A Real Man
Paul Campos at Lawyers, Guns, and Money notices an almost obsessive preoccupation with masculinity in Death in the Afternoon. I started writing a comment and it got away from me and then it was too long for the comment box. Just as well, really. Here it is:
I've never been able to read Death in the Afternoon because accounts of animal suffering give me nightmares. But I can speak from A Moveable Feast, that conversation between Hemingway and Gertrude Stein on the subject of male homosexuality. The men that he professed to dislike were not effeminate; they were even more he-man than himself, the guys who lived and worked in logging camps or on construction projects in the wilds of Michigan. Orwell, I think in Down and Out in Paris and London, has a long passage about how men who are solitary and down and out are invisible to women. They are isolated in this all-male world, lonely and sexually frustrated. As we know from all those awful prison jokes, men so isolated have sex with one another. I do not think you could state this explicity in a book intended for the general reader in Orwell's lifetime: you could only circle around it. That is, the woods and dark alleys and lonely country roads were scary for men for the exact same reason they were scary for women. Unwanted sexual attention occurs. I think in that conversation with Gertrude Stein Hemingway is trying to explain this, referring, obliquely, to encounters he may have had in Michigan.
But I do think that Hemingway's apparent preoccupation with his masculinity is more accurately a preoccupation with authenticity; even Hemingway's admirers often misunderstood this difference, and a whole genre of "hard-boiled" imitation Hemingway emerged out of this misunderstanding. Hemingway spent a good part of his life on the edge of a nervous breakdown. There appears to have been a family predisposition to frighteningly severe clinical depression. Hemingway's father committed suicide, as did Hemingway and one of his granddaughters. You can see it in his novels: his protagonists are drawn to model themselves, or simply buddy up to, people they judge to be more authentic and "whole" than themselves, who are usually so by virtue of their intense involvement in art or sport. (There's real insight in this; these activities demand intense concentration, which is one of the best ways of tricking oneself out of depression, at least temporarily.) Hemingway treats his "inauthentic" characters with unmitigated scorn. And then, his writing style itself, there is a dogged stripping out of all ornamentation, of anything that might appear to have come to him from somewhere else--basically, from other literature tainted with phoniness. Sure, this particular strategy was one theme of the modernism of Pound and Stein and the other mentors, the rejection of pre-war cultural forms etc. But with Hemingway I think there's more in it than that; for me, reading his most "Hemingwayesque" prose is like watching someone chewing their fingernails till they bleed. It makes A Farewell To Arms absolutely unreadable for me.