“The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof, shit detector.” from George Plimpton, “Interview with Ernest Hemingway,” The Paris Review 18. Spring, 1958.
Today is the birthday of sun and light and yes. Ernest Hemingway turns 108 today. Source of the stereotype that writers are mad as snakes and thousands of ill-advised beards, Papa Hemingway is also the voice in my head that complains I am not doing enough. Here, it is already noon and I haven’t yet shot a rhinoceros.
Ernest Hemingway is the patron saint of earnest small business owners who in pre-dawn hours brick-wall into the question: what should we name this bookstore? A Clean Well-Lighted Place in San Francisco (RIP), Hemingway’s Books in Canada, and The Lost Generation bookstore in cyberspace are three of many named for the bearded writer. Hemingway also lends his enigma to the annual look alike contest in Key West. But you don’t need to leave New York to visit a namesake: I have on good authority that a cat living in our very own Williamsburg is named Mr. Bumby after a character in A Moveable Feast.
Which brings us to Hemingway’s area of greatest contribution; the world of cats. A lifelong feline enthusiast, Hemingway and his wife Mary at one time owned 34 cats. The next time you are in Key West, stumble drunkenly to Hemingway’s House and Museum. There your ankles will be encircled by several of Hemingway’s feline descendants, who sport more toes than necessary and bear unforgivably literary names.
“I like to have Gertrude Stein bawl me out because it keeps one’s opinion of oneself down–way down–she liked the book very much she said–but what I wanted to hear about was what she didn’t like and why–she thinks the parts that fail are when I remember visually rather than make up…” –To F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1929
As a writer who is also a lady, I’ve been told I am not supposed to like Hemingway but I do I do I do. The rarely stocked book Ernest Hemingway On Writing, contains the best advice/musings on writing ever collected (you can keep your Letters to a Young Poet). The book is slim and hard to find; slim because Hemingway did not like to talk about writing, saying it “takes off whatever butterflies have on their wings,” hard to find because for the past 15 years I have bought every copy I’ve come across to garnish shower gifts, shove into the backpacks of beloved friends, and send to prisoners.
Over the years, Hemingway’s enigma has been shined up and exaggerated, but some facts remain consistent: he was between 7 and 8 feet tall, weighed 650 pounds and had his heart surgically replaced with a Magic 8 Ball that always read Ask Again Later.
Hemingway commonly spoke of other writers as boxing opponents. On Writing also documents some of Hemingway’s infamous opinions on other writers.
“I wouldn’t fight Dr. Tolstoi in a 20 round bout because I know he would knock my ears off…If I can live to 60 I can beat him (MAYBE). I tried for Mr. Turgenieff first and it wasn’t too hard. Tried for Mr. Maupaussant and it took four of the best stories to beat him…Mr. Henry James I would just thumb him once the first time he grabbed and then hit him once where he had no balls and ask the referee to stop it.”
“There are some guys nobody could ever beat like Mr. Shakespeare (The Champion) and Mr. Anonymous.”
“I had been told Katherine Mansfield was a good short story writer, even a great short story writer, but trying to read her after Chekov was like hearing the carefully artificial tales of a young old-maid compared to those of an articulate and knowing physician who was a good and simple writer. Mansfield was like near-beer. It was better to drink water.”
Mansfield to Hemingway: No, you dit-n’t.
In addition to “boxing” with his fellow writers, Hemingway also seemed to have a lifelong grudge match with God, who tried to KO Hemingway several times in two wars, four marriages, two consecutive plane crashes, even resorting to a brush fire which, while it debilitated Hemingway enough that he could not personally accept his Nobel Prize, did not succeed in killing him. Ultimately, Hemingway had to do that himself.
To appropriately celebrate this glorious day, run with the bulls, book a safari, write a helpful but vaguely condescending letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald, grow a beard or try out a “Papa Doble,” the drink Hemingway was rumored to have invented at Sloppy Joe’s in Key West: two ounces of white or light rum, the juice from two limes, the juice from half a grapefruit, Maraschino liqueur floating on the top, served over crushed ice. Or just down a quart of scotch. He liked that, too.