Papa Hemingway’s unfinished business

On July 2, 1961, Ernest Hemingway, old and ill, shot himself to death – “took the family exit,” to put it his way, as he was neither the first nor the last Hemingway to kill himself. My column this month for The Meta Arts concerns some unfinished business of his. Not a retrieval – he himself told me when I contacted him first that it wasn’t necessary. Something else, instead.  I wish we could find someone to finish it.

This was my monthly column for The Meta Arts, an online magazine.

Hemingway’s Unfinished Business

by Frank DeMarco

Who would have thought that the dead have unfinished business? But, if the model of our lives on the other side that the guys upstairs have provided is anything like correct, it would make sense. A chat I had with Hemingway a few months ago sheds light on the subject. Perhaps putting it on the record here will serve as the finger pointing to the moon.

During World War II, writer Ernest Hemingway, though a civilian, performed three substantial actions to assist the war effort. Those actions have been largely ignored and in any case have not been much fleshed out. The first, in 1942, was The Crook Factory, which organized his extensive contacts in Havana into a semi-official counter-espionage network. The second, at about that time, and into 1943 I think, was his use of his boat Pilar as an anti-submarine scout. The third was his leadership of French partisans to find the least-defended route into Paris for our army in the summer of 1944.

From my journal, lightly edited:

Tuesday, January 27, 2009, 11:30 AM.
Just to put the background on the record, I have been moved to reread a novel by Dan Simmons called The Crook Factory, having reread a novel by Joe Haldeman called The Hemingway Hoax last Friday. I just sent off to Michael Ventura an e-mail query as to whether he knew someone who knew how to work the Freedom Of Information act so as to provide us access to whatever reports Hemingway must have filed with his ambassador or with the Navy or anyone he was responsible to report to. Nancy Ford then asks why now, and tells me that she has had a sense of communing with Hemingway, and wondered if he wanted me to do the research myself and get that period of his life onto the record.

Papa, is that it?

I know that part of you is wondering why I on the other side should still care about this, why there should be unfinished business. But if you will consult some of the things you have read — The Secret Vaults of Time and its story about Glastonbury Cathedral, for instance — you will realize that unfinished business is not perhaps as a rare as you might commonly think. You could look at it as us having unfinished business, or you could look at it as the unfinished business in us being activated by someone’s intent who is still alive. There are other ways to look at it as well, but those two should be enough to help you to realize that what is going on is not automatically something to be dismissed. Maybe it will turn into nothing, maybe not, but in any case you can’t dismiss it out of hand as a possibility.

You may remember that in our first exchange you asked me about the stories that I had fabricated about my early life, and I told you then that it was a way of imaginatively re-creating life as it ought to have been. But in a way you could say that people have been imaginatively re-creating my life for me, after the fact, because serious portions of it have been suppressed for reasons good or bad. So, if somebody writes about Hemingway during World War II, they are inclined to say, “oh, he was only a drunkard or a play-actor anyway, romanticizing his involvement in the war and unintentionally demonstrating that he didn’t really care about it.” You have seen critical reports dismissing my work in France as playacting, with me in the center of the play. It was only later, with Carlos Baker’s book, that the truth of what I had done began to emerge.

It was a solid achievement. It saved American lives. It cost me not only a certain theoretical danger of prosecution for acting outside the Geneva Convention, but it cost me the additional bitterness of being dismissed as a playboy and having to lie about something I was deeply proud of. Had we been able to tell the truth, people might have understood better why I retained the respect of people like [Colonel, later General] Buck Lanham. Instead, they assume that I somehow blinded them with my reputation, as though a good soldier in wartime is going to have his judgment warped by factors like reputation, literary or otherwise.

