Scott Donaldson. Simply Charly, 2018. 158 pages.
One of the rules of reviewing is that you don’t pay attention to blurbs—or puffs as the British like to call them. Such testimonials, it is supposed, are a form of tribute, not honest criticism. But, sometimes the touting is determinative, telling you something important about a book’s provenance, and also something that the author of the book is not quite willing to say for himself. In this instance, the blurbs are built right into the beginning of the book—not on the back cover as is customary—but inside the text proper before the author tunes up. This is not unprecedented: This form of fanfare occurs most often in paperbacks using a drumroll of authorities whose own achievements, it is assumed, entitle them to their encomiums of the author and his work.
“If there were a Mount Rushmore of Hemingway scholars, Scott Donaldson would belong,” proclaims Mark Cirino, editor of the Reading Hemingway series. I wonder. Carlos Baker, the first comprehensive and still indispensable biographer has his place, but then what? Michael Reynolds’s multi-volume work would seem to qualify him. And then? Jeffrey Meyers? James Mellow? Kenneth Lynn? Peter Griffin? What about more recent entrants: James Hutchisson, Mary Dearborn, and Richard Bradford? Unlike settled law, there is no settled biography, and even law is settled only so long as a precedent is not overturned.
Donaldson’s advocates imply something is amiss or missing in Hemingway biography. So, Valerie Hemingway (Running with the Bulls: My Years with the Hemingways) lauds Donaldson’s “keen new insight into Hemingway’s elusive character.” Kit Curnutt (Coffee with Hemingway) claims Donaldson “does us the immense favor of separating certifiable facts from the inevitable conjecture and dramatizing that have come to encrust these scenes from a marriage.” Similarly, J. Gerald Kennedy (Imagining Paris) recommends the “separating fact from fiction,” and Jackson R. Bryer is impressed with how Donaldson “debunks myths promulgated by previous biographers and critics”—evidently a sorry lot. The capper comes with the final verdict from Suzanne de Gizzo (The Hemingway Review): “Donaldson sets the record straight about Hemingway’s precious, tumultuous—and legendary—Paris years.”
This puffery would not matter so much if the book, in fact, delivered what is promised. Or if the author showed in detail how his predecessors got it wrong, and perhaps, why. Donaldson does do this kind of forensic work in The Impossible Craft: Literary Biography (2016), and I was hoping for more of the same in The Paris Husband. What goes wrong in this book may have something to do with the format. There are no source notes, which seems the modus operandi of the Simply Charly series, aimed at a broad audience, some of whom may not want to be bothered with sorting through the evidence. As a result, we have ungainly sentences that begin, for example: “As Miami University of Ohio professor Donald Daiker has pointed out . . .” All this to say certain Hemingway letters were “more breezy than passionate.”
In his introduction, Donaldson makes no claims for his book’s originality. He simply retells the story of how Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley, packed nearly all of his manuscripts into a valise, put them aboard a train en route to her beloved husband, and then suffered the agony of loss when someone stole the precious cargo while she briefly went out to get a sandwich and a drink. At this point, Donaldson cannot do better than quote Gioia Dilberto’s “first-rate biography,” Hadley (1992): “The perfection of the marriage was tainted by the loss, and things were never quite the same again.”
The introduction is a good setup, if a typical biographer’s ploy: Begin with a dramatic incident that will be explained in detail later on. Donaldson is good at the specifics that create a sense of immediacy. So we are told that Hadley left her luggage to get a bottle of Evian water, although we are not told, and Donaldson, alas, does not know what kind of sandwich Hadley ate—or even if, in her grief, she managed to finish it. Even trivial details contribute to the authenticity of a scene, and when some are lacking we are reminded that biography, no matter how thorough, is a book with missing parts. It is the missing parts that will occupy this review—what to do with them?
Donaldson admires Hadley. Under the impress of a domineering mother, she broke out of her late Victorian confinement with Hemingway’s help, although that meant making her into a she-Hemingway, perfected when he had them cut their hair to the same length as part of the sexual games they invented and celebrated. Once again, Donaldson cannot do better than quote Dilberto’s description of Hadley as “unpretentious, submissive, intelligent, sexy, tough in spirit.” Submissive and tough? That would seem oxymoronic. But in this case, it is true: Hadley was perfectly willing to rough it with Ernest, to enjoy his sports and frolics, and so to be the perfect wife for him. She had a mind of her own that was his. And the marriage worked, mostly, until Hadley, with child, was no longer in the same position to indulge her husband’s every whim, even as plenty of other women were around willing to give this handsome and ambitious writer a go.
