It is inevitable and fitting that any biography of Hemingway be compared to Carlos Baker's Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story (1969). And it is especially helpful to measure each of these three biographies of Hemingway by Baker's.
The Baker biography stands apart and above because of both its strengths and its conspicuous weaknesses. The latter consist largely of "impertinent material," to use a term by Eliot that Leon Edel finds helpful. Eliot wrote that "curiosity about the private life may be of three kinds: the useful, the harmless, and the impertinent." "When the subject is a man of letters," Eliot considers material useful only "if the study throws light upon his published work."
In the past thirty years most biography of modern novelists has been stuffed with material that Eliot fastidiously calls "vulgarly impertinent." Several of the best biographers have acknowledged as much by offering drastically scaled down versions of their inflated originals. And often, for example in the case of Joseph Blotner's stringently downsized Faulkner and Edel's cut-down edition of his massive two-volume biography of James, the shorter version has been welcomed as a distinct improvement.
The three biographies reviewed here neatly illustrate Eliot's three categories: one consists largely of useful material; another of a combination of the useful and the harmless, and the third, although it contains much that is useful, is fluffed up far too much with material that is either harmless or impertinent.
Ernest Hemingway: The Search for Courage by Keith Ferrell consists largely of useful material, yet it is by far the weakest of the three biographies. The hitch is that it is useful material that appeared nearly twenty years ago in Baker's biography. This embarrassing fact is nowhere openly acknowledged, but it is everywhere apparent. It is apparent chiefly because it is a short book that appropriately limits itself to the large events of the main periods of Hemingway's life. And it is all familiar because one of the lasting achievements of Baker's biography is that it defined these events and periods. It doesn't help matters that this familiar material is presented in a plodding style. The title, incidentally, misleads; the book does not organize Hemingway's life story around a search for courage. Because of its lack of originality, second-rate style, and misleading title, Ernest Hemingway: The Search for Courage does not repay scholarly attention.
Along with Youth: Hemingway, the Early Years by Peter Griffin focuses narrowly on Hemingway's courtship and marriage to his first wife, Hadley Richardson. In doing so, it makes much more skillful and fruitful use of the only recently available letters of Hadley to Hemingway than does Bernice Kelt's much larger The Hemingway Women. On the other hand, Griffin does not come up to Michael S. Reynolds' thorough and insightful analysis of the adolescent Hemingway's relationship to his parents.
We finish Along with Youth with more questions about young Hemingway than answers: his relationship with his parents is full of sudden, unexplained shifts; his treatment of Hadley—judging from her letters to him—was often incredibly [End Page 265] cruel, particularly when one considers that he was to marry her in a few months. Moreover, she was the first person who took a deep interest in his writing and even formulated one of the first principles of his narrative aesthetic. He writes Hadley of current love affairs and sexual encounters in a spiteful, insensitive way, yet we never know why. This material is made additionally unclear by the fact that there are only two extant courtship letters from Hemingway to her, in contrast to the more than two thousand pages of letters Hadley wrote to Hemingway during their nine-month courtship. Hence, much of what we learn about Hemingway comes through Hadley's responses to his letters. Griffin believes that it is clear...