If people had seen what I really did, it would have showed them some things. First, that I was practical. I really knew how to get results. Second, that I was intensely patriotic, although you would think that would have been obvious even to that stupid son of a bitch J. Edgar Hoover. Third — and this is what they would have found hard to forgive — that I was thoroughly without illusions about that war or any war. No, I wasn’t a soldier in World War I. But I was the first American to be wounded, and I spent months in the hospital surrounded by veterans who were happy to talk veteran to veteran, and like Jack London in Alaska, I learned more from talking and listening than perhaps I would have by several months experiences even in the Army. I knew war and I knew that sometimes there is no alternative but that even when there is no alternative war is not a good thing for anybody. There is a rottenness to it. Brave things are done within it. Splendid examples of manhood and you almost might call it godhood are produced out of the hell that it is. But the brave things and the splendid examples are not justifications for the hell. It’s just that if you get into a fight you have to win it, no matter who got you there or for what reasons and no matter how clearly you can see through the bullshit that is spun around it.

But you see, if people took into account the fact that I had spent months among the wounded in World War I and that I had spent months first as an unofficial sub-hunter and coordinator of The Crook Factory and then, after Hoover shut that down, as informal leader of the temporary band of partisans who cleared the way for our army to get to Paris — or rather, found which ways were clearest and cheapest — they would have to reevaluate their opinion of me. But because I was not a phony, I couldn’t explain why I was not a phony. So, they took me as a poseur.

It hurt. Of course it hurt. If I had been a private figure, probably the respect of the people whom I respected would have been enough. But I was a public figure and had been for years, and so I never had the luxury of the anonymity that would have left public opinion indifferent to me. I’m not complaining, I’m just saying that I as a public figure was liable to misinterpretation. Liable to libel, in fact. It was the very kinds of people who theoretically opposed war and in practice did nothing to get the war finished who were delighted to be able to attack me as inauthentic, as playing at war, as self glorifying and lying.

A lot of time has gone by, where time goes by. I don’t want you to get the idea that time passes in the same way over here, and we spend it drinking and reminiscing and reading old press clippings, and brooding over bad reviews. But, as I say, active interest from a living person sort of activates any given unfinished business. So, you get incensed at Marty’s [his ex-wife Martha Gellhorn’s] treatment of me as portrayed, or at Marty as an individual whose traits annoy you, when you aren’t even thinking of her particularly at all. Your interest is focused on me. Yet she hears your opinion, and therefore that portion of her life is somewhat activated. It is a price of fame that has been very little understood in the days since we left off praying to saints and cursing demons.

You think I have an agenda for you. That isn’t exactly wrong, but it isn’t like anybody can make you do anything either. You will find that it is easier to perceive on this side than to act, and easier to contact those in the body than to come up with a clear contact and develop clear communication. Go get something to eat and read some more if you want, and we can always continue when and if you want to.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009, 11 AM.
All right, Papa. I have never faced stronger resistances than I am now. I have a feeling this is the deepest water I’ve ever swum in — or rather hesitated to swim in.

Well, I understand. That’s just part of the price of doing something new. Isn’t that much different from starting a new project. A book, a painting. But you can’t create anything new without facing it, so in the end that’s the choice you have to make one way or the other.

I know and in a way it has surprised me, how strong this resistance is, because after all I did perform without a net in public not only in conveying the Chasing Smallwood material but years before that in transcribing and putting out the sessions, both the sessions with Rita and the black-box sessions before and after. But I had a smaller audience then too.

You still have the option of doing this in private and never making it public, you know.

Theoretically. But I know myself. I guess, let’s go.

You are wondering what the agenda is. You’re right that it is not strictly about my wartime service from Cuba. It’s true, it would be nice to have that story told sympathetically and accurately, but that doesn’t mean you’re the person to do it and that doesn’t mean that it would be the best use of your time and energy. Your function could be as simple as being the finger pointing to the moon. If someone could just get it across, the deceptive blank spot in the Hemingway biography, someone else with nothing better to do and with the requisite skills could come in and do a better job than you could. This would have the advantage of freeing you from a task you don’t particularly feel qualified to do and at the same time having that task performed by a professional which means it would find easier acceptance not only among academics but among the general public. Those are two good reasons to have a professional historian do the research and writing.

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