Hadley did not deceive herself. She understood that her husband thrived on the attention of other women. But, he was the man who had liberated her, and she could never forget that no matter what else he did. Or so I gather from Donaldson’s narrative. He explores what Hadley meant to Hemingway and his terrible guilt over abandoning her for Pauline Pfeiffer, but it wasn’t just the marriage that was not quite the same after the valise loss. He rejected the loyal and good part of himself. After leaving Hadley, Ernest suffered a blow to his self-esteem that he could never quite repair. He would recur over the years to that fateful decision to end his first marriage, which represented a turning point in his character, which Donaldson does not quite grasp—so transfixed is he with the disappearance of those manuscripts—about which more anon.
To understand why Hemingway left Hadley, Donaldson’s next move is to a section entitled “Life Before Hadley.” He briefly rehearses his hero’s obsessive love for Agnes von Kurowsky, the World War I nurse, who assuaged his battlefield wounds and who first encouraged his attentions but then broke off their relations saying she was too old for him. Eight years separated them, but that did not matter to him. He wanted her, and she had rejected him. “He emerged,” Donaldson suggests, “with a determination not to risk giving too much of himself to anyone else ever again.” So, we get accounts of his brief involvements with other women, which really don’t prove much, especially since Donaldson, far from setting the record straight, indulges in various kinds of dodges, beginning with “If Hemingway’s fiction is any guide . . .” Well is it, or isn’t it? The biographer wants to bootleg fiction into a factual account while providing an escape clause. I regret to say this is a very typical of the sleight-of-hand biographers practice. This first instance of biographical fiction introduces a virus that disables the narrative at key points. Fiction is tempting because it allows the biographer to link up a series of events that otherwise remain discrete and intractable. What do Marjorie Bump, Irene Goldstein, and Grace Quinlan—the three women Hemingway courts—have to do with one another? Do they really show that Hemingway would never give too much of himself again? That they don’t really fit together—or at least don’t in Donaldson’s botched narrative—is apparent in his inability to make a transition from one woman to another. So after introducing all three women, he gives each a paragraph or so, beginning one subsequent paragraph: “Irene Goldstein was another of Ernest’s interests.” This is typical of certain sentences that just go nowhere in this book. We already know she is one of his “interests” and so?
Hemingway kept his own reactions to himself, although he revealed something to Hadley in a letter that has not survived. When evidence is lacking, Donaldson resorts to inference—not a bad thing, except when it becomes too insistent: “it’s possible to construe what he must have said from Hadley’s answer.” I don’t object to construe but to “must have said.” This phrase, like “must have been” or “must have felt” compromises the work of many biographers, even the Rushmore ones. The trouble with “must have” is that once employed all other possibilities are swept off the page. Maybe Hadley was a good reader of Hemingway’s letters and we can trust her and happily construe. But maybe not. Maybe what Hemingway wrote is open to other interpretations. The point is we don’t know and that is really what the biographer is saying when he insists on “must have.” Instead of opening up a story, “must have” closes it down, or completes it in a way satisfying to the biographer but not to “setting the record straight.” In other words, Donaldson is deeply implicated in the mythical approach he is supposed to be debunking. Apparently, in this instance, judging by Hadley’s letter to Ernest, she is praising him for resisting Irene Goldstein’s advances, although Goldstein said the opposite—that Hemingway flung himself at her. Donaldson is sure that Hemingway is lying since the biographer asserts in an equivocal sentence: “Manifestly, Ernest liked pursuing (or even better, being pursued) by two or more women at the same time.” That can be documented, yes, but the generalization nevertheless may or may not apply to the Goldstein case. We don’t know if Hemingway was the pursuer or the pursued. We know that later on Pauline Pfeifer pursued him. So nothing really is resolved. To sum up: Donaldson is in no better position than his predecessors, and his book is not a matter of “setting the record straight” but instead is, like every other biography, a construct and persuasive up to a point, and when he pushes beyond that point, he is in trouble with the truth.
I’m not picking on just one instance of a “must have” lapse. Hadley, we learn, was upset over Ernest’s frequent trips abroad on reporting assignments. When he broached the idea of a five-month separation from her to do reporting in Rome, Donaldson observes: “Hadley must have been distressed about the proposal, but she struck exactly the right notes in her comments about it.” The biographer believes she is a good sport, hiding her anxieties by saying she would miss him “pretty frightfully” but hoped the trip would produce a “great gain” in his career. So Donaldson pretends to know what she is actually thinking from what she does not say. What she thought, really, cannot be known, or perhaps was not even that clear to Hadley, who may have been confused about her feelings or even convinced that she had to overcome them. The reality, the complexity of life, gets shredded in the pseudo knowingness that gives biography a bad reputation. Not for nothing did Boswell call biography a “presumptuous task.”
