The Hemingway Attack: Personal invective as an art form

Portrait of Hemingway by Henry "Mike" Strater.  The young writer complained it made him look to literary.

Portrait of Hemingway by Henry “Mike” Strater. The young writer complained it made him look to literary.

July is Ernest Hemingway’s month. The greatest of American writers was born in July, blown up during World War I in July, attended bullfights in Pamplona in July, and finally took his favorite shotgun and ended it all in July. Throughout this month, I will be publishing articles in the Mean Streets Blog about Hemingway and today begins a six-part series entitled The Hemingway Attack: Personal invective as an art form, which focuses on the explosive relationships between Hemingway and his early writer friends and mentors.

Part One: The Malady of Power-Hemingway and Sherwood Anderson

A few weeks ago, only a few hours before White House Press Secretary Jay Carney announced his resignation, an American cable TV talk-show host had criticized Carney for behaving rancorously toward some members of the White House Press Corps.

This was rich, I immediately thought, as this L’il Abner in horn-rimmed glasses has a penchant for rudely insulting members of his own show, whom he publicly calls his “Dork Squad.”    On several occasions, L’il Abner has even gone as far as to make  comments about alleged alcohol and drug abuse by some of the nation’s top political journalists. Journalists who appear as his regular guests  and who add professionalism and insight into a show which is well known for its otherwise babbling and squabbling commentary.  I don’t know why L’il Abner feels impelled to engage in this unseemly behavior toward those who help his career; I am not a psychiatrist.  What I do know is that he is not very good at it.

Who was very good at it was America’s greatest writer, Ernest Hemingway, who managed to not only insult virtually every other great American writer of his time, but to round on those who had been close colleagues and friends and who had mentored and supported him early in his career, and whom he had unfailingly used in his quest to get ahead.

In the first of his many brushes with death, Hemingway hit the trifecta: Concussion from an Austrian trench mortar shell, shrapnel tearing though his body, machine gun bullets ripping into his shoulder and right leg.

In the first of his many brushes with death, Hemingway hit the trifecta: Concussion from an Austrian trench mortar shell, shrapnel tearing though his body, machine gun bullets ripping into his shoulder and right leg.

Hemingway, like many members of his family, suffered from debilitating bouts of depression, paranoia and eventually suicide. In addition, in 1918 he suffered a near death experience when an artillery shell exploded almost on top of him, killing three Italian soldiers around him and severely injuring his leg and his head. He spent months recovering in a hospital and suffered from insomnia for years.

By 1924, it had already become obvious that his personality was taking dark and sinister turns.  Through his stories in the Toronto Star and in the transatlantic review, the young writer had attacked, not just satirically but maliciously, poets T.S. Eliot and William Butler Yeats, Germans, French, Italians, Turks and Americans in Paris (“the scum of Greenwich Village”).   He was succumbing to what William Bolitho Ryall called the “malady of power,” one of that Manchester Guardian journalist’s favorite topics.

Ryall explained to Hemingway over drinks that the “malady of power” was a complex disease, starting with suspicion of one’s associates and quickly evolving into a conviction of one’s own indispensability.[i]  A malady that Ryall undoubtedly saw creeping over his young colleague.

The first of Hemingway’s writer-friends to feel the effects of this malady would be Sherwood Anderson.

Anderson was a self-educated writer, best known for Winesburg, Ohio, a collection of short-stories.   He was living and working in Chicago in 1921 when the brother of one of Hemingway’s friends introduced the popular writer to the young Ernest and his wife, Hadley. Before meeting Anderson, Hemingway had read little beyond the few British writers and poets required in high school; his outer literary limits were the Saturday Evening Post, Rudyard Kipling and Teddy Roosevelt’s books on outdoor life.

Sherwood Anderson was America's most popular fiction writer in the early 20th century.   His good deeds to Hemingway would not go unpunished.

Sherwood Anderson was America’s most popular fiction writer in the early 20th century. His good deeds to Hemingway would not go unpunished.

Anderson not only directed Hemingway toward contemporary American writers but also D.H. Lawrence and James Joyce and the great Russians such as Chekov, Turgenev and Dostoyevsky. He took the time to read the young writer’s nascent short stories and commented on them; he also tutored young Ernest on the ins and out of the publishing racket: contracts, translation rights, and “how an American writer, behaved, spoke, dressed and wrote.”[ii]

Even more importantly, by reading Anderson’s stories and observing the older author’s red-blooded approach toward women, Hemingway learned how to write about sex so that later he could fashion Brett Ashley of The Sun Also Rises and Catherine Barkley of A Farewell to Arms into modern-day heroines.[iii]

Hemingway told Anderson that he wanted to write a novel about the war and the writer convinced Hemingway to go to Paris instead of back to Italy. He even gave Hemingway letters of introduction to Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso and several other literary and artistic luminaries who had set up camp in the City of Lights.

Anderson’s letters of introduction referred to Hemingway as a “quite wonderful newspaperman” whose “extraordinary talents” would extend far beyond journalism and that the young reporter was a “writer instinctively in touch with everything worthwhile.”[iv]

When Hemingway had finally completed enough short stories to make a small volume, In Our Time, it was Anderson who personally took the manuscript around the New York publishing circle, finally selling it to Boni & Livright, Anderson’s own publisher, and even writing the book jacket blurb that praised his young friend.

