Chapter 26: The Life He Led

The defense attorney was addressing the jury.

“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, obviously the facts of the defendant’s life are not in dispute. However, facts require interpretation, and that is what I will attempt to provide. After I conclude my remarks, the defendant will speak to you directly, and then it will be for you to decide, and for the judge to make his recommendation.

“The externals of his life are soon told. Born into an upper middle class family with Midwestern values, he inherited his mother’s artistic disposition and his father’s scientific and nature-oriented disposition. He inherited his mother’s imperious will and his father’s precarious mental stability, hence he entered life both strongly motivated and ultra-sensitive. Perhaps you will agree, an ideal background for one who was to be among the most successful and insightful writers of his time.

“In the short space of a dozen years, from age 18 to age 30, he went from being a cub reporter to being a world-recognized master of fiction. During this time he married Hadley Richardson, they moved to Paris, they had a son, and he worked at learning to write fiction. The same period saw him leave his wife and marry Pauline Pfeiffer.

“Between the wars, he authored five books and Pauline and he had two sons, then this marriage too broke up. He moved to Cuba, married Martha Gellhorn, and spent the war years hunting submarines and covering allied operations In Europe after D-Day. After the war, with Mary, wife number four, he worked for years on a vast project most of which he never brought to completion, although he did win the Nobel Prize for Literature. His last years were marked by physical and mental illness, and recently he took `the family exit,’ as he called it, killing himself, and finding himself here, wondering what comes next.”

He thought, That’s not a very long summary, for a life that was always so full. The defense attorney overheard the thought, of course, and perhaps his eyes twinkled in the fast glance he spared him.

“Those are the externals. But we are concerned with the corresponding internal facts, and perhaps first among these is his struggle with conflicting ideals. What happens to a sensitive boy who attempts to hold two ideals, each quite sincerely, that cut against each other? The ruthlessness required to pursue an ideal of excellence may carry over into other parts of life where it conflicts with other values. When it came to writing, Ernest Hemingway did not compromise. He was ruthless in his self-criticism and relentless in his continual experimentation, learning as long as he was able to learn, never relaxing his standard, continually raising the bar higher. He competed against other contemporary writers, against his own limitations, against the masters, and against the invisible limits of the craft.

“Sylvia Beach said she and James Joyce saw Ernest Hemingway as a religious man, Is there not something religious in his day-by-day practical devotion to the ideal of truth, of beauty, of excellence? His life in the physical world is over, and cannot be re-created. But what remains is what he accomplished, internally, in his hard life – and here I refer not to his written works, but to his success in a lifetime of holding together so many inchoate and conflicting potentials. This was his achievement, and it was a solid achievement.”

The defense attorney paused, perhaps to gather his energies, as a horse gathers itself before jumping a hurdle.

“The case for the defense could summarized this way: Ernest Hemingway’s life is an example of a life lived to the full. He was given a spirited team of horses to ride, and he rode them even when they wanted to carry him in opposite directions. He was given great opportunities, and improved upon them. He was given great abilities, and developed them continuously. He sometimes failed to do what he knew he ought to do, and sometimes did what he knew he ought not to do, but he did not fail to live, and to bring to his life as much joy and intensity as possible.

“Ernest Hemingway was one of those people – and they are few in number – whose presence was always noticed. Someone said that he sucked the air out of a room just by entering it. He was instantly the center of attention, not because of anything he did, but because of what he was. And, at the same time, for other people his presence in a room, or his very mention in a conversation was a provocation to attack. Was this because he was a famous writer? A deep-sea fisherman? An aficionado of bullfighting? Was it because he wrote for Esquire magazine and went on safaris and got involved in impromptu boxing matches? I don’t think so. I think it was because he had something that people found irresistibly appealing, the appeal we experience in the presence of wholeness, more alluring than glamour, than success, than fame or riches or beauty. Despite his failures and mistakes, despite his character flaws and his sins of omission and commissions: wholeness. Someone said that greatness is reaching opposite extremes at the same time. This, he did. He was so many men in one. Let me list a few of them.”


