Ernest Hemingway was the first American celebrity writer, and it probably killed him. He’s also one of the founding members of Dead Authors Inc., and it’s killing him all over again.
By the time he was 30, Hemingway was already famous and a fixture of gossip columns. The diversion of energy involved in trying to live up to the rugged, indomitable image that he created for public consumption first destroyed the greatness in his writing and then, aggravated by alcohol, accidents, and pills, destroyed the writer. It came to an end with his shotgun suicide in Idaho in 1961, when he was an exhausted, depressed man of 61 who had spent the better part of a decade producing diffuse, unfinishable, apparently unpublishable manuscripts.
Such as this sad, bloated, inert so-called book. Hemingway’s heirs formed a corporation called Hemingway Ltd., which bestows his name on assorted outdoor gear, including shotguns. True at First Light isn’t quite as lethal, but it may blow holes in his reputation. It belongs to marketing strategy rather than literature, and the designer-label product is already moving. It’s been excerpted in The New Yorker, selected by the Book-of-the-Month Club, translated into 10 languages – or 11, if someone decides to translate it out of the Self-Parodying Hemingwayese in which it’s mostly written: ” So I walked along in the moonlight…and thought about Miss Mary and what she would be doing in Nairobi and how she would look with her new haircut and whether she would get it or not and the way she was built and how there was almost no difference between the way she was built and the way Debba was built…and that it was a damned good thing all the way around.”
It’s an account of the safari in Kenya that Hemingway took in 195354 with his fourth wife, Mary Welsh (” Miss Mary” ), who had to tolerate his entanglements with a young African girl (” Debba” ). Not much happens, despite rumors of Mau Mau raids. Mary wants to shoot a lion and finally does, but she’s depressed because Papa had to help bring it down. There’s his cloying banter with her and with a British game warden and an African police informer. And there’s Debba, who appears in the narrative as a shyly sultry native dream girl, but who was described by the same British game warden, quoted in Kenneth S. Lynn’s biography of Hemingway, as ” an evil-smelling bit of camp trash.” Apart from a few passages of effective evocation and humor, it’s mostly posturing and preening. It’s Hemingway as Great White Hunter, quieting the natives with his manly authority and prowess, curing their ailments with improvised medicine, beating the competition at hunting and jungle savvy. But it rings false. According to Lynn, he was drunk the whole time, consuming two or three bottles of liquor a day, along with wine at dinner. He was too drunk to shoot straight.
The original, abandoned manuscript, written the year after the safari had ended with two plane crashes, ran to 200,000 words, which Hemingway’s son Patrick has cut roughly in half. It’s still grating and shapeless, as Hemingway himself, who never fully recovered from the crashes, must have known. Patrick Hemingway’s thin introduction offers only lame excuses for publishing it.
Deciding when to defy a dead writer’s wishes can be a tough call. We owe The Trial and The Castle to Max Brod’s refusal to obey Kafka’s dying instructions to destroy his manuscripts, and the earlier books carved out of Hemingway’s literary remains are worth having – including A Moveable Feast, his nostalgic and malicious memoir of Paris in the ’20s, and most recently, the unfinished novel The Garden of Eden, which offers the clearest view of his perennial obsession with androgynous sexuality.
But the effect of this first draft of a book, like the effect of his boastful, belligerent public image, is to obscure his real achievements: The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, and early stories like the darkly perfect African safari tale ” The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.” It obscures the spare early prose, half stoicism and half lyricism, that a thousand writers have imitated and never equaled. It buries the young writer who was determined to write ” one true sentence.” ” In Africa,” he writes in this book, ” a thing is true at first light and a lie by noon.” Unfortunately, True at First Light comes in at about 11:15 a.m. D