Hemingway: On Drinking and Embellishment

English: Hemingway posing for a dust jacket ph...
Hemingway posing for a dust jacket for the first edition of “For Whom the Bell Tolls”, at the Sun Valley Lodge, Idaho, late 1939. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Do you prefer a drink or a cognac?

Hem would opt for the latter.

“They had a vermouth…” is an excerpt from a book review by Andrew O’Hagan, originally published in the London Review of Books, covering The Letters of Ernest Hemingway: Vol. I, 1907-22, edited by Sandra Spanier and Robert Trogdon.

We’ll start with the excerpt about drinking and move onto Papa’s notorious self-aggrandizement.

O’Hagan begins his review by poking fun at Hemingway for his “engorged nouns”: in A Farewell to Arms, the protagonist Frederic Henry gets continually sloshed, but never by simply “having a drink.” Instead he guzzles grappa, chugs chianti, quaffs cognac, and downs a number of other libations: vermouth, brandy, marsala, dry white capri—you get the point.

So Hemingway liked nouns…and loved drinking. Write about what you know, right?

Here’s where I have to agree with Hemingway on the side of specificity. I’m not an expert, but I do know enough from experience to say that reaching a BAC of .08 g/dl (the point at which you are legally intoxicated in the US) feels different depending on what you’re drinking.

Red wine vs. beer vs. vodka, for example. Red wine makes you feel woozy, philosophical, and wise. Beer makes you question whether you’re drunk at all. There are bees buzzing in your head, your arms are light and springy, and gosh, isn’t it a fantastic day? Yeah it is! Vodka, though…that stuff if dangerous. Vodka makes you psychotic.

I knew a guy when I lived in New Orleans, last summer, who was such a connoisseur of wine that he knew which grape variety he’d avoid at all costs.

“I can’t drink Pinot noir,” he told me. “The Pinot monsters come and scramble my brain.”

We had Cabernet Sauvignon instead, and I’ve steered clear of Pinot ever since.

So I don’t blame Hemingway. Not at all. He was right to distinguish between liquors. It’s the duty of a writer to describe feelings accurately: for an expert drinker like Hemingway, that meant describing the exact beverage that, in a given circumstance, would bring on a certain emotion. That’s detail.

Hemingway’s Greatest Fiction: Himself

Now let’s talk about Hemingway’s embellishments, which O’Hagan discusses in his full-length review. 

To point out the obvious: the world is fascinated by Hemingway because he was a “man’s man.” Unlike the thoughtful and timid writer who holes away in a quiet study and trembles before the microphone at a reading, Hemingway was loud and arrogant and big.

He shot big things and fished big things and did big things.

He was also a terrific writer. He took the flowery prose of his time and chopped off the petals. He mastered the art of subtlety, sleek sentences, and deep feeling. He was so greatly skilled in his profession that in the end he created the biggest fiction of all: himself.

American author Ernest Hemingway with Pauline,...

Reading Hemingway by his own hand, O’Hagan sees the author puffing himself up, creating the man he always wanted to be, but wasn’t:

“The letters show the moment by moment process of self-enlargement, of fiction taking over from reality, of Hemingway braiding himself a style first and then a history to match it.”

“But hey,” you say, “Hemingway was a great war hero!”

Not exactly. According to O’Hagan, “He was giving out chocolate for the Red Cross when the mortar exploded that damaged his legs….the truth is he missed most of the war and made a great deal of the skirmish that cut his legs. (No bones were broken.)”

“Ahhhh,” you say: “He was a fake! An insecure little boy writing about men with big guns.”

But that’s not really accurate, either.

At what point do we stop becoming phonies and start becoming real? How do you determine authenticity? Is it wrong, to continually try to better yourself?

Hemingway was like a real-life version of Pinocchio, stomping around the world and trying to convince himself of his own bravado.

“I’m a real boy!” Pinocchio cheers.

“I’m a real man,” Hemingway grunts.

But he was, in many ways.  By continually seeking to be the best, he became the best. Look at his fiction. If we can admire a writer for always trying to write better prose, then why not admire Hemingway himself, for always trying to be a better Hemingway?

