“I started out very quiet and I beat Mr. Turgenev. Then I trained hard and I beat Mr. de Maupassant. I’ve fought two draws with Stendhal, and I think I had an edge in the last one. But nobody’s going to get me in the ring with Mr. Tolstoy unless I’m crazy or I keep getting better.”
-- Ernest Hemingway
One day in April of 1925, Ernest Hemingway, living in Paris, was sitting in the Dingo Bar on rue Delambre in the Montparnasse Quarter. He was a 25-years old journalist, and he had published a few small pieces of fiction in some minor publications. Outside of a small though prominent circle, he was largely unknown.
What happened that day in 1925 would change his life, though he would be the last to admit it. He would have told you that he was already Ernest Hemingway and would go on to be Ernest Hemingway no matter what.
He would have told you, I think, that meeting F. Scott Fitzgerald in the Dingo Bar that day in April may have somewhat hastened the elevation of his career, but it was certainly not responsible for it. Exercising control of one's destiny was at the core of his personal religion.
Fitzgerald himself was only 28-years old but was far from a budding writer. He had written This Side of Paradise, which made him famous at the age of twenty-four, followed by The Beautiful and The Damned, and two months before walking into the Dingo, had published his signature work -- The Great Gatsby.
Even before they met, Fitzgerald was greatly impressed by Hemingway, glimpsing in his prose, what perhaps only a writer of equal talent could recognize. And, even after they met, Hemingway was, or claimed to be, unimpressed by Fitzgerald…that is, until he read Gatsby.
It became Fitzgerald’s self-chosen mission to ensure the younger writer’s success. So, on the strength of his recommendation, and his persistent reminders, the prestigious publishing house, Scribners and their dynamic young editor, Maxwell Perkins wooed a writer they knew almost nothing about.
Hemingway based his religion on simple principles. A man controlled his life and when he couldn’t, he handled it stoically. And, a man always controlled his women. Scott Fitzgerald was not such a man. He was frequently drunk and out of control. In spite of his success, he usually saw himself as a failure. And his wife, Zelda, who would be in and out of mental hospitals for most of her adult life was usually out of control -- especially her husband‘s.
But after reading The Great Gatsby, Hemingway gave Scott a pass. A man who could write something that wonderful deserved his friendship. And that friendship is undeniable, because we can see it for ourselves in their letters.
Each wrote dozens of letters to the other. I read them years ago in Matthew J. Bruccoli’s Fitzgerald and Hemingway, subtitled, A Dangerous Friendship, and I just read them all again. Scott’s letters were a bit formal. Hemingway’s were more stream of conscious. He scribbled all over the page. Neither man could spell. It is not the mutual admiration, but the mutual affection in those letters that gets to you.
Their friendship was still brand new when Scott did a very dangerous thing. Hemingway had finished his first major novel, The Sun Also Rises, and would not let Scott view the typed draft, but finally did allow him to read the galley proof. So Scott read it and sent him a very detailed ten-page critique.
I bet there were many fine writers at that time who would have welcomed, even cherished, a thoughtful and detailed critique from F. Scott Fitzgerald. I don’t think Ernest Hemingway was one of them. One can only guess his initial reaction to the bold recommendation that he completely eliminate the first two chapters.
Hemingway did not take kindly to those who questioned his creative decisions, but he came to the conclusion that Scott was right. The first two chapters, and all of the fine writing they surely contained, were unnecessary. So he wrote to his editor, Max Perkins that he had decided to cut them, and that Scott agreed with his decision.
I first read The Sun Also Rises in high school. Truthfully, I liked the movie better. Then, in my twenties, I found a copy on my bookshelf, began skimming through it, and ended up rereading it.
I came to the part, where Jake Barnes, the narrator and central character, introduces us to Brett Ashley. It is this relationship that is at the heart of the story. Their relationship is complicated and it is heartbreaking.
Another writer might have felt compelled to provide us with several paragraphs of background and explanation. Another writer might have found a near perfect simile or metaphor, and several wonderful adjectives to describe what went through the mind and heart of Jake Barnes.
But Hemingway handled it differently. Jake, finding himself in a dance club, describes a group of people entering the room, then tells us: “And with them was Brett.”
In high school, that line meant very little to me. I would have been fine with something more elaborate and more descriptive. “And with them was Brett” was so simple, hell, I could have written it. But of course I would not have. I would have written “And Brett was with them.”
Rereading it in my twenties, when I had read more and lived more, I saw that sentence for what it was -- poetry. How else could the purposeful arrangement (or rearrangement) of five small words say so much?
