A Writer at Sea

Book cover
Hemingway's Boatby By Paul HendricksonKnopf. 544p $30

The thesis of this book—by turns biography, literary criticism and meditation—is that, yes, Ernest Hemingway was a cruel bastard but that his admittedly vile behavior to his loved ones has been scrutinized to the exclusion of any good that he ever did. Paul Hendrickson, formerly a staff writer for The Washington Post and currently a faculty member of the creative writing program at the University of Pennsylvania, has redressed the imbalance. He uses Hemingway’s boat, Pilar, as a motif and dominant image in this chronological narrative.

Not only was Hemingway not vile through and through, Hendrickson writes, he was trying to be a saint:


I have come to believe deeply that Ernest Hemingway, however unpostmodern it may sound, was on a lifelong quest for sainthood, and not just literary sainthood, and that at nearly every turn, he defeated himself. How? “By betrayals of himself, and what he believed in,” as the dying writer with gangrene going up his leg, says so bitterly in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” one of Heming-way’s greatest short stories.... Hemingway once said... “I have always had the illusion it was more important, or as important, to be a good man as to be a great writer.”

So Hendrickson tells us not only of incidents when Hemingway spit in his fourth wife’s face and machine-gunned sharks so they would “apple core” his friend’s record bluefin tuna, but also of his kindness to various people, the most important of whom, in terms of Pilar, are Walter Houk and his wife, Nita. In the 1950s they were often guests of the Hemingways on Pilar, and their marriage reception was held at Hemingway’s Cuban home, Finca Vigia (Lookout Point).

Houk has written in magazines and journals about fishing with Hemingway, and even peddled a memoir around; but, in Hendrickson’s opinion, it did not sell because it did not have enough dirt. He quotes Houk as saying, “My whole experience with Ernest Hemingway is the conventional diswisdom. He didn’t wreck my life. He treated me kindly. He treated my wife, Nita, kindly.” It was Walter Houk who urged Hendrickson “to try to rescue Hemingway from his seemingly set-in-stone image of immortal writer and immortal bitch of a human being....”

Hendrickson does so, in Hemingway’s words, well and truly. The book is not without its problems—it is a bit of what Henry James called a “loose baggy monster”—the main flaw being that the controlling image of Pilar weakens as the book progresses; and the theme of parents and children, always present, wrests the book from the boat. Hendrickson succinctly expresses this theme in the section on Arnold Samuelson, the aspiring writer who became a mate on Pilar for a year, and on Samuelson’s relationship with his children: “The terrible things we do and hand to our children, wittingly and unwittingly.”

These terrible things include blaming an ex-wife’s death on a son’s arrest for cross-dressing—which is what Hemingway did to his youngest son, Gregory, known as Gigi, who fought valiantly against what appears to have been manic depression and a cross-dressing compulsion often accompanied by violent outbursts. Having had a sex-change operation, he ended up dying in a holding cell in Miami, dressed in drag and going by the name of Gloria. He died of a heart attack almost to the same minute and on the same date as his mother, Pauline, had died 50 years earlier in California (after she had an excruciating telephone conversation with Hemingway), a mother who confessed to her son that she could not stand “horrid little children.”

This part of the book is agonizingly sad, as is the last chapter on Hemingway’s decline and suicide. But a few days before Hemingway shot himself, hearing that a friend’s son was sick and entering the hospital, he wrote the boy a letter from his room at the Mayo Clinic: “Saw some good bass jumping in the river,” he wrote, and “I hope we’ll both be back there shortly and can joke about our hospital experiences together.” Scholars are fairly certain this letter was the last thing Hemingway ever wrote, and it is amazing he could write it at all, as he had been unable to write a line for months. As Hendrick-son comments several times in his text—it is the motto of the book, really—“Amid so much ruin, still the beauty.”

Paul Hendrickson’s Hemingway’s Boat, despite its faults, is not only the best book on Hemingway I have ever read, but it is also one of the best books I have ever read, period. Where Hemingway was contemptible, Hendrickson says so; but he also reminds readers that Hemingway could also be, and longed with his whole heart to be, noble and good and true.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Des Farrell
7 years 1 month ago
That's a great little quote at the end to the boy. Although I've read a good few of his books I never knew about that letter at the end. It reminds me a lot of what the old man might have said to his young friend in 'the old man and the sea'. 
We fill our heads with so much nonsense and egotism sometimes that the truth and beauty just passes us by.
So thank you for that. 
7 years ago
Hemingway could write like an angel, but he lived for thrills, worshiping at the altar of idol god Pleasure: 4 marriages & goodness knows how many affairs, bullfighting, fighting in the Spanish Civil War, big game hunting in Africa, deep sea fishing. The person who lives for pleasure & thrills can never get enough. This helps explain the deep pessimism in Hemingway's writing. From the moment the fisherman in "The Old Man and the Sea" catches the biggest fish of his life, he knows it will turn out badly. Too large to get into the boat, the huge catch is lashed alongside, soon the target for sharks. When the man gets back to port, all that is left of his catch is a skeleton. Is it so surprising that a man who "could never get enough" ended by blowing his brains out at age 61?
david power
7 years ago
What does goodness have to do with Sainthood?That would mean that every atheist who strives to act by his conscience is on the road to a sunny day in Rome.It is a ridiculous headline.
However, having read almost everything that Hemingway ever wrote I will most certainly be buying this book.
Hemingway was a bon vivant as the previous commentator so sourly described but he was also a man of great insight.
His desires were infinite, as are all of ours, and it is only the infinite that can fill them.
To link suicide to hedonism is a dubious thing to do.I would only do it if I was miffed that others knew how to enjoy life and I did not and the thought that they were depressed because of it would cheer me up.Suicide is a phenomena that needs to be studied in a more forensic way.Hemingway linked his depression to the treatment that he received.The electric shocks did him in.But it must be said that after so many divorces and so many adventures Hemingway must have been tired.Saint?So much more flesh and blood on these bones.  


The latest from america

In her new memoir, The Truths We Hold: An American Journey, Senator Kamala D. Harris, Democrat of California, positions herself as an underdog, a savvy “top cop” and, most of all, Shyamala Gopalan’s daughter.
Brandon SanchezJanuary 18, 2019

The fascinating premise of Mary Gordon’s lovely little book On Thomas Merton is that, except for his extensive correspondence with Evelyn Waugh and Czeslaw Milosz, Thomas Merton was without literary peers who could perceptively judge, critique and improve his writing.

Ron HansenJanuary 18, 2019
Sagal knows what it is to run away from problems, to need to be needed, and how much can be achieved through stubborn persistence.
Emma Winters January 11, 2019
The simple lessons of Jean Vanier on humility and Christian love always bear repeating.
Colleen DulleJanuary 11, 2019