“If you want the key to Ernest Hemingway’s inner life, think of just one phrase: the tension of opposites. You will all remember the many types of men you knew in life. Look how many types Hemingway embodied.

“A master story-teller, above all. Who was a better story-teller than Hemingway?

“A voracious reader. Hemingway absorbed uncounted works of fiction and non-fiction, leaving a library of more than 7,000 books in his home at Finca Vigia.

“A connoisseurs of the visual arts. From Hemingway’s earliest days to his last, he haunted museums and befriended painters, knowing how to distinguish quality.

“Someone with an ear for the musical heritage of mankind. Hemingway loved every musical art form from opera to symphonies to jazz.

“A student of the world around him, inputs wide open, thirsty for first-hand knowledge. A born teacher.

“An intense lover of nature, loving sea and sky, exulting in the wilds of Africa, mourning what America had done to its natural heritage.

“A skillful fisherman and hunter, intent on outwitting and out-maneuvering whatever animal he sought.

“A men with an appetite for the physical pleasures, whether eating and drinking, hiking, riding, skiing, even, as a very young man, playing at fighting the bulls.

“A man who could lead a soldier’s life, mastering its specialized knowledge, its privations, discipline, courage and intensity in Italy, in Spain, in the seas around Cuba, in France.

“A men’s men, always happy in male companionship, always wanting to assemble a mob, always organizing some complicated joint endeavor. A man who had friends among rich and poor, famous and unknown, and those who were for any reason simpatico.

“A lover and admirer of women, hungering for them, observing them closely, valuing their difference, needing their respect and admiration.

“A born leaders of men, always at the center of any gathering, always the prime mover.

“Some have instincts and perceptions that take them half out of the world. That was Ernest Hemingway, with his religious longings and his impossibly high ideals.

“To judge his life by the end of it would be the same kind of error made commonly on earth, where a man’s future is presumed to end at death. Instead, the future, as always, starts now.”

The defense attorney paused. “That is all I have to say. I now invite the defendant to address you directly.” And the defense attorney sat down, giving him a wink.


So now it was up to him. He felt the nervousness he had always felt when he had to make a speech.

“I cannot defend everything I ever did, The things I did when I knew I was doing wrong are the hardest memories to bear. I wish I could undo them, but of course I can’t. But I wanted to put that on the record before I tried to give you an idea of how I saw my life, what I thought I was doing.

“As a young man, I decided that in life you had to pay as you went along. It’s the philosophy I gave Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises. You pay for anything that’s any good, either by studying it or by experiencing it or by taking chances, or by just paying money. And all the way to the end, I still believed it, only at the end I didn’t have anything left to buy, and nothing to buy it with except money. For most of my life, I paid by working. I worked all the time, the way I read all the time. As long as I could work, I could enjoy life as it came to me.

“I never cared about some abstract definition of the meaning of life. I wanted to know, concretely, day by day, action by action, how to live.  I was living as best I could on my terms that I had set and accepted. That’s why I always planned my fun. That’s why when I learned something, I learned it. That’s why I was so intolerant of so many things and so many types of people that were phony or empty or were just pretending, or were dead at the core.

“I loved life, loved the world. Loved being part of it. Wanted to know everything, experience everything, describe everything. I lived a very rich life in a way that didn’t have anything to do with whether I had a dollar in my pocket. And everybody here knows that my life centered on my creating.

“I loved living in the physical world and I loved living in the imaginal world, and I felt at home in each. When you think of my life, think of a man standing at the boundary line between two worlds – the outer world that he shared with everybody else, and the inner world that was his own. Both worlds were very brightly lit, and in the best times of my life, I spent hours first in one world, then in the other. Hours, every day. If you don’t understand that one fact, you cannot understand my life.”

He turned from the jury and sat down.

The defense attorney said, “That was very well done, Mr. Hemingway. Your honor, the defense rests.”

“Very well. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, you will withdraw and confer among yourselves, and return when you have reached a unanimous verdict.”


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