The Hemingway Myth

Why one little-known novel in particular, The Garden Of Eden, should cause us to re-evaluate the great caricature of American literature.

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If he were still alive, Ernest Hemingway would be celebrating his 114th birthday this week.

It's an observation that gets more absurd every year - not least because suicidal alcoholics with a pathological attraction to danger don't usually become centenarians – but it's one I'll make every year on this day until it's theoretically impossible.

Because that's what we do with our heroes – and Hemingway is my biggest, for better or for worse – we cling to them. Particularly the dead ones. We wonder what advice they'd give us if they could. We wonder what they'd make of our lives, our decisions, our time.

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What would Hemingway make of 2013? Well first off, he'd want to know what 2013 thought of him. Big egos, writers. And I doubt that he'd like what he'd discover.

Once lip service has been paid to his achievements and the line about 'the most influential stylist of the 20th Century' has been wheeled out yet again, what we're left with when we think of Hemingway is the crudest caricature in literary history.

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Despite the fact he didn't die until 1961, he is already a one-dimensional figure in popular imagination, a boorish stereotype of hyper-masculinity that crops up time and again (see 2011's Woody Allen film Midnight In Paris for a particularly wearisome example).

Not that it's our fault. Looking through the hundreds of photos he posed for - heavily bearded, boxing, hunting, standing with his chest puffed out beside a giant, strung-up marlin, like a sort of literary Vladimir Putin – is to be reminded of how much he cultivated and enjoyed that macho man image throughout his life.

The result is that he's come to represent an idea of manhood deeply at odds with how we view it today, a relic of a time when stoicism and strength were considered the only tools you need to navigate life. The obvious conclusion is that Hemingway would despair of what men have become in 2013, what with our emotional intelligence and our sensitivity (attempted, at least) and our curious way of being more feminine than we ever have been before.

But beyond all that Papa Hemingway bullshit, beyond the parodies and the lazy film depictions and the wars and the absinthe and the guns, the man who is simultaneously modern American literature's most influential and widely-dismissed writer is being slowly re-evaluated, all thanks to one, little-known novel first glimpsed long after his death.

The Garden of Eden, published in 1986, tells the story of a newly-married American couple who settle into an uneasy ménage-en-trois with a second woman. It's an exploration of sexuality that encompasses role-play, gender swapping and lesbian sex. To be more specific: at the request of his more adventurous wife, the protagonist submits to pretending she is a boy during sex, changing his appearance to become more feminine and gives her his blessing to sleep with another woman (quite the honeymoon).

It sent shockwaves through the world of Hemingway study, and caused many critics to wonder whether his take on sex, masculinity and women were actually far more nuanced and modern than we've been taught to think.

Where Hemingway's earlier works came under a lot of criticism for portraying women as one-dimensional and sexually passive (fairly so, in For Whom The Bell Tolls) or as simply 'manipulative bitches' (unfairly, in The Sun Also Rises), The Garden Of Eden is a story with a complex, intelligent and sexually dominant woman at its core.

The myth that 'Hemingway doesn't do women', or that he chose not to, was exploded by the book's release in a way that several strong female characters from his earlier work never quite managed. The ghost of his career's biggest gaffe - the toe-curling 'little rabbit' Maria for whom 'the earth moved' during some rumpy-pumpy in For Whom The Bell Tolls - had finally been laid to rest.

Hemingway started The Garden of Eden in 1946, more than a decade before America's great period of sexual liberalisation. David Bourne's willingness to experiment, both sexually and with the traditional arrangements of a marriage, is both scandalous for its time and way ahead of it. It contradicted the idea that for Hemingway, being a man was a simple matter of acting courageously (having 'grace under pressure', as he famously put it) knowing how to play sports and holding your absinthe. It suggests that life, manhood, is also about compromise, open-mindedness, and dare I say it, love.

The Garden Of Eden was published with huge cuts and at least one long subplot removed. No wonder: the original manuscript Hemingway left behind, tinkered with for over 15 years, was over 200,000 words in length.

Perhaps it was the story he wanted to tell, but never felt sure he could. Perhaps the man who came to believe his own myth, perpetuated over decades of literary fame, was afraid to publish a love story so different from the macho adventures the world expected of him.

Either way, in the course of a decade spent devouring every line of fiction Hemingway ever wrote, The Garden Of Eden has been the most powerful experience of them all for me, more powerful than the angst of The Sun Also Rises, the heartbreak of A Farewell To Arms or the sheer thrill of For Whom The Bell Tolls, even though it's inferior to them all.

The reason, I think, is because it gives me hope that if Hemingway were alive today, he'd be glad masculinity is being measured in different ways, with different strengths being asked of it. Perhaps he wouldn't despair of the sort of men we've become or the world we live in. Perhaps he wouldn't despair of me. That, after all, is what we really want from our heroes.