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  • Unbelievable Happiness and Final Sorrow: The Hemingway-Pfeiffer Marriage by Ruth A. Hawkins
  • Lisa Tyler
Unbelievable Happiness and Final Sorrow: The Hemingway-Pfeiffer Marriage. By Ruth A. Hawkins. Fayetteville: U of Arkansas P, 2012. 333 pp. $34.95.

It's difficult to uncover biographical information about Ernest Hemingway that scholars haven't already mined. His thirteen-year marriage to Pauline Pfeiffer has been addressed in multiple biographies and might seem to have been covered adequately already. But in this exhaustively researched new volume, nearly fifteen years in the making, Ruth A. Hawkins not only reexamines with a fresh sensibility what might initially seem familiar ground, she also offers new anecdotes, revealing quotations from letters both to and from Pauline, and detailed information about the Pfeiffer family and Ernest's time in Piggott, Arkansas. Moreover, she takes relationships that amount to little more than a paragraph in most of the biographies—for example, Ernest's relationship with Pauline's uncle, Gus Pfeiffer, who financed his African safari, or with her sister, Virginia, whom he met (and was attracted to) in Paris when he first met Pauline—and explores them with admirable thoroughness, drawing liberally on unpublished letters, the many biographies, and interviews with family members and friends.

As Hawkins convincingly explains in her preface, "I attribute the lack of the attention to the Pfeiffers to two things: (1) they were an extremely private family and did not publicly discuss their relationship with Hemingway, and (2) Pauline had the bad luck to die before Ernest, leaving the slanted picture that he painted of her as her lasting legacy" (ix). Hawkins is openly sympathetic to the much-maligned Pauline, whom Ernest's biographers (following Ernest's lead) cast as the relentless "other woman" determined to break up the marriage to his first wife, Hadley, so eloquently celebrated in A Moveable Feast:

...Pauline lived and worked with him during his most productive period as a writer and bore two of his three children. Thus, she deserves more than to be dismissed as a man-chaser who went after Hemingway and broke up his marriage, got what she deserved when the same thing happened to her, and ultimately wound up in an unmarked grave.

(ix) [End Page 128]

Yet Hawkins is not blind to her subject's failings. She notes again and again times when Pauline chose to put her husband's wishes before her children's needs and acknowledges the terrible price Pauline paid for those choices.

Hawkins argues that Pauline, far from the ruthless mistress determined to snare a husband, was actually naïve and sexually inexperienced for her age when she met Ernest and was therefore easily overwhelmed by her strong feelings for him. Hawkins insists that it was much more likely that Ernest pursued Pauline than the other way around: "Pauline, single, wealthy, college-educated, and devoutly Catholic, hardly seemed a fit for Ernest, married with a child, with no formal education beyond high school, struggling as a writer, and apparently possessed of few moral scruples" (47). She attributes Pauline's actions to a love beyond reason but is more skeptical when it comes to Hemingway: "It is questionable, however, whether Ernest ever truly loved her, though a strong sexual chemistry existed for a time" (x). She also speculates that Pauline's wealth might well have been part of what attracted Hemingway to her (47). Hawkins dispassionately explores evidence for the possibility that Pauline may have had an abortion in May 1926 (65-67), and while she circumspectly refrains from drawing a definite conclusion, she makes an excellent case for the likelihood of such an event.

With an underlying feminist sensibility, Hawkins catalogs the many wifely duties Pauline took on for her husband, including securing funds for their lavish peripatetic lifestyle during the Depression, finding and decorating the Key West home, arranging child care and coordinating with Hadley travel plans for Ernest's oldest son, hosting scores of houseguests, and even accompanying Ernest to Africa when his friends' plans to do so fell through. The Hemingway that emerges in these pages is all too often childish, self-centered, and spiteful, making Pauline's self-sacrifice tough to witness. When...


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pp. 128-131
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