- Hemingway Lives!: Why Reading Ernest Hemingway Matters Today by Clancy Sigal
Imagine that, after dinner, you and a friend sit down with a bottle of wine, and your friend tries energetically and enthusiastically to persuade you to read his favorite writer. That will give you something of the flavor of this book, which is perhaps best described as a spirited appreciation of Hemingway’s writings.
Its author, American novelist and screenwriter Clancy Sigal, is probably best known to Hemingway aficionados as the co-writer (with Janice Tidwell) of the screenplay for the Hollywood movie In Love and War. In the 1996 biopic starring Chris O’Donnell and Sandra Bullock, Sigal and Tidwell dramatized young Ernest’s romance with a nurse in the Milan hospital where he was treated for wounds he sustained while volunteering with the Red Cross in Italy during World War I.
Sigal himself is a colorful, Hemingwayesque journalist. Born to a Jewish single mother in Chicago, Sigal served in Germany during World War II, represented Humphrey Bogart as a Hollywood agent, and broadcast for the BBC. Winner of the 2007 PEN Lifetime Achievement Award, Sigal now lives in Los Angeles and is a professor emeritus of the Annenberg School of Journalism at the University of Southern California. Sigal has acknowledged (in his bio on his personal website, clancysigal.com) that he believes himself to be the inspiration for the character of Saul Green in The Golden Notebook, the 1962 novel by the late Nobel Prize-winning writer Doris Lessing, with whom Sigal had a long on-again, off-again affair. Blacklisted in the 1950s, he is also the author of the screenplay for the 2002 film Frida, the Frida Kahlo biopic starring Salma Hayek.
Sigal writes vigorous, conversational prose that is both colloquial (e.g., [End Page 132] upon introducing Littless of “The Last Good Country,” he warns “twee alert!”) and highly intelligent. He is also sometimes very funny, for example, when he writes, “Hemingway’s other great art form was personal injury” (133). In his introduction, he cites a long list of twentieth-century authors influenced by Hemingway, commenting, “He’s like the god Zeus up there in the clouds hurling his thunderbolts long after he’s supposed to be gone” (xii–xiii).
Great fun to read, Hemingway Lives! is better researched than books of this nature—that is, those designed primarily for fans of Hemingway’s work rather than scholars—generally are. He cites several reputable biographies (Carlos Baker, Michael Reynolds, and James Mellow, for example), several memoirs by Hemingway’s family members, and a smattering of articles and critical works, singling out Paul Hendrickson’s Hemingway’s Boat and Keneth Kinnamon’s work on Ernest’s politics as particularly praiseworthy. Full disclosure: I am named in Sigal’s acknowledgements as the author of one of the “[v]arious student or readers’ guides to Hemingway” he consulted, books that he described as “good introductions (even when I disagree with some of their opinions)” (218–19).
The book opens with an anecdote about an American soldier reading A Farewell to Arms on his way to a second tour in Afghanistan—testimony supporting the titular claim about Hemingway’s enduring legacy. Perhaps inspired in part by Michael Reynolds, Sigal begins his discussion of Hemingway’s life with Theodore Roosevelt. He devotes several brief chapters to Hemingway’s early life before moving on to tackle the work more or less in chronological order. He treats Hemingway’s parents unusually kindly. Like some Hemingway scholars, Sigal has a somewhat disturbing theory, which he calls “the ‘help-meet’ syndrome” (84), about Hemingway’s marriages and his consequent artistic exploitation of the women who chose to marry him:
Hemingway needed, or felt he needed, to change wives whenever his libido told him it was time to move on to the next stage of his writing. My own view is that his wives—Hadley, Pauline, especially Martha and even Mary—were to an unacknowledged degree ‘co-writers’ of some of his best work. Call them muses, but for...