Duncan Baird Publishing's new Coffee with series features fictionalized interviews with figures ranging from Plato to Marilyn Monroe. Part biography, part primer, and part critical assessment, this format is an interesting variation on the traditional introductory guide. The books allow for a degree of directness (the interviewer asks questions the reader wants answered) and drama (famous people are so misunderstood) not usually found in comparable volumes. Plus, readers get an opportunity to glimpse historic personalities.
Of course, such an opportunity can be a good or a bad thing, and I must admit that I was initially uncertain about the prospect of a fictionalized interview with Hemingway. Few authors have been as insistently, and as poorly, caricatured in recent years, and I had a hard time believing this fictional exchange would be any different. It turns out my reservations were unwarranted. Kirk Curnutt's Coffee with Hemingway is a thoroughly engaging book that does not sacrifice complex insights to the challenges of the form. In fact, [End Page 141] Curnutt takes the difficulty of creating a "realistic" Hemingway as a starting point for the text and, rather than try to create a unified vision of the author, Curnutt repeatedly emphasizes the gaps that exist between Hemingway's life, the biographical record of that life, and the public persona(s) that have circulated widely in the media.
The brief biographical sketch that precedes the interview sets up this approach by linking each of Hemingway's parents to a different facet of his personality. Curnutt claims that Hemingway's father, Clarence, helped him to develop a seriousness of purpose, an "ethical approach" to recreation, and an exacting conscience, all of which were central to his writing. In opposition to these traits, Hemingway inherited his "penchant for showmanship" from his mother, Grace. While biographical purists might object to such a simplistic dichotomy, the split functions quite effectively in the short space allotted to this biography. It not only allows Curnutt simultaneously to introduce three different views of the author—Hemingway as conflicted son, hardworking writer, and publicity hound—but also makes all three storylines essential to the later history of Hemingway and links them to his upbringing. The biographical details that emerge, analyzed by turns through each of these competing and often contradictory facets of Hemingway's personality, help to create a sense of depth frequently missing in much longer accounts.
Curnutt's goal, however, is not simply to present a more complex picture of Ernest Hemingway. By emphasizing both the necessarily uncertain process of historical reconstruction and the specific difficulties that come along with creating a history of Hemingway, he draws attention back to the one relatively stable element in this account, the literary texts themselves. Having the interview set in the present time is also useful here, as Hemingway can explicitly refer to a modernist "movement" and proclaim allegiance to its vision of an art that transcends authorial personas. "What's important is the work," he reminds us throughout the interview and, by the end of the book, it is hard to disagree. Even the more scandalous stories, like Hemingway and his sister being dressed as androgynous twins, do not ultimately overshadow the literary texts under discussion.
The interview itself, usefully organized into ten separate sections, follows the same approach, emphasizing Hemingway's oeuvre while simultaneously challenging stereotypical views of the author. The first and last sections, "Ernie Agonistes" and "The Price of Fame," directly address the Hemingway mythology, but the book examines a wide range of issues in between, from misogyny to alcoholism to the role of truth in fiction. And the discussion does [End Page 142] not always progress smoothly. Hemingway's answers are often eloquent, but they are also, at times, angry and evasive. Similarly, some of his positions are convincing (not all of his women characters are flat) and some are less so (drinking is just another form of discipline for him). Yet, the various evasions and failures that emerge throughout the dialogue are never treated glibly and they ultimately serve the goal of humanizing this brilliant...