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Death of a Rebel: The Charlie Fenton Story (review)

From: The Hemingway Review
Volume 31, Number 2, Spring 2012
pp. 134-137 | 10.1353/hem.2012.0001

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Death of a Rebel: The Charlie Fenton Story, Scott Donaldson's eighth biography of a 20th century American writer, portrays fully the all-too-brief life of an exemplary but[mdash]one must admit[mdash]mere English professor, known to Hemingway scholars for The Apprenticeship of Ernest Hemingway: The Early Years. Donaldson's account should appeal to many teachers, capturing well how colleagues, administrators, and students can both aid and impede a career. A rebel who spurned authority in various forms, Fenton sought to transcend professional traditions, conventions, and no-nos.

Donaldson's biography pays a debt of gratitude to a professor who inspired him in the classroom, guided him through a senior thesis, and exemplified a career he could emulate, but mystified him by committing suicide at forty years of age. Donaldson also finds Fenton a perplexing hero whose life illuminates the culture of academia, both before and since Fenton's death in 1960.

Donaldson covers Fenton's briefly privileged family background, his undistinguished prep-school experiences, and his "first two abortive ventures" at Yale, where parties, pranks, and panties engaged him. In the chapter "Bomber Boy," Donaldson cites and quotes liberally from letters, from Roswell Ham's memorializing novel Fish Flying through Air, and from Fenton's own fiction about his WWII experiences. Fenton enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force in late 1940, hoping to become a pilot. Frequent drunkenness and episodes of going AWOL resulted in his being sent to gunnery school instead and his eventual assignment as tail gunner in an RAF bomber squadron in spring 1942. Like "60,000 other 'absentees' at large in the United Kingdom," Fenton went AWOL twice more[mdash]once for seven months[mdash]and spent two brutal months in the stockade. His "absences" occurred, however, after he had flown two or three dozen odds-defying missions over Germany. "Of the forty men [Fenton] started training with back in Canada, only five came back from England alive" (21). Fenton recounts his most traumatic mission in "You'll Get No Promotion." On a bombing run to Frankfurt in late 1942, the crew's navigator lost the route to evade the Mainz searchlights and anti-aircraft batteries. Consequently, spotlights and flak honed in on Fenton's bomber for eight minutes, killing a gunner and knocking out the flight engineer. The plane limped back to base. "'That was the night I stopped belonging to the air force'" (23). In April 1944 he was sent back to Canada and dishonorably discharged.

Between then and returning to Yale on the GI Bill in 1947, Fenton worked as a reporter and night-school English teacher, won a fellowship to the 1944 Bread Loaf writers conference, married a well-to-do divorcee with two children, and continued writing, crafting two short plays as well as other war stories. Though still given to bouts of drunkenness, Fenton applied himself to the study of American literature and was championed by Norman Holmes Pearson. A maverick who favored the study of modern literature, Pearson directed Fenton's dissertation on Hemingway and later explored Fenton's suicide, providing material, Donaldson acknowledges, for this book. En route to being awarded his Ph.D. in 1953, Fenton, acclaimed for his teaching of literature and creative writing, had published literary criticism, begun corresponding with Hemingway, and sworn off drinking, having just fathered his only son.

In "Hemingway vs. Fenton," Donaldson cites and paraphrases from large chunks of the correspondence between the two men[mdash]even letters that Hemingway wrote but didn't send[mdash]while Fenton was studying how Hemingway's early stories and reportage contributed to his development as a writer. Hemingway initially favored Fenton. But Hemingway grew wary of Fenton's work and denied him further permission to quote from his work. Nevertheless, in June 1953 Fenton sent him his 630-page dissertation. Hemingway disapproved of it, claiming that Fenton had stolen the "'note book, oil resource, and basic material' for three novels he had yet to write" (70). Scuttling more than 300 pages, correcting minor errors, and minimizing the quotations he needed, Fenton revised his manuscript and secured Hemingway's permission to quote from his work. Apprenticeship was a success...

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