Now we come to the main event: the lost valise. Here’s Donaldson’s argument: Hemingway was not truthful, and yet biographers, with the exception of James Mellow, take him at his word when they come to tell the story of Hadley’s negligence. Donaldson sets up the story by exposing Hemingway’s duplicity. He had a contract to write exclusively for the Toronto Star, but in fact filed other stories as “John Hadley” for another news service. The Star editor, a “veteran in the field,” Donaldson notes, “must have wondered about his [Hemingway’s] truthfulness.” The circumstances are such that Donaldson is probably right, but I prefer “probably” any day over “must have” because Donaldson is no closer to the truth no matter how much he wants “must have” to carry some weight.
Here is how Donaldson sets up his handling of the lost valise: “A lot of misinformation has been circulated about the valise and what Ernest did when he learned that the serious writing he’d been sweating over in Paris, the vignettes and stories he really cared about, had gone missing. Much of that misinformation came from Hemingway himself.” Donaldson says biographers have relied on Hemingway’s memoir, A Moveable Feast (1964), even though the book’s preface “explicitly warns readers to expect occasional reordering or altering of what actually happened.” Hemingway said he did the following, which in fact he did not do: He left Hadley in Lausanne, took the train back to Paris to see if perhaps his apartment contained copies what Hadley had lost, and returned to Lausanne confirming none of his manuscripts had survived. He also added other false details like lunching with Stein and Toklas and writing a poem, “They All Made Peace.” He did not go to Paris, Donaldson reports, until a month later. Most of the circumstantiality of Hemingway’s account is suspect, Donaldson continues, explaining that in fact Hemingway appointed three friends in a failed effort to retrieve the valise from the property office at the train station. Hemingway thought of advertising a reward but was not willing to offer enough, so Donaldson surmises, to make it likely that a thief would return the valise—not to mention the possibility that the papers were thrown away by whoever coveted the valise itself. Instead of a straightforward account, Hemingway enlarged on his devastating setback even though, Donaldson suggests, it was not as great “as it seemed at the time, and it hardly represented three years’ work.” Donaldson’s estimates that Hemingway lost maybe a year’s labor, including part of a Nick Adams novel, but by the 1950s “Ernest expanded the inventory of what had been lost to include ‘good stories about Kansas City . . . two short stories set on the Italian front,” and even at one point, in a discarded draft of A Moveable Feast, said he lost four years of his writing.
Donaldson deflates Hemingway’s histrionics over what he lost, although the biographer does not entertain the emotional truth of Hemingway’s own account. The loss of anything a writer is working on that seems crucial at a pivotal moment in his career is likely to devastate him, especially when he thinks he is just about to attain the fame that is the fruit of his ambition. Biographers do not deal in facts alone.
Rather than backtrack to see what earlier biographers have done as a measure of Donaldson’s own practice—something he says he has already done—I checked to see what Hemingway’s three most recent biographers do with the lost valise. In spite of his title, Ernest Hemingway: A New Life (2016), James Hutchisson engages in the same kind factitious language that corrupts Donaldson’s narrative: “When Hadley told him what had happened, Hemingway must have been undone not only by the loss of his work but by the terrible awareness that Hadley had treated it with such disregard.” This “must have” is puzzling since Hemingway said he was upset, or is undone meant to suggest Hemingway was even more devastated than he let on? Unlike Donaldson, Hutchisson reports Hemingway “returned immediately to Paris and searched the apartment for anything of value that might remain . . .”
Mary Dearborn, Ernest Hemingway: A Biography (2017), is more careful than Hutchisson or Donaldson, saying the loss included “all of Ernest’s writing to date.” The precise Dearborn also notes two different versions of how the valise was lost, and the two versions make a significant difference in how we view Hadley: One version is as Donaldson reports. But the other has Hadley consigning her luggage to a porter, “but when her baggage caught up with her in her compartment, she found the valise was missing.” The alternate possibility makes Hadley far less culpable, since she was not negligent—unless you want to argue that she should never have allowed the valise out of her sight. Would Hadley have left a train compartment with that valuable valise? It is possible, of course, and it has led to much bootless speculation concerning her unconscious feelings about her husband. It seems more likely, if not dispositive, that she placed her trust in a porter—a mistake, it can be argued, but hardly a first-degree offense.
