Tomorrow will be the 60th anniversary of the death of Ernest Hemingway. Just two weeks after Hemingway’s suicide, LIFE magazine, for which Hemingway wrote some of his last great works, devoted 13 pages of its July 14, 1961, edition to the Nobel Prize-winning author. This included an 1814-word tribute from an old friend of Hemingway’s, the poet Archibald MacLeish. LIFE said MacLeish assessed “the forces that made [Hemingway] great”. Bob Dylan wrote in his memoir Chronicles: Volume One that MacLeish “could take real people from history … and with the tender touch of a creator, deliver them right to your door.” Dylan also said MacLeish “possessed more knowledge of mankind and its vagaries than most men acquire in a lifetime.” All of which is certainly evident in the Hemingway tribute. Here, in full, is that tribute:
His Mirror Was Danger
By Archibald MacLeish
I wrote a poem some years ago in which there was a question about Hemingway and an answer:
… the lad in the Rue de Notre Dame des Champs
In the carpenter’s loft on the left-hand side going down –
The lad with the supple look
like a sleepy panther –
And what became of him? Fame became of him.
Veteran out of the wars before he was twenty:
Famous at twenty-five: thirty a master –
Whittled a style for his time from a walnut stick
In a carpenter’s loft in a street of that April city.
Now, with his death, the questions asks itself again: what became of him?
How shall that question be answered now? By the fame still? I don’t suppose any writer since Byron has been as famous as Hemingway was when he died, but fame is a young man’s passion. It has little to say to the fact of death.
Or is the style the answer? The style remains as surely as the fame. It has been praised, imitated and derided for 30 years, but it endures: the one intrinsic style our century has produced. And yet Hemingway was the last man to wish to be remembered as a stylist, and none of his critics, however much he has admired the style or detested it, has been able or willing to leave his judgment at that.
To answer one must go further back. It is not Hemingway’s death or even the manner of his death which poses the question now: it is his life – the fact that his life is over and demands to be looked at, to be measured. What makes the answer difficult is that Hemingway’s life was a strange life for a writer, as we think of writers in our time. Writers with us are supposed to be watchers: “God’s spies” as John Keats put in once. They are supposed to spend themselves observing the world, watching history and mankind and themselves - particularly themselves: their unsaid thoughts, their secret deeds and dreads. Hemingway was not a watcher: he was an actor in his life. He took part. What he took part in was not the private history of Ernest Hemingway or the social history of Oak Park, Illinois, or the intellectual history of a generation of his fellow countrymen. What he took part in was a public – even a universal – history of wars and animals and gigantic fish. And he did take part. He could never go to a war – and he went to every war available to him – without engaging in it. He went to the First World War as an ambulance driver and got his knee smashed by a shell in a front-line trench where no one had sent him. He went to the war in Spain to write a scenario for a movie and learned how you washed the powder burns off your hands without water. He went to the last World War as a correspondent - and worried the high command by turning up with other tools than typewriters – mementos he called them. And between wars there were lions and elephants. And between elephants and lions there were marlin. Also bears.
Again, modern writers, if you can believe the novels, associate with other writers or with other writers’ wives or with the people who hang around writers. Hemingway preferred boxers and bicycle racers in Paris, and Charlie Thompson, and Old Bra in Key West, and nightclub addicts in New York and matadors in Spain and commercial fishermen and game-cock fighters in Cuba. He had writer friends. Scott Fitzgerald was a good friend, and Dos Passos sometimes was and sometimes wasn’t. But writers as writers – writers disguised as writers – he didn’t fancy. He and I had lunch in the middles ’20s with Wyndham Lewis, the painter who set himself up briefly and locally as a literary dictator in London. When the two of us walked off home across the river, Hemingway astonished me by saying, “Did you notice? He ate with his gloves on.” He had too – though there were no gloves.
