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A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Fan of Papa

As a high school junior, I was drawn to writing again.  I enrolled a creative writing course.  I wrote short stories, some firmly based upon events in my own life and the lives of people I knew, others purely products of my imagination. Setting was extremely important to me, because I wrote not only to attempt to develop and reveal character, but to escape the drabness, overcrowding, and raw winters of New Jersey.  I loved the sunshine and warmth of the southeastern United States during occasional trips, by car and train, between New Jersey and Florida, where I had relatives.  Thus, I set a short story in rural Georgia and a play in the Florida Keys.    

Much of my writing at this time, like that of most adolescents initially plumbing their creativity, was florid, overblown, dreadful.  I was discovering and gorging on the dizzying number and variety of words in the English language, aided and abetted by that thing called a “thesaurus.”  Thus, it wasn’t a “snowy” day I was offering in a story; it was a “niveous” day, a day of “albinism.”  Such ludicrous touches, I was certain, made my writing unique.  And similes I loved, to the point of blind absurdity.  For example, I thought I was actually complementing a sexy teenage girl, actually writing in the erotic tradition of Candy (the dirty-book parody that circulated under our high school desks one year), when I wrote of her: “She had buttocks like two halved basketballs.”  (Honest, it stirred my loins every time I read it.  However, “This is gross!” remarked Miss Franklin, my creative writing teacher, in the margin of my manuscript after she read it.)   

My renewed interest in writing finally got me appreciating “literature,” especially the writing of Ernest Hemingway.  Remarkably, none of my junior high or high school English teachers ever assigned a novel, or even so much as a short story, by him.  Nor was any book by Hemingway on our shelves at home.  I came upon him on my own.  As a more committed writer now, I regularly looked at the weekly bestseller list in our Time magazines, curious about the titles and authors of books that were holding American readers spellbound. 

For weeks in 1966 I noticed a book on the list entitled Papa Hemingway by somebody named A.E. Hotchner.  I didn’t give it much thought until sometime later when the carousel at our local bookstore displayed the paperback edition of Papa.  The front cover included a photo, a partial frontal facial, of a man I thought could have worked as a department store Santa.  There was joy and warmth in his face, but also, owing to the thick, trim, salt-and-pepper beard, a gravity and wisdom.  The cover included, in bold letters, the provocative declaration: “THIS IS THE CONTROVERSIAL BESTSELLER THEY TRIED TO STOP!”  Of course, this, too, sparked my interest.  Was this bearded man a writer (like myself)? 

At my high school library, I thumbed through a book I had recently discovered: a collection of biographical sketches of world authors.  And there I saw that rugged, handsome man again.  I learned that Hemingway wrote about such things as hiking and fishing in rural Michigan; driving an ambulance amid the horror of World War I; bullfighting in Spain; boxing; and deep-sea fishing―things that I knew had the potential to interest me.  I learned that Hemingway was honored: he had won something called the Pulitzer Prize and another thing called the Nobel Prize in Literature.  I learned that he wrote in a revolutionary style.  And, most intriguing of all, I learned that, despite his huge success, he killed himself not long before I discovered him.  (Teenagers, of course, are fascinated by suicide.)  So I bought the Hotchner book.  It engrossed me.  It was the first book of its size that I had enjoyed reading from cover to cover. 

Then, from the same library, I checked out a book by Hemingway himself: the novel A Farewell to Arms.  I marveled at the ease of reading and understanding Hemingway’s simple sentences written in standard English.  No Huckleberry Finn this!  I was completely absorbed by the narration of the novel’s protagonist, the American Frederick Henry: his descriptions of the war-torn Italian countryside, his comical friendship with the Italian Rinaldi, and, most of all, his evolving love affair with the Englishwoman Catherine Barkley, which ended in sublime tragedy (tragedy coming in a close second to suicide in the teenager‘s ravenous imagination).  This was the kind of prose I found enjoyable.  This was the kind of story I liked.  These were the kind of characters that interested me.  After Farewell, I read Hemingway’s The Fifth Column and the First Forty-Nine Stories.  Then I read To Have and Have Not, imagining, during the cold of a New Jersey winter, the delicious warmth of the novel’s Caribbean setting.  I couldn’t get enough of Hemingway, and I eventually read my first full-length, scholarly biography: Carlos Baker’s groundbreaking book about the author.

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