Mary V. Dearborn, biographer of Norman Mailer and Henry Miller, takes on another male icon in "Ernest Hemingway: A Biography."
This is the first single-volume Hemingway biography since James R. Mellow's "Hemingway: A Life Without Consequences" in 1992, and the first major Hemingway bio since Michael Reynolds completed his five-volume work in 1999. As such, it benefits from years of recent research, which Dearborn uses to compose a compelling portrait of an artist fueled and consumed by demons — manic depression and unresolved gender issues among them — whose ability to write was largely destroyed by alcoholism and traumatic brain injury.
One of this biography's achievements is to deepen our understanding of Hemingway's fraught relationship with his mother, Grace Hall Hemingway. During his lifetime, Hemingway portrayed Grace as a controlling woman who rejected his work out of Victorian prudery. Dearborn takes a fresh look at Grace, rendering her as a larger-than-life figure, an accomplished artist in her own right, of whom her daughter Sunny wrote: "When she entered a room, everyone took note of her."
Dearborn also explores Grace's long-term, apparently lesbian, relationship with the much younger Ruth Arnold. Dearborn's in-depth look at Hemingway's mother illuminates the son, showing us the origins of Ernest's strong will, charisma and voracious appetite for life.
If Dearborn's biography excels at Hemingway's origins, it's also a good look at his demise.
After World War II, Hemingway was largely unable to write. With the exception of "The Old Man and the Sea," the little work he published was either a parody of his better work or a bloated failure. He wrestled with, and was unable to complete, huge manuscripts about World War II and about a gender-switching love triangle. These were posthumously pared down and published as "Islands in the Stream" and "The Garden of Eden" — the latter being Hemingway's attempt to fictionalize his own struggles with gender dysphoria, which emerged in his life and fiction in a fascination with androgyny, a hair fetish and a taste for gender switching in sexual role play.
Dearborn narrates Hemingway's postwar artistic struggles and his physical and mental deterioration. In his last decade, Hemingway was plagued with high blood pressure and alcoholism, but Dearborn also makes the case that Hemingway incurred a traumatic brain injury in an auto accident in London during World War II, one of at least five brain traumas he received in his lifetime. She argues that the long-term effects of brain injury contributed to the manic depression, paranoia and inability to write that eventually destroyed him.
Dearborn captures Hemingway in all of his extremes, the story of a hugely flawed and endlessly compelling human being producing enduring art. She perhaps best voices the reason behind Hemingway's continued popularity toward the end of the book, when she quotes Valerie Danby-Smith, Hemingway's young muse in his final years: "When he enjoyed life, he enjoyed it to the fullest, and he had the gift of being able to impart his pleasure and enthusiasm to those around him."
John Reimringer's first novel, "Vestments," was a Publishers Weekly best book of 2010. He teaches at Normandale Community College.