An Auckland lawyer on the old man and the mountains
Every two years the US-based Hemingway Society hosts an international conference in a location of significance to the great writer’s life. I’ve taken an interest in Ernest Hemingway in recent years (I’ve been writing a novel which includes a satire of Hemingway’s famous trip to the bull-running festival in Pamplona) so I decided to attend the 2022 conference held in two towns four hours’ drive apart — Sheridan, Wyoming and Cooke City, Montana.
Separated by the Bighorn Mountains, the towns epitomise the American West that Hemingway loved. The foothills of the Rockies, adjacent to the magnificent Yellowstone National Park, are to the west of Cooke City. I flew to Billings, Montana, hired a car and drove southeast to Sheridan to meet my fellow delegates.
The Hemingway Society is dominated by professors and lecturers from American universities. Many delegates at Sheridan were of an advanced age, and there were even a few men with Hemingway beards. I was struck, however, by the surprising number of young women academics and students in attendance. They fully appreciate Hemingway’s work.
His novels and short stories continue to stand up well to scrutiny. Earlier this year, Auckland University Press chose his 1951 classic The Old Man and the Sea to translate into te reo as Te Koroua me te Moana. More than the work, though, it’s the legend of the man that fascinates. He married four times; he honed his macho qualities around boxing, bullfighting and big-game hunting; he drank copious amounts of alcohol; he was a misogynist; he alienated friends, like Gertrude Stein and F Scott Fitzgerald; and he ended his days with a spectacular suicide on July 2, 1961, aged 61.
Hemingway spent many months in Wyoming and Montana, particularly during the late 1920s and the early 1930s. It’s where he wrote the final chapters of A Farewell to Arms (1929), worked on the non-fiction bullfighting book Death in the Afternoon (1932) and the novel To Have and Have Not (1937), and composed his classic short story “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” (1936). It’s also where he killed things.
While not writing, he would go on hunting and fishing trips. Tracking grizzly bears and bull elk and hooking large brown trout with his fly rod were the “juice” he needed to produce so many of his stories during this time in a place often overlooked by Hemingway scholars and historians. The conference was replete with photographs of the plunder which he and his friends took from the nearby streams, forests and mountains. In some measure the conference was one way for Hemingway fans to pay respect to a place that was instrumental in Hemingway’s life, a place where he was so prolific.
No one in the Hemingway Society or at the conference was too judgmental about his character (such as his misogyny or his casual anti-Semitism) and his blood sport pursuits. They saw those aspects as a key part of his personality and of his time and which went to the very essence of his writing. Scholars appreciate the quality of the writing and are not overburdened by a distaste for his character and leisure pursuits. Cancel culture has bypassed Hemingway.
A scientist, on the basis of Hemingway’s asymmetric male pattern baldness, advanced a theory that the writer may have been born with a female zygote, which in turn may have explained Hemingway’s androgynous tendencies in his later years
Key contributors to the conference were those involved in the Hemingway Letters project, a Cambridge University Press sponsored initiative, which seeks to publish over time and in chronological order the significant letters written by Hemingway. Volume 6, covering 1934-36, is to be published next year. The letters’ editors, who come mainly from Pennsylvania State University, are expecting 17 volumes in all. The last one is projected to be published in 2042. Hemingway was a prodigious letter writer and much new information about him and his works is steadily coming to light as the content of the letters becomes known.
The scholarship demonstrated at the conference was eclectic. Sample topics included various aspects of Hemingway’s health, including his PTSD from war and other wounds. One scientist, on the basis of Hemingway’s asymmetric male pattern baldness, advanced a theory that the writer may have been born with a female zygote, which (if true) may have explained Hemingway’s androgynous tendencies in his later years. To pursue that theory would involve testing his DNA, much of which apparently exists in the form of letters and personal items in museums and elsewhere.
There was a dissection of various aspects of his marriages, and a lawyer discussed the jurisdictional issues affecting his three divorces. One of the featured speakers was octogenarian Valerie Hemingway, Hemingway’s secretary in the last two years of his life, who later married Hemingway’s third son, Gregory.
All the time there were examinations of his writing style and of his books and short stories. A number of local historians informed us of his many interactions in Montana and Wyoming and of the relevance to his written works. His description of the forest, mountains and streams in For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940) is acknowledged to be based on the corresponding area around Cooke City and the nearby Yellowstone National Park.
In true Hemingway fashion, a conference like this was by no means all hard work—there was plenty of drink on hand while discussing conference topics and to wash down a lot of unhealthy American food.
To specialise in Hemingway is to be eccentric, and no one can accuse many of the delegates of not being their own people. One speaker was Philip Greene, a US academic lawyer who had spent a year at Victoria University in Wellington 15 years ago as a visiting expert in cyber law. His principal claim to fame at the conference was that he is the author of the wittily named To Have and Have Another, a book of cocktail recipes that Hemingway reportedly enjoyed.
The conference was friendly and inclusive. I made many new friends who I’ll see again at the next conference, to be held in Bilbao and San Sebastian in 2024.
Te Koroua me te Moana / The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway and translated into te reo by Greg Koia (Auckland University Press, $30) is available in bookstores nationwide. Among the best of Hemingway’s books available in new and second-hand bookstores are his first collection of short stories In Our Time (1925), the novel The Sun Also Rises (1926, sometimes titled Fiesta), and his crazy memoir A Moveable Feast (1964). The best or at least most savagely entertaining biography – it lays into Hemingway as a drunk, a sissy, a bore, a coward, an oaf with no redeeming qualities – is written by Jeffrey Myers (1985). There’s a copy in the bookshelf at Federal Delicatessen opposite the Sky Tower.