Like Donaldson, Dearborn does not believe what Hemingway said after the fact of the lost valise. But she does have him immediately returning to Paris, which seems right emotionally. Would he really wait a month, as Donaldson asserts, to check out the Paris flat to see if he could recover his precious manuscripts? Dearborn cites her evidence: “While his passport indicates that he did indeed take a train back to Paris almost at once, on December 3, things unfolded in a less dramatic, messier fashion than he relates in A Moveable Feast. To begin with, he did not go to Gertrude Stein’s the next day for a consoling lunch, as he claimed; Stein and Toklas were in Provence for the winter.” She has Hemingway’s friends looking for the valise after his own visit to the Paris flat. Unlike Hutchisson and Donaldson, Dearborn consistently provides a more encompassing context, and a richer constellation of details that keeps her biography authoritative and yet respectful of what biographers can reliably ascertain. So Hemingway’s friends look “in one of the city’s Lost and Found Bureaus (or perhaps it was the railway station’s), and reporting to Ernest that it was hopeless. They also consulted Bill Bird, who suggested placing an ad in various newspapers, but Bird said it would not be worth the cost of the ad unless Ernest was willing to promise a large reward. Bird didn’t think Ernest would pay this, and indeed Bird told Steffens and Hickok that he’d in the meantime received a letter from Ernest authorizing him to pay 150 francs as a reward—or about $10. Evidently that’s all he thought the lost valise was worth.” Perhaps, evidently—these are the proper words that keep the story in play, open to different interpretations instead of foreclosing them in a bogus boast of authority. Dearborn does sometimes succumb to the must have been of biography, but not here where, I think, it would be fatal.
In his forthcoming biography, The Man Who Wasn’t There: A Life of Ernest Hemingway, Richard Bradford attacks the very notion that Hemingway could tell fact from fiction. Bradford goes far beyond Donaldson, who does not call out the names of fellow biographers who have lapsed from fact. Bradford rejects previous accounts, declaring that most Hemingway biographers have attacked Hadley for sinning “against their subject, and against art. Meyers states that her ‘inexcusable negligence…[and] The fact that she had been so careless about his most precious possession—the tangible expression of his deepest thoughts and feelings… and had shown so little understanding of his life as a writer dealt the first disastrous blow to their marriage.’ This portrayal of Hadley as feckless and insensitive is ludicrous, as is Meyers’ conviction that Hemingway would eventually leave her because of this first sign of indifference to his vocation as a literary artist.”
Realizing that we have only Hemingway’s word for what was in the valise, Bradford brushes aside decades of Hemingway biography: “We know nothing of the content of the lost manuscripts but it is reasonable to assume that most of them would have reflected the narrow range of reading of the pre-Paris years and be based mainly on his experiences in the U.S. and Italy. He had been in Europe for less than twelve months and of the two pieces left in drawers in the Paris flat—notably ‘Up in Michigan’—the imprint of Anderson is evident, laden with a clumsy dose of immature, brutal and very male sexuality. It remains a matter for debate as to whether the lost manuscripts hindered or energized his progress as a writer.” Bradford does not deny the blow to Hemingway, but definitively measuring its impact, as he rightly notes, is not within a biographer’s remit—notwithstanding the generations of biographers who behave otherwise. Instead of “must have been,” we have “reasonable to assume” and “a matter for debate.” Biography is as much about preserving certain mysteries as it is about solving them.
It is striking that Bradford uses the phrase “must have been” only once—and that it refers to the speculations of others.
As for Donaldson, he winds up his story briefly describing how Pauline Pfeiffer wooed Hemingway away from Hadley, and how Hadley nobly gave up the man who no longer loved her—at least not as a wife he wished to possess. Hadley could not heal the psychic wound that Ernest experienced when Agnes von Kurowsky jilted him, Donaldson concludes. “All his life he [Hemingway] consistently and often cruelly broke off relationships before wife or friend could do the same to him.” I think Donaldson gets carried away, forgetting that the redoubtable Martha Gellhorn certainly did not wait for Hemingway to reject her. And then—I guess from the height of Rushmore—he adds: “So the marriage [to Hadley] did not and could not last. If it hadn’t been Pauline Pfeiffer, it would have been someone or something else.” Okay, I suppose. But who knows?