“I certainly do appreciate your having put my book over with Livright,” Hemingway wrote Anderson.[v]

In a few short months, his appreciation of Anderson’s assistance to his career had all but dissipated. There was only one thing left that the great writer could do for him: help break his contract with Boni & Livright so he could jump ship and go over to Scribner’s. Horace Livright had the option right on Hemingway’s next book but Scribner’s and its great editor Maxwell Perkins wanted Hemingway. How he would break his contract with Livright would be another signal of the dangerous direction his personality was taking, although no one in those Paris years would fathom how far in that direction it would go.

Dark Laughter was Sherwood Anderson's only best-selling novel.

Dark Laughter was Sherwood Anderson’s only best-selling novel.

Anderson was the premier writer in the Livright stable and in 1925, his novel Dark Laughter was a best seller. Despite being warned by Hadley and John Dos Passos not to do it, Hemingway, with the encouragement of the unstable F. Scott Fitzgerald who was represented by Scribner’s, wrote Torrents of Spring, a savage satire of Dark Laughter that not only ridiculed his friend and mentor’s literary style but his multiple marriages.  Publisher Livright was forced to reject the manuscript.  Hemingway immediately sent the story to Scribner’s which published it and every Hemingway work since.

In Torrents, whose title was lifted from a Turgenev story, Hemingway made the fictional character of writer Scripps O’ Neill a malicious satire of Anderson, describing Scripps as “a tall lean man with two wives,” and a man of “tenuous hardness.” He then went on to say that Scripps (Anderson) often got drunk with one of his wives:

“When he was drunk he and his wife were happy. They would go down together to the railway station and walk out along the tracks, and sit together and drink and watch the trains go by…Sometimes they drank all night. Sometimes they drank for a week at a time. It did them good. It made Scripps strong.”[vi]

When Torrents was launched, it mainly received favorable reviews.   The New York World, however, wryly commented that “when Hemingway published ‘In Our Time’ it was Sherwood Anderson who turned handsprings and welcomed this newcomer to the ranks of America’s great men…and now Hemingway pays him back.”[vii]

Torrents of Spring: Hemingway's  vicious satire of Sherwood Anderson's hugely successful novel Dark Laughter

Torrents of Spring: Hemingway’s vicious satire of Sherwood Anderson’s hugely successful novel Dark Laughter

While the breaking of his contract with Boni & Livright may have been the obvious reason for Hemingway to savage his friend and mentor, there was another reason—one deeper and darker and perhaps the first clear example of Ryall’s “malady of power” that would consume the great writer throughout his life.

In November of 1923, the American critic Edmund Wilson had written Hemingway and had compared the Hemingway short story “My Old Man” to Anderson’s earlier story “I Want to Know Why,” insinuating that the younger writer was imitating his mentor.

Hemingway wrote Wilson back, stating that while Anderson and he wrote about boys and race horses, his story was about a boy and his father and race horses. “I don’t think they’re anything alike. I know I wasn’t inspired by him.”  In this, Hemingway was correct; the two stories are vastly different, with Anderson using his narrator, a young Southern white boy, to poke fun at Southern white racial attitudes and morality, while Hemingway’s narrator leads the reader through a complicated father-son relationship that ends as Hemingway stories often do–in tragedy and untimely death.

The incorrect comparison really rankled Hemingway who darkly told Wilson that Anderson’s “work seems to have gone to hell, perhaps from Jews, etc. telling him too much how good he was.”[viii]  Now, the young writer would have to demonstrate to the literary world his independence from someone whom he now no longer considered a mentor but an inferior writer.

In 1926, when Anderson was vacationing in Paris, Hemingway tried to avoid him, finally meeting with him briefly over a beer at a café where he offered a half-hearted apology. They would never see each other again. In 1933, while driving from his second wife Pauline’s home in Arkansas to New York, Hemingway passed through Anderson’s Virginia hometown without even stopping to say hello to his once great friend and mentor.[ix]

When Torrents was published, it had a sparkling blurb by Ford Madox Ford, the British author and editor and publisher of the transatlantic review. Almost simultaneously with Anderson, Ford would feel the Hemingway blade thrust into his back.

This Friday, in the next article of the series, I discuss how Hemingway savaged Ford.

[i] Carlos Baker, Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story, P. 134, Discus Books, 1980, Scribner’s, NY, 1968.

[ii] Michael Reynolds, The Young Ernest Hemingway, P. 188, 225, W.W. Norton, 1998.

[iii] Ibid, 225.

[iv] A Life Story, P. 110.

[v] Letter from EH to SA, 23 May, 1925, in Ernest Hemingway Selected Letters, ed. Carlos Baker, Granada, 1981.

[vi] Ernest Hemingway, Torrents of Spring, P. 4, Arrow Books, London, 2006.

[vii] New York World, May 30, 1926, cited in Michael Reynolds, The Homecoming, P. 43, W.W. Norton, 1999.

[viii] Letter from EH to EW, 25 November, 1923, P. 79, The Letters of Ernest Hemingway, Vol. 2, 1923-1925, edited by Sandra Spanier, Albert J. DeFazio III & Robert W. Trogdon, Cambridge University Press, 2013.

[ix] Reynolds, Hemingway: the 1930s, P. 117, W.W. Norton, 1998.


  1. I am absolutely enamored by these articles and have read them again and again scattered through the months since I first discovered them. Just now as I check it once more, I am reminded that this was supposed to be a Six part series. I know you have been working on the fifth, Fitzgerald (I’ve questioned if it would be done some time back), and yet it dawn on me another inquiry: “Who the hell is the Six-person Hemingway betrayed?”

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