In the end, he became what he had always wanted to be: a giant. Perhaps what he had not expected, though, was the incredible isolation that would come with it. Or perhaps he’d carried that within him all along.

As O’Hagan writes, “He wanted to be the big man in town, the big man in every town, and, eventually, he knew, such men are made for solitude: that was the fantasy of personal integrity he sold to the world.”

English: Ernest Hemingway on safari, Kenya, 1954

An Afternoon on a Porch

I’m not a native Athenian. I’ve come to intern, for the summer,  at The Georgia Review. They’re a fine literary publication—one of the best in the nation; and, perhaps why I like them most, they let me work for them.

They also give me Fridays off.

That’s why I’m sitting on my back porch, relaxing as the day yawns and stretches into afternoon. It’s rained, and the air is cool for the deep South in the middle of June. The rain stirred up the smell of plants and soil, and a soft breeze rustles the spiked leaves of the bamboo trees that hug the perimeter of my house. I’m drinking coffee and soaking in the air—it’s pleasant, just to wake up and breathe.The porch is simple—there are no tables, no chairs, just a square of wood planks with green, molded boards, a few plants drooping in plastic pots, and a neon hose that sprouts from a faucet in my apartment’s brick wall, coiling in erratic loops across the floorboards.

Behind the porch, there is a dense, green cluster of trees—what I thought at first was a small forest—but in reality is no such thing. It’s a sardine can: a small bit of land packed tightly with bamboo, a tall water oak overtaken by ivy, and a dense carpet of cracked, tan leaves. But it’s beautiful, too.

I wandered back there my first day, my feet clad only in flip flops (a mistake). Gold and emerald light shot through the leaves. Squirrels clambered through the branches, squawking as they passed overhead.

It’s someone’s back yard, of course. Through gaps in the slim shafts of bamboo I could see the back of a house, the red tricycle, tilted on its side, and an overturned, beige canoe, leaning against a wooden picket fence. Any thought of “forest” quickly disappeared.

But then I found something else in the trees: remnants of an old brick fireplace and the root of a chimney, whose brick trunk toppled long ago. It wasn’t much, just a ruin of something old and gone, but it was there—the past sitting quietly, hands folded in its lap, waiting for someone to remember it.

We all carry pasts within us, and it’s funny to be reminded that all those moments, the million collected fragments of our lives, are nothing compared to the greater memory of the world, or of the universe, even. Before giant mastodons lumbered across the ice, before the first pool of mud gasped and shivered into life, before a Universe expanded and condensed and splintered into everything, time hovered, a great eye, and watched. Our Universe is 13.75 billion years old, our world is 4.54 billion years old, the U.S. will be 236 years old next month, and I—well, I’m 21.

I’m 21 and sitting on my rented porch, idling away the day—and the summer— as clouds slide and shift over the sun.

Thoreau: Rich in Sunny Hours and Summer Days

“Many a forenoon have I stolen away, preferring to spend thus the most valued part of the day; for I was rich, if not in money, in sunny hours and summer days, and spent them lavishly; nor do I regret that I did not waste more of them in the workshop or the teacher’s desk.” – Henry David Thoreau, Walden

English: Portrait by Benjamin D. Maxham (dague...

The Writer That Owns Herself

There’s a tree in Athens, Georgia, that owns itself. A white oak with a strong trunk and lush, green foliage, it’s the only non-human entity in the world that holds legal protection over its own existence.

The tree received this rare gift of self-possession—the right to spread roots, stretch branches, unfurl leaves, and scatter seeds—because it offered its beauty to the world, and in response, the world did what it so seldom does: returned the favor.

As a writer, I crave this same self-possession. To write, and to live off my writing:  that is such stuff as dreams are made on.

In the meantime, I’ve got some growing to do.

This blog is my first green shoot, and with any luck, it will grow into a strong tree with many branches and many roots.

As Antoine de Saint-Exupéry once wrote, “The tree is more than first a seed, then a stem, then a living trunk, and then dead timber.  The tree is a slow, enduring force straining to win the sky.”

For now, I offer you what I can: meditations on literature, writing, and life—and above all, a  desire to win the sky.