Portrait of Hemingway by Lillian Ross

Portrait of HemingwayLillian Ross originally wrote her ‘Profile’ of Ernest Hemingway for The New Yorker, where it was published on May 13, 1950. In book form, it becomes a ‘Portrait,’ and other than the addition of a delightful preface, I’m not sure what the difference is; the opening pages of my first edition note that Portrait originated as Profile, but there is no indication that the text of both is not the same.

The dust cover offers context.

When Miss Ross wrote this Profile, she made several literary innovations, one of which was to compose a portrait entirely in terms of action… She attempted to put down only what she had seen and heard, and not to comment on the facts or express any opinions or pass any judgments… In her writing for The New Yorker she has raised this severely objective method to an art.

We’ll examine that premise shortly.

The Portrait runs 42 pages: long for a magazine article, but perfectly lovely as a brief glimpse in this format. Let me start where the book does, though. I date the preface to 1961: that is the publication date of this first edition printing; the preface does refer to the reception to her Profile in the magazine, and it refers to Hemingway’s death of July 2 of that year. In it, Ross explains how she got to know Ernest Hemingway and his fourth and final wife, Mary, how they corresponded with each other as friends, and how the profile came about: on a brief stay in New York City on his way to Italy, Hemingway invited Ross to come and hang around with him on various errands, over the course of three days. She wrote up those experiences, and gave Mr. and Mrs. H. the chance to mark up her manuscript before she submitted it. She then describes the responses to her profile. Most readers loved it, she said, but some “reacted violently, and in a very complicated fashion.” Some of these disliked Hemingway’s personality (not an uncommon reaction to the man) and thought the piece backed up their views. Others didn’t like the man as represented in the piece (also understandable), and thought “either Hemingway had not been portrayed as he was or, if he was that way, [Ross] shouldn’t have written about him at all.” She assumes that Hemingway’s death has corrected some of these disapproving interpretations, which I found a little odd, but no matter. Finally, she continues the work of profiling Hem by describing the kind of letter-writer and friend he was. The preface introduces the profile nicely because it gives context to the relationship between writer and character.

And the profile (portrait) itself is indeed wonderful, and as promised, follows Hemingway closely: from arriving at the airport, to the airport bar, to the hotel, where the Hemingways order up caviar, champagne and Marlene Dietrich, who visits with photos and stories of her grandbaby. Then it is late in the next morning, and Ross is awakened by an antsy Hemingway who demands she come over and listen to him talk; more champagne, and she accompanies him on his errands while Mary goes on hers. They buy Papa a coat and other small items at Abercrombie & Fitch. The next morning again, Patrick (the middle Hemingway son) has joined the party, which goes to the Met to “look at pictures” for a few hours, followed by lunch back at the hotel with Charles Scribner (Hemingway’s longtime editor). The story ends mid-lunch.

Ross relates this series of anecdotes as scenes, blow by blow, in real time. It is true, as promised, that this is a portrait “in terms of action,” but I wouldn’t call it “severely objective.” For starters, there is the question of what you put in and what you leave out – because obviously Ross didn’t report every cough and sigh and rustle of a pant leg that took place in three days. She writes, “Patrick told me that he’d just as soon spend the whole day looking at pictures.” And a couple of pages later, Hem gets tired and asks Patrick, “don’t you think two hours is a long time looking at pictures?” and “everybody agreed” and the party moved on. Choosing to put in these contradicting statements says a lot about both Hem and Patrick, and I don’t believe for a moment that that was a mistake.

Too, word choice is always telling, I think. In the nature of this excellent piece my mother sent me the other day, consider the sentence: “He moved in and took the room.” Who can objectively say that Hemingway took the room? No, Lillian Ross is communicating something outside of objectively observable events here. I’m not saying I don’t like it: I do, in fact, very much. But I don’t think it’s entirely accurate to claim that the author is not present in her work – here, or ever.

That’s just a quibble with the dust jacket, though. This vignette is packed with great representative moments. I’ve already shared a few (here, here). Or how about this for a Hemingway speech:

…I was ashamed because I had not written any novels. So I wrote ‘The Sun’ when I was twenty-seven, and I wrote it in six weeks, starting on my birthday, July 21st, in Valencia, and finishing it September 6th, in Paris. But it was really lousy and the rewriting took nearly five months. Maybe that will encourage young writers so they won’t have to go get advice from their psycholoanalysts. Analyst once wrote me, What did I learn from psychoanalysts? I answered, Very little but hope they had learned as much as they were able to understand from my published works. You never saw a counter-puncher who was punchy. Never lead against a hitter unless you can outhit him. Crowd a boxer, and take everything he has, to get inside. Duck a swing. Block a hook. And counter a jab with everything you own. Papa’s delivery of hard-learned facts of life.

Seriously, he’s sort of simultaneously a genius and a walking cariacature. I understand perfectly why those readers thought Ross was making fun of Hemingway; this kind of speech reads that way. I also believe he spoke it. And I like him even while recognizing that he was a blowhard, could be a jerk, and struggled to contain his overcompensating machismo. But I get why others don’t. This is sort of in line with that post I wrote.

