What Does A Man Do When It’s Time To Let Go Of His Heroes?
Mr Ernest Hemingway at Havana Harbor, Cuba, July 1934. Photograph by Alpha Historica/Alamy
In 2005, I experienced my first mental-health crisis, though back then no one knew we were supposed to call it that. I had just dropped out of university and found myself washed up on a friend’s sofa without a job or a plan. Part of the reason my life had unravelled was that I’d started having panic attacks – something else I didn’t yet know how to name.
There were abandoned shopping trips, haircuts I couldn’t go through with, nightclub queues fled in fear. One morning, sat with a group of friends as they played Fifa and chomped on bacon sandwiches, I just had to stand up and walk out of the house without a word in order to stumble through the backstreets of Newcastle, unable to breathe and convinced I was going to die. “I don’t know what’s happening,” I texted my friend in the middle of it. “I’m terrified, but I don’t know what of.”
Sleep had been a problem for me throughout childhood; now, it was near impossible. Following the examples I’d grown up with, I coped by saying little and drinking a lot. I learned to use booze like an apothecary, buying the strongest potions I could afford and carefully administrating them to knock myself out at night.
A bored-looking doctor prescribed me antidepressants, which I refused to take. Instead, I decided yoga would solve my problems and attended a class at a local hall. The only person under 60, I lay tense on the floor as the geriatrics around me farted and snored through a “guided visualisation”. In desperation, I bought lavender oil and dabbed it on the edges of my pillow. Then I went through to the kitchen and opened another can.
The man who would pull me out of this was himself a terrible poster boy for mental health, though the name “Ernest Hemingway” meant very little to me when a copy of For Whom The Bell Tolls somehow found its way into my hands and I spent an entire morning, afternoon and night reading it without stopping. The way it conjured the landscape of the Spanish hills made me feel like I was taking a step deeper into them with every page. The story, about a rebel plot to blow up a bridge during the Civil War, gave me a reprieve from tension swirling inside of me. Reading it made me felt happy and excited for the first time in months.
“It wasn’t until I had to lift my gaze above the texts that I realised Mr Hemingway was also considered something of a joke”
By the time Robert Jordan lay wounded on the forest floor, feeling his heartbeat against the pine-covered soil, awaiting his fate, I knew mine. After years in the wilderness, my first love – books – was calling me back. The next day, I applied for a degree in English literature at the best university I could, signed up to study for the extra A-level I’d need to get in and started looking for a job to support me on the way. And I read every single word Mr Ernest Hemingway ever published.
I spent that year clinging to his novels like a guide rope. I was obsessed with the language: as crisp on the page as the smell of cold air; terse and tender, harsh and heartfelt. He wanted to write like Mr Paul Cézanne painted, to always say something simple and true. And that style became one millions of wannabe writers, myself included, imitated badly for decades. It wasn’t until I began to study and had to lift my gaze above the texts that I realised Hemingway was also considered something of a joke.
The success of his debut novel, The Sun Also Rises, in 1926 had turned him into the first American celebrity novelist and he quickly became a cautionary tale of fame – a prototype of the once-revered artists we see ruining their legacies on social media today. He cultivated the macho-man image people expected after reading his war novels by being obnoxious in interviews and photographed in countless magazines doing something tough and manly, like a literary Mr Vladimir Putin. This hard-drinking, bullfighting “Papa Hemingway” public image grew into a bloated menace that trapped him, causing his work to lurch toward self-parody and – even when he rediscovered his gift towards the end and won the Nobel Prize in 1954 – overshadowed what was left of his literary reputation.
Hemingway died by suicide in 1961, having suffered from alcoholism and depression his whole life. In the decades that followed, he became – and remains – perhaps the least fashionable and most readily mocked literary giant of them all. (Even Mr John Updike has had a string of brilliantly mocking contemporary essays written about him in the London Review Of Books and others; Hemingway barely seems worth the bother.) Just this summer, a viral tweet listing the “Top 7 Warning Signs In a Man’s Bookshelf” included the crime of “too much Hemingway”.
Part of the reason for this is that Hemingway has been left behind by waves of social progress, which means, thankfully, we hold masculinity to a higher account than we did in his heyday. The ability to catch a big fish, finish off a bottle of absinthe or punch another man in the face is no longer much to be proud of, while the qualities encouraged and valued in men today – emotional intelligence, kindness and empathy, the willingness to step aside and let others take the spotlight – are antithetical to Hemingway’s swaggering, tough-guy persona.
From this vantage point in history, what made his writing seem so special has soured, the simplicity of the language no longer a mark of innovation or artistic purity, but of a kind of emotional repression. The war stories are no longer intoxicating adventures, but just more tiresome, masculine posturing.
“For all the fame and glory and wild adventures, Hemingway never seemed to learn that having fun is not the same thing as being happy”
As for me, it became harder and harder to mention Hemingway’s name without squirming and issuing some sort of self-deprecating caveat. So, eventually, I stopped talking about him altogether. As the years went by and I learnt more about how to cope with my own problems and past, I retained my love for the work, but felt increasingly estranged from its creator. The approach to living that Hemingway represented – stoic, booze-soaked, inured from emotion by bravado and ceaseless action – had made sense to a terrified 20-year-old trying to forget a traumatic adolescence, but it didn’t fit the man I wanted to become.
I can happily debate the many strengths and flaws of Hemingway’s work, none of which are as straightforward as those who idolise or dismiss him tend to think. Perhaps one day it may even become fashionable to do so again – I have a hunch that the deep love of nature in his work, and its innate environmentalism, may bring Hemingway back into some sort of critical favour.
Interestingly, his later work, published posthumously, also betrays a far deeper curiosity of the fragility and fluidity of masculinity than his “personal brand” – or, indeed, the times in which he lived – ever allowed. The fact he never felt able to publish them seems to speak volumes; an ironic echo of his famous iceberg principle.
It is that latter point I think about most today, at age 35, when I think of Hemingway at all. His bushy-bearded face, always either in mock stern for the camera or flushed with the false glow of alcohol, no longer conjures awe or embarrassment in me, but a deep sense of sadness and pity. For all the fame and glory and wild adventures, Hemingway never seemed to learn that having fun is not the same thing as being happy, that you can’t push things that hurt you away or drown them out forever.
He kept his vulnerability hidden in writing he was ashamed of and told the world everything was just swell. It is a shame that he, like countless others in history, did not get to live through a time that better understood and forgave the addictions and mental illness that tortured him all his life.
Deciding what to do with your heroes is part of growing up. Cling to them too long, and it can stunt your growth. But turning your back on them completely can be just another way of denying your past.
Whoever “Papa Hemingway” really was, however much of a punchline he becomes as the world moves on, his writing was both a balm and compass to me when I needed it most, a steadying hand on the tiller of my life. I seek him out now only as I found him: in those perfect, simple sentences that, for a while at least, saved us both.