down his guard... He never got help." - Mary V. Dearborn

Dearborn's biography explores Hemingway's relationship with masculinity. (Alfred A. Knopf)
There have been scores of biographies written about Hemingway's tumultuous life. But until now, all of them have come from male writers.

"What I didn't have was this investment in the macho legend that I saw over and over again in the male biographers," said Hemingway's first female biographer Mary V. Dearborn.

"They essentially told the same stories and seemed to slip into the same uncritical enthusiasm about Hemingway that he was surrounded with in his lifetime. I didn't think it was good for him."

She spoke to Michael Enright about Hemingway's life, writing, and some of the "emotional complexities about the male role and the male image that ironically, this icon of masculinity was plagued by."

"He wasn't sure what it meant to be a man. He did all these outward things, but I think it really hobbled him. It was one of his greatest concerns," she said.  

Hemingway was handsome, talented and extraordinarily charismatic. People gravitated to him in his 20s, and everyone around him believed he was destined for greatness.

As he got older, his less appealing character traits became more prevalent. Literary critic Edmund Wilson once said that Hemingway was a great writer, but "as a person he was a real all-American S.O.B., mean and curmudgeonist, quarrelsome and extremely egocentric, and in many ways virtually a psychopathic case."

Later in life, he suffered a series of head injuries, and his mental instability and alcoholism worsened, but he wouldn't ask for help.

Mary V. Dearborn is the first female biographer of Ernest Hemingway. (Ed Keeting)
"He could not show his vulnerability. He could never let down his guard... He never got help. He never saw a therapist or a psychiatrist til the last year of his life," said Dearborn.

She says that despite Hemingway's many flaws, she found herself becoming "fond and sort of protective of him" as she worked on the biography.

"I would have loved to see him in his 20s," she said. "Even at the end — Oh God, I guess I feel that maybe I could have helped, [even though] nobody could help."

Dearborn has also written biographies of Henry Miller, Norman Mailer, Louise Bryant and Peggy Guggenheim.

Click 'listen' above to hear the full interview.