I had a wonderfully fun time reading the essence of Hemingway in this perfectly pitched profile. Very enjoyable, and a quirky piece of journalism. Do look it up.


Rating: 8 glasses of champagne.

Teaser Tuesdays: Portrait of Hemingway by Lillian Ross

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

I have read some good books lately – wait til you hear about Lily and the Octopus, oh man – but I’m not sure there’s anything as pleasing and comfortable for me as coming back to Hemingway.

Portrait of Hemingway
This profile was originally published in The New Yorker in 1950, and follows the man closely for two days. That’s it: an anecdote in the life. There is also a most interesting preface, but I will leave that for my review. These are the lines I wanted to share with you today.

He always woke at daybreak, he explained, because his eyelids were especially thin and his eyes especially sensitive to light. “I have seen all the sunrises there have been in my life, and that’s half a hundred years,” he said. He had done considerable revision that morning on the manuscript [of Across the River and Into the Trees]. “I wake up in the morning and my mind starts making sentences, and I have to get rid of them fast – talk them or write them down,” he said.

I feel like that sometimes, too. His sentences are better, though.

shorter prose: essays, etc.

I took myself away recently for a solo writer’s retreat to a cabin in the woods, on a lake, in the mountains. No phone or internet. Husband dropped me off with the two little dogs and the gear I’d need for two nights. Forty-five minutes after he left the cabin lost power, which put a damper on my reading & writing abilities; but it came back on at 1:37am. I know, because I had left all the lights switched on.

I took lots of work with me. One book completed that needed a review; the second, completed in those first minutes without power, needed a review. The next one, of which I read the half by candlelight that first night, which needed a review and prep for an author interview; four more books in reserve. Seventeen essays, 5 book excerpts, 2 lectures, 2 short stories, 1 piece of longform journalism, and 7 poems. Twenty classmates’ responses to an essay I’d submitted for workshop, representing a range of ideas for expansion and revision. One class assignment, and a broad and vast mandate to create more new work. My only other goals were to feed myself and the dogs, and take us all to go to the bathroom as necessary. I would not get through it all, of course. I had brought so much so that I could pick and choose, and not get bored. On day two, I resisted the urge to go back to the candlelit book of that first night, in favor of all those essays and other writings.

And so here we are. I will not subject you to my reviews of 17 essays, 5 book excerpts, 2 lectures, 2 short stories, 1 piece of longform journalism, and 7 poems; frankly (for this purpose, happily) they were not all worth it. There were some special ones, though. Rebecca Lee’s “The Banks of the Vistula” was shocking, invigorating, and persistent: after several days, I can’t stop thinking about it. Simultaneously, it was beautiful, and it bothers me.

The excerpt from Virginia Holman’s Rescuing Patty Hearst was likewise tantalizing, especially since my copy, for whatever reason, ends mid-sentence: that will bear further review.

Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” which I remember reading – can it have been in middle school? – but don’t much remember, was as wonderful as I suspected, filled to brimming, every line, with humor and of course stinging satire. Montaigne was too densely written; I’m not up for this. Robert Louis Stevenson, rendered here as Robert Lewis Stevenson (and what’s up with that?) is reliable: “An Apology for Idlers” was good and “On the Enjoyment of Unpleasant Places” was outstanding. RLS has this to offer my retreat weekend: “There is no country without some amenity–let [her] only look for it in the right spirit, and [she] will surely find.”

Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” was… what? disturbing? I will need some help with this one. Brenda Miller’s “36 Holes” is beautiful, a very different sort of form and one that appeals to me: meditative, wandering, but cohesive; I will reread this. As a fan of the semicolon and general geek, I very much appreciated learning more from Paul Collins in “Has Modern Life Killed the Semicolon?“, which yields such quotations as this one from the Times of London:

The semicolon is the enemy of action; it is the agent of reflection and meditation.

(That must be why I like it so much.) And,

The semicolon allows woozy clauses to lean on each other like drunks for support.

which is less an argument for support, but a great sentence.

One of the best things* I read over the weekend was “Some Holy Ghost,” by David K. Wheeler. Full disclosure: I work with Dave; he’s my editor at Shelf Awareness. But the essay was objectively wonderful, I insist. I love everything about this piece: the structure, wherein he walks around the Art Institute of Chicago meditating on large questions while looking at paintings with specific bearing on those questions; the perfection of his phrases (Dave is also, perhaps foremost, a poet); and the themes and the job he does with them. This is an essay about religion, a subject that usually makes me twitchy, but his thoughts are accessible and revelatory.

The longform journalism is The Bones of Marianna, by David Kushner. It tells the story of a reform school in Florida, the mysteries and pain surrounding its history, and the efforts of citizens and forensic archaeologists to uncover the past. This is a riveting story, and it’s beautifully presented at the link above. Kushner’s telling is more straightforwardly journalistic than creative; I miss the voice I came to know in Alligator Candy (review to come), but this is a good read – just different.

I did not get around to the poems, so those will wait for another day.