Most modern writers are literary – more so than ever now that the critical mind has completed its conquest – but Hemingway wasn’t literary. He read as much as most English professors and he remembered what he read, remembered it usefully, and in its relevance to himself – but he rarely talked about writing. Ezra Pound, the greatest and most successful teacher of writing in our time, gave him up. “The son of a bitch’s instincts are right,” said Pound. But you can’t converse about instincts. Even Gide, then most articulate writer about writing in modern France, was defeated by that hulking body and artless air and charming smile. I had dragged Hemingway along to a French literary afternoon where Gide and Jules Romains and others of that generation sat on stiff-backed chairs around a bookshop wall talking as though they had rehearsed all morning, but Hemingway, whom all of them were watching, watched the floor. It was too much for Gide. He dropped the topic, whatever it was, and drew Hemingway aside to explain how he punished his cat. He punished his cat, he said, by lifting him up by the scruff of his neck and saying PHT! in his face. Whether Hemingway restrained a desire to hit him, I don’t know. I was watching the back of his head.
A strange life for a writer and a difficult life to judge at the end. Indeed, a difficult life to judge before the end – which is perhaps why Hemingway attracted, alive, more critics of more schools and opinions than most writers who have been dead for centuries. Writers generally are judged by their work, but Hemingway’s life kept threatening to get in the way of his work with the result that his critics never found themselves in agreement. Those who were drawn to him called him, as one of them actually did on the day of his death, “a man who lived it up to write it down.” Those who were repelled – and most of the hostile critics seemed to have been repelled emotionally as well as intellectually – called him in one form of words or another a phony: a man who ran away from his real task to masquerade as a big game hunter or a hero or a tough guy. What they will say now I don’t know – perhaps that he had run as far as he could and that the truth caught up with him at 7:30 on the morning of the second of July.
Both views are based on a misconception of the relation between a writer’s task and a writer’s life. Both conceive of life and writing as different and even contradictory things. The deploring critic thinks of Hemingway’s life as a betrayal of his obligation: you don’t fight marlin by the hour and watch the killing of 1,500 bulls if you are loyal to your writer’s obligation to your craft. The admiring critic thinks of the obligation as incidental to the life: you shoot grizzlies and then you write about it. Neither understands the simple and primary fact that a writing – a true writing – is not the natural by-product of an isolated experience, nor the autonomous creation of an isolated man, but the consequence of a collision between the two. Neither realizes that the collision when it occurs, even when the experience is a lion in the gun sights or a German in a Normandy hedge, may provide, for the right writer, something more than a thrill and something very different from an escape. It may, indeed, provide a realization- precisely such a realization as the art of letters at its greatest is capable of providing: the realization of the meaning of a man. Danger is not the least revealing of the mirrors into which we look.
That this obvious fact was obvious to Hemingway is a matter of record. Long before he had money enough for a safari or time enough to compose a theory of esthetics, had he ever wished to compose one, he had learned that lesson. Of the time in his 20s when he was learning to write, he said, “I found the greatest difficulty, aside from knowing truly what you really felt, rather than what you were supposed to feel … was to put down what really happened in action; what the actual things were which produced the emotion that you experienced.” The problem, that is to say, was to master the collision of man and event, writer and experience in both its terms: the perception of the event as it really was and the recognition of the emotion that the event really excited. A later remark of his added another dimension to the task. In a letter to a young man who had sent him imitative work he said, “ … see the things you write about not through my eyes and my ears but through your own with your language.” To see “with language,” to see “what really happened in action” and to recognize “what you really felt, rather than what you were supposed to feel,” with language was a writer’s task as Hemingway saw it. Most writers I think would agree that the task was well seen and that accomplishment of the task so defined would be anything but a betrayal of the obligation which every writer assumes. To put together what “really” happened and what you “really” felt as you faced it is not only to see the lion but to understand the man. The writer who can do this, as Hemingway demonstrated that he could, is no less a poet of the human experience - God’s spy – than the writer who spies upon nearer and more familiar worlds.
What became of Hemingway? Fame became of him, yes, but something more, I think, than fame. Art became of him – became of him in the truest and the largest sense. Rilke once said of the writing of a verse: it is not enough merely to feel; one must also see and touch and know. But it is not enough, either, to see and touch and know; one must have memories of love and pain and death. But not even these memories are enough; the memories must be “turned to blood within us” so that they are no longer distinguishable from ourselves. Experience, Rilke was declaring, must turn into man before a poem can be written. Experience, that is to say, must reach such an intensity that it contains our own being. When that happens – when experience and man so meet – the poem may be written and when the poem is written we may discover who we are.
Hemingway brought himself to face experience of this intensity not once, but more than once. And what became of him was that great triumph.