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If Comley and Scholes’s little book on Ernest Hemingway is anything to go by, Hemingway scholarship is set to reclaim the eminence it once held in literary studies. To some extent the renaissance has already begun. Several heavyweight biographies appeared in the late eighties and early nineties, while Mark Spilka’s Hemingway’s Quarrel with Androgyny (Nebraska UP, 1990) broke ground for new appraisals of the writer’s macho reputation. The opening of the Hemingway collection at the John F. Kennedy Library has certainly spurred scholars to rethink old assumptions about Papa’s work. More generally, the very obsession with manhood-fashioning that made Hemingway such a convenient target for attacks on a masculinist modernism seems nowadays to make his work more pertinent than ever to the most complex and capacious theories of the relationship between gender and narrative.
While Hemingway’s Genders does not contain the formidable scholarship of Spilka’s book, it promises to provoke more debate. Comley and Scholes simply aim at—and I think will successfully [End Page 147] reach—a wider audience. The book is lively, readable, provocative: “The Hemingway you were taught about in high school is dead. Viva el nuevo Hemingway,” the authors conclude, and their entire book reads in this spirit of enthusiastic challenge to the assumptions of the generalist student or teacher of American literature. But the Hemingway specialist would also do well to look beyond the sketchy scholarly apparatus to what Comley and Scholes do best, which is to point the way toward what could be done with the question of “Hemingway’s genders.”
The book’s four brief chapters begin with a decoding of what “[e]verybody knows . . . about Ernest Hemingway: that he was called Papa and that he had a Code”—a Code that is, Comley and Scholes rightly argue, an “attempt to reduce a complex textual phenomenon to an excessively simple formula.” Though the authors do ultimately deliver a richer and more intriguing Hemingway, their first two chapters sometimes demonstrate the problem they themselves identify in Hemingway studies. Their rethinking of the writer’s representation of fathers and sons, for instance, is fairly unexceptionable: a “number of [Hemingway’s] finest early stories have a male protagonist . . . who resists fatherhood”; his characters have a “desire to remain in that ideal place between boyhood and paternal manhood.” The second chapter, moreover, seeks to describe the occasionally complex transformations Hemingway manages with a “basic repertory” of female character types, here labeled as “Mothers, Nurses, Bitches, Girls, and Devils.” None of this is particularly new, and Comley and Scholes do little service to Hemingway studies by ignoring a body of criticism that is often more radical than their own account, and certainly more diverse than they credit. At times, it appears that the true interest here is the authors’ determinedly freewheeling critical approach, which liberates them to “pursue textual lures and metaphorical trails that seem to lead away from any particular textual object in the hope that creative pursuit will result in a new approach to the original object.” It is a sign of the unevenness of the opening chapters that this kaleidoscopic strategy leads only to what they refer to as the “Hemingway Text”—the “larger text of the cultural codes that are active” in Hemingway’s writing—which comes to seem as monolithic as the Code the authors disdain.
Comley and Scholes are on much firmer ground in Chapters 3 and 4, which explore Hemingway’s fascination with forms of “taboo” [End Page 148] eroticism. As so often in recent discussions of Hemingway, the centerpiece of the authors’ analysis is the remarkable unfinished manuscript of The Garden of Eden, which is here understood to display a “system of transgressive behavior in which a challenge to the norms of fashion or the social presentation of the body signifies, at a deeper level, an erotic transgression of boundaries of gender and race.” Chapter 4, which takes us to the familiar terrain of the bull ring only to explore an unfamiliar relationship between bull...