*It will be the subject of another post on another day, but I’ll just say here that I can’t stop raving about Lily and the Octopus, a debut novel by Steven Rowley which blew me away. (This is the one begun by candlelit, and finished the second night.) It’s a startling, original piece of work and I highly recommend it.

Mary McGrory: The First Queen of Journalism by John Norris

A pioneering journalist’s compelling life story, evocatively told.

mary mcgrory

John Norris’s Mary McGrory: The First Queen of Journalism is a well-researched and engaging biography of a fascinating figure, as well as an accessible view of some five decades of U.S. political history.

Mary McGrory had been a book reviewer for the Washington Evening Star for more than a decade when her editor offered her the chance to cover the Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954. Her first political assignment became the beginning of an influential career: she would go on to cover 12 presidential elections, and everything between. Boston Irish Catholic, with a strong impulse to volunteerism and charity, very proper and private in her personal life, Mary happily smoked and drank with the heartiest of her male colleagues. She flirted and made the men carry her bags, but “perhaps more than any other journalist in American history, she pushed her editors (and they were invariably men) to come to terms with the fact that women had something worthwhile to say.” Not an impartial journalist, even as she worked to push Bobby Kennedy into the 1968 presidential race, she practically hired Eugene McCarthy’s campaign manager herself. She never liked Nixon; dated Jack Kennedy before he was married (or president); was propositioned by Lyndon Johnson. Despite such drama, however, her greatest accomplishments were journalistic, as her exhaustive list of awards indicates.

Even with such absorbing material, Norris (The Disaster Gypsies) earns his reader’s respect with careful attention to detail and a precarious but precise balance between his primary, individual subject and the context of U.S. and world history. Mary McGrory is a striking story, meticulously and entertainingly portrayed.


Come back on Wednesday for my interview with John Norris.

This review originally ran in the September 22, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 Christmas parties.

Teaser Tuesdays: Mary McGrory: The First Queen of Journalism by John Norris

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

mary mcgrory

I am reading a delightful biography of a groundbreaking newspaperwoman, who wrote book reviews (ahem!) before her political coverage began; she would cover 12 political campaigns (and everything in between) in her lengthy and influential career. I am reminded somewhat of Newspaper Titan. But John Norris can tell it better than I can, of course.

In many ways, Mary was as much an anolmaly at the end of her career as she was at its beginning. When she broke through, during the Army-McCarthy hearings, she was the lone female reporter in the room. On the campaign trail, she was one woman surrounded by a hundred men. By the end of her career, she was working in an environment where there were more and more women, most female reporters were married, and employers like the Post provided maternity leave and benefits. To this new generation of women, Mary was a throwback: the woman who took on McCarthy and Nixon; the pioneer who was forced to decide between career and love; a beloved relic from an earlier era who drank with the Kennedys and crafted handwritten thank-you notes. Mary had gone an entire career without ever being the norm.

Stay tuned for my review of the book, followed by my interview with the author.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

We Make Beer: Inside the Spirit and Artistry of America’s Craft Brewers by Sean Lewis

Anecdotes and observations of American craft brewing that will make readers thirsty.

beer

Sean Lewis was working as a sportswriter in 2010 when he got his first writing assignment from Beer Advocate–a profile of the infant Blue Hills Brewery in Canton, Mass. He worked there as an unpaid intern, learning the brewing ropes, and admired what he calls “the Tao of the brewmaster.” Many brewery tours and interviews later, in We Make Beer, he relates the “spirit and artistry” of craft brewers from coast to coast, from garages and barns to the largest brewhouses in the nation.

Lewis visits with major players (Boston Beer Company, Sierra Nevada, Stone), younger, smaller efforts (Nebraska, Jackalope), brewpubs and production breweries, and explores various approaches to the concept of growth. For example, Sheepscot Valley Brewing Company has chosen to stay local to Whitefield, Maine, and the community has repaid that effort, while West Coasters Sierra Nevada and Lagunitas have recently opened East Coast locations to serve their expanding markets. In language that will make readers thirst for a well-crafted pint, and with graceful transitions between topics, Lewis undertakes what is clearly a labor of love–much like the businesses he writes about. His celebration of the women and men of craft brewing is both accessible to the novice (see his one-page appendix on the brewing process, and explanation of the pronunciation of “wort”) and thoroughly rewarding for the beer aficionado. A comment about a collaboration between three breweries is equally applicable to the larger concept of Lewis’s book: “It just seemed like a fun thing to do.”


This review originally ran in the September 26, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 8 pints, naturally.

Teaser Tuesdays: We Make Beer: Inside the Spirit and Artistry of America’s Craft Brewers by Sean Lewis

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

beer

I was all over this title, as you can imagine. (Husband would like to point out that “we” don’t make beer. He does. I am quality control.) Sure enough, it only took a few pages to find a few memorable and evocative lines to tease you with:

As the glass is set gently back on the table, the beer drinker’s tongue pokes out to get one more taste off the lips before they open to reveal a quick smile. The stresses of the day’s work are slowly washed away, with layers of lacing on the glass standing as tombstones memorializing each of the annoyances from the previous eight hours.

Anybody else ready to knock off for the day already?

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

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