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Rose Marie Burwell has written an essential critical biography about the most underwritten period of Ernest Hemingway’s life and work—the years from 1940 until his death in 1961. Burwell’s book is not only a well-researched blueprint for future scholarship about this period in Hemingway’s life, carefully documenting the creation of the four major posthumous texts, but her book is an excellent read as well, reading [End Page 471] more like a “whodunit” novel than an ordinary academic book. Her book, which is about solving the mystery of “what happened to Hemingway after World War II,” was a real page-turner for me.
Because I am also drawn to this particular period of Hemingway’s career, I know just how thoroughly researched and thoughtfully considered this critical biography is. Right from the beginning, Burwell clearly states her aims—to examine how Hemingway’s personal life shaped his later fiction. In the book’s opening chapter, “A frame for Hemingway’s portrait of the artist,” Burwell argues that
Only when the four [posthumous] works are seen serially can they be recognized as a thematically coherent, though unfinished, unit. And only then are they visible as the creative work that grew out of Hemingway’s struggle to understand what had happened to his artistry in the face of premature aging; of physical and mental conditions that we can now establish were part of his genetic heritage (hemochromatosis and depression); of four ruined marriages that became the refractive indices of male-female conflicts in his work; and of a narcissistic personality that had always made writing the only intimate relationship Ernest Hemingway could sustain.
According to this thesis, Hemingway now preferred the process of writing fiction itself more than he did publishing distinct novels. One reason for this preference was that although Hemingway’s later fiction was following the similar autobiographical function that it had in his earlier works, the autobiographical resemblance to the author was not quite as attractive to the critics as it had been in The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms. It may be that the American reading public dislikes seeing their celebrities age before their eyes. By this time, Hemingway’s problem was less his private life as much as it was his public one. One difficulty public figures face is the loss of self-honesty or the loss of honesty from the people who surround them; the loss of Maxwell Perkins was certainly a serious blow to Hemingway’s fiction. It is informative to note that Burwell considered Hemingway’s marriage to Mary “ruined,” even though their union had not ended in divorce. Their marriage failed largely because Mary was unable to communicate [End Page 472] effectively to her husband about his work. Also, because his fiction became increasingly more personal, Hemingway was more shy about criticism of his work than he had been before—he literally took the criticism more personally.
Although there was enormous delusional behavior during Hemingway’s marriage with Pauline, she seemed to have been the most successful in keeping her husband’s literary focus sharp. And Burwell documents especially well Hemingway’s periodic artistic decline after this divorce in 1940—he was not to publish any fiction until Across the River and Into the Trees in 1950—and his disastrous marriage to Martha. From the beginning, his third marriage seemed to have been doomed. According to Burwell,
Hemingway’s agenda for his third marriage, . . . had been rather more complex than Martha’s. He wanted the Nobel Prize, of course, and eventually would receive it; he wanted a writing partnership in which Martha would be his protegée; and he wanted a daughter. But to the latter there was an obstacle that became the lasting focus of Hemingway’s bitterness toward Martha and the source of his identifying his texts as his offspring.
As this over-identification with himself and his fiction thus indicates, Hemingway was actually self-perceptive when he claimed that his only psychological analyst had been his typewriter. Hemingway...