There are times, still, when I will pick up a copy of the book and read until I reach that line. Never do I not hear those perfect notes. Never do they fail to move me. “And with them was Brett” forever changed the way I looked at the art of writing.
In college, I had a French Lit professor, who was truly a brilliant man. One day, it became apparent that he was deep into his mid-life crisis. He was wildly in love. Not with a woman. He had recklessly found his way into Hemingway’s novels and then took a spill into the Hemingway legend.
One day he walked into class and asked if any of us wished to box with him. Boxing with my professor did not seem like a wise strategy to me, so I respectfully declined. I’m pretty sure he thought less of me for it. Real men boxed. Hemingway boxed.
Oscar Wilde famously said, “I have put all my genius into my life; I have only put my talent into my works.” I have little doubt that Hemingway intended for his life to be his masterpiece.
Boxing was a big part of his life. You could have asked anyone who knew him. They all had heard stories of him sparring with professionals, jumping into the ring on a moments notice to knock out a fighter. My French Lit teacher knew most of those stories, and was eager to share them. Unfortunately, many of those stories appear to be fiction.
But then, Hemingway never believed that a good story should be held hostage by the facts, though there was one Hemingway boxing story that he desperately wished had been held hostage to those pesky little facts, that is, if had to be told at all.
In June of 1929, the Canadian novelist and short story writer, Morley Callaghan was living in Paris. He and Hemingway had once both worked for The Toronto Star. They were friends and they got together periodically to go a few friendly rounds, as a way to stay in shape.
On one of those days, Fitzgerald came along to watch. On the way over to the gym, Hemingway suggested that he be the timekeeper, and showed him how to use his stop watch to call the end of each round after three minutes. The sparring began, and for a few rounds it all went well, then Callaghan caught Hemingway with a punch that bloodied his mouth. Callaghan believed that it would not have been a big deal had Fitzgerald not been there to witness it.
The angry and embarrassed Hemingway grew wild, throwing big punches at the smaller man. The quicker Callaghan, now fighting to protect himself against being knocked out, hit Hemingway with a well-timed punch that landed him on his back.
Fitzgerald, transfixed by what he had just witnessed, stood silently, until he realized that he had forgotten to call time at the end of the three minute round. Hemingway got nailed when the round should have been over. When he blurted out his error, Hemingway shot back: “Christ! All right Scott, if you want to see me getting the shit knocked out of me, just say so. Only don’t say you made a mistake!”
Since there seem to have been no other witnesses to the event, we don’t know how the rumors started to spread about Callaghan knocking Hemingway out cold, in front of a large audience. But spread they did, until they found their way into newspaper gossip columns in Europe and the U.S. For Hemingway, the true story was quite un-legend like, and the false stories were so much worse.
Letters, cables, and telegrams were fired back and forth between Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Callaghan, and Max Perkins. Hemingway furiously demanded that Callaghan set the record straight. Callaghan sent letters to the offending publications, explaining the facts and demanding a correction. He did not want to be on Hemingway’s bad side.
No matter how hard he tried to appeal to reason, he ended up alienating both Hemingway and Fitzgerald, who both blamed him for the outbreak of false stories, which quickly took on lives their own, and continued for years.
It was Scott’s infatuation with the Hemingway legend-in-progress that brought him to the gym in the first place, and it was astonishment at seeing the legend lying on the canvas that distracted him from his timekeeping responsibilities. He had become Hemingway’s number one fan, and now he had witnessed what he should not have.
In a letter, Hemingway tells Scott that all is forgiven. But I don’t think that Scott believed him, anymore than I did.
It’s too bad, because Scott needed a friend more than ever. Life after Gatsby became a sad saga of his constant drunkenness, Zelda’s insanity, his struggle to support an extravagant lifestyle by churning out stories for The Saturday Evening Post, and later by being a well paid but unproductive Hollywood scriptwriter.
He struggled for years to muster the discipline to write and finish Tender Is The Night, while constantly assuring Hemingway that the novel really was being written and really would be finished. He needed his “friend” to know that he was still a serious writer, even as others were regarding him as pitifully unserious.
All the while, Hemingway, who had followed The Sun Also Rises, with the publication of A Farewell To Arms, three years later and, in that same time period, two celebrated collections of short stories: In Our Time and Men Without Women, enjoyed a reputation for being the epitome of the serious writer.
