Nearly 40 years ago I decided I wanted to be a writer. It took another 10 or so before I got to the point where I felt comfortable describing myself as such. It wasn’t a process that came easily for me, a frequent college drop out — especially frosh English comp. I started out compiling the fishing report for local newspapers in Southern California, and writing a few stories. My early mentor, who used to write for all the newspapers in Southern California (when there was such a thing) put up with my youthful arrogance and gave me some work. He also suggested I read some of this Ernest Hemingway guy, who I somehow managed to avoid through the entirety of my mostly unremarkable academic career.
That was followed by the contributions of Goth Man, a companion I met working at a record store. He guided me through my formative, Hemingway introductory years. Many evenings we sat about the fire, drinking perfect margaritas while lamenting the state of good whiffle ball competition and discussing the virtues of one Hemingway story or another. It was a dismal, lackluster period so far as my “writing” career went, but I consumed most of the important works of the Hemingway canon, and did my best to emulate him. By emulate, I mean I drank a lot. Writing a lot was still down the road a ways.
I did have a fine girlfriend in that period who recreated in charcoal, for my birthday, that famous Yousuf Karsh Hemingway portrait, the turtleneck sweatered, bearded one in which Hem sports a serious combover and you can see a trace of weariness in his eyes, though not yet the crazed, suicidal emptiness of the Ketchum years. Somewhere along the line I lost the charcoal. I didn’t care much then, but I damn sure wish I had it now.
I left California, permanently, in 1992, heading north on I-15 until I hit Montana. There I turned left at Dillon and crossed the haystack landscape of the Big Hole en route to a new life in the Bitterroot. That time lasted long enough to meet and marry my wife, have children and become, finally, a writer, though not necessarily in that order.
I put Hemingway away about that time. I’d break out the short stories now and again, but I haven’t read a novel since I left Southern California. In a way, I left my Hemingway days behind, at least the heavy drinking part, though I sometimes see traces of that taunt, bare Hemingway style in my own work. I sometimes manage to remove all interior decoration and demonstrate the beauty of the a perfect sentence, or at least one stripped of any unnecessary words or punctuation, imitating what I imagine is perfection.
I teach journalism now, in Nebraska, helping my students learn some of the things I didn’t know (but wished I had) when I took my first newspaper job. I bragged to them recently that I’d crafted the perfect paragraph. “One word,” I told them. “It’s the best paragraph I’ve ever written.” They demanded I show them, disbelieving such a thing possible. When I showed them, they either didn’t bother to read it, or were not so easily impressed, because I didn’t hear another peep about that perfect paragraph the rest of the semester.
The Ken Burns special on Hemingway took me by surprise. I’ve been streaming my television lately, and the ferocious politics of 2020 drew most of my attention. That and back-to-back-to-back COVID-19 lockdown championships by my three favorite teams, Liverpool, the Lakers and then the Dodgers. It was a nice run of sport that distracted from the mayhem in Washington.
All of a sudden there it was. Hemingway. I decided to watch and break out short stories to read along: “Big Two-Hearted River,” “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” and “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.” All my favorites. I turned them into three columns.
The series was classic Ken Burns, though for someone who’d absorbed a couple biographies of the man, there wasn’t much new to learn. Burns got me up to speed on a head injury or two I’d missed — gawd, Hemingway seemed determined to pummel the world into submission, using his head like John Bonham wielded drumsticks. We know better today what repeated head trauma does to the brain. Toss in his alcoholism and an obsession with death, and it’s a miracle Hemingway lasted as long as he did.
I’m not as thrilled with the story as I once was. Hemingway was a fine writer, one of the best, but not such a fine man. I don’t find tragic self-destruction as compelling as I once did. About the time he leaves Pauline for Martha he begins a predictable tailspin that ends that early morning in Ketchum.
Here are my Hemingway columns. I hope you enjoy.
The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber