Tribute marred by disrespect
There's nothing unusual about publishers timing the release of new biographies and critical studies on a famous writer's centennial, but David Sandison's biography has a dubious distinction: It might be the most slanderous and slanted biography ever penned to mark a special occasion.
The 115 photographs, drawn from a variety of sources ranging from university archives to The Ernest Hemingway Foundation of Oak Park, Ill., will surely be of great interest to Hemingway fans. Particularly telling are the ones of the youthful author, the young man uncomfortable with the sentimental attachments of his parents, the impulsive volunteer ambulance driver in World War I, the Kansas City journalist full of irrepressible energy going after the scoop.
But even before tackling the text, a cursory glance at these photos suggests something awry about this book. Most were shot in black-and-white, but they're often reproduced here tinted heavily in shades of light sepia and dark blue.
Worse than that, somber shots have only the most tangential relevance to the specifics of Hemingway's story. If you can discern much of anything in a navy blue washed bullfight picture, you're aided by Sandison's caption of "A typical bullfight in 1922." Hemingway wrote extensively about specific bullfighters whose photographs are readily available. Why not reproduce one of them?
Photos of Gary Cooper and Spencer Tracy culled from the film adaptations of Hemingway novels are included, but photographs of Hemingway with many of his key literary associates are not.
Hemingway is presented by Sandison almost entirely as an insufferably disagreeable rascal. Page 1 opens with a sensationalistic retelling of Hemingway's suicide. It offers no new information whatsoever, but manages to include enough gory details to satisfy tabloid fans. Hemingway's childhood is described largely through a savaging of the author's mother.
But Sandison saves most of his relentless venom for his subject. Hemingway's homophobia is attacked repeatedly, his womanizing critiqued with no less fervor. The writer is criticized for his "ferocious competitiveness," his "old hang-ups," his "fantasies (or lies if you prefer)."
Perhaps the most astonishing attack reveals Sandison's contempt for Hemingway the writer as much as Hemingway the man: "He had contracted the writer's inability to tell an exaggeration-free tale." Too bad that this biographer couldn't realize that his own need to exaggerate Hemingway's foibles would diminish his writing.
*Norman Weinstein is the author of a book on Gertrude Stein.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society