In the early 1930s, the Hemingway persona, full of big-game hunting and deep sea fishing began taking center stage. Fitzgerald described this as Hemingway’s “personality shift” when “he came to believe his [own] legends.”
The early 1930s also began a period when Hemingway the writer appeared to be running out of gas. He wrote some things most of us don’t remember. But he was far from ready to retire from the ring. He wrote to Max Perkins about being ten years away from taking on Tolstoy. He advised William Faulkner that it was all about taking on the dead writers.
But I think there was also one live contender that needed to be beaten convincingly. When Esquire Magazine hired Hemingway to be a regular contributor, and then hired Fitzgerald to do the same, I believe, the fight was on.
Between 1934 and 1936, they were featured in the same issues eleven times. Hemingway wrote about his outdoorsman adventures and contributed a couple of stories, including one that landed a very solid punch, The Snows of Kilimanjaro.
Fitzgerald’s writings reflected his sad physical and mental state. A series called The Crack-Up hung it all out all out there for people to see. They were described as “confessionals.“ Max Perkins advised him to stop it before he ruined his reputation. Hemingway saw it as conclusive proof of Fitzgerald’s shameful “love of failure,” attributing it to his Irish Catholic romanticism.
In The Snows of Kilimanjaro, a character refers to “poor Scott Fitzgerald” and his “romantic awe of the rich.” Fitzgerald was deeply offended by this belittling remark and wrote to Hemingway and Perkins, imploring them to remove his name before publishing the story in book form. Hemingway eventually complied, but damage had been done.
Just what on earth did Hemingway have to gain from beating-up a man who so skillfully and eagerly knocked himself to the canvas, every chance he got?
I think it was all about The Great Gatsby.
I think he knew that Gatsby might prove to be a big punch that would one day come out of nowhere to put him on the canvas, and steal the championship he so coveted.
There is a scene in Chapter Five. All you need to know is this:
After going to extraordinary lengths to arrange it, Jay Gatsby is now in the same room with Daisy Buchanan. It has been five years since he has seen her, and his only dream has been of this moment.
The narrator, Nick Carraway tells us: “There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams -- not through her own fault, but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion. It had gone beyond her, beyond everything. He had thrown himself into it with a creative passion, adding to it all the time, decking it out with every bright feather that drifted his way.”
The next line is one that has remained in my memory since I first read the book over thirty years ago.
“No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart.”
Then Fitzgerald/Carraway, at his lyrical best, finishes it off:
“As I watched him, he adjusted himself a little, visibly. His hand took hold of hers, and as she said something low, in his ear, he turned toward her with a rush of emotion. I think that voice held him most, with its fluctuating, feverish warmth, because it couldn’t be over-dreamed -- that voice was a deathless song.”
America seems never to have been quite sure what to do with The Great Gatsby. When it was first published, it found some critical acclaim, but it sold a mere 25,000 copies. After his death in 1940, it was discovered by a wider audience, which continued to grow until early in the 1960s, when it became regarded as an American classic and was required reading in college literature courses. Eventually it became a relic -- a museum piece.
Hemingway outlived Fitzgerald by twenty-one years. In his late rounds, he gave us a gem: The Old Man and The Sea, and he won the Nobel Prize. When he began battling debilitating illnesses, and could no longer control his life, he ended his story with a shotgun blast to the head.
My French Lit teacher saw the nobility of this final act, and had he lived to see it, Fitzgerald might have too.
Recently, a play called Gatz (Jay Gatsby’s given name), has been touring European and American cities, playing to packed theaters. In the play, an office worker who cannot boot up his computer, picks up a tattered copy of The Great Gatsby and begins reading aloud. His co-workers begin by ignoring him and then turn into characters in the novel, acting out the scenes.
The main character in the play assumes the role of the narrator, Nick Carraway and reads the entire book, minus the lines of dialogue spoken by the other characters.
Elodia and I saw the play and we were riveted, as were those around us, for the six and a half hours that it took to read the novel aloud. The play itself was at times awkward and a little clumsy, but the lushness of Fitzgerald’s prose came through loud and clear. It’s too soon to know for sure, but it looks to me like The Great Gatsby might truly be a deathless song.
It’s funny, in a way, how a tattered book, from a very different time, found in a drawer, can talk to us about ourselves as though it had been written yesterday, and that we are so freely mesmerized by it.
Hemingway believed that it was the job of living writers to move up in rank by challenging the dead ones. I think he also believed that, in death, the great ones continue to challenge each other.
If so, then it’s not over.
Mr. Hemingway may yet respond.