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Hemingway, A Biography by Jeffrey Meyers (Harper & Row: $27.50; 644 pp., illustrated) : Along with Youth: Hemingway, the Early Years by Peter Griffin (Oxford University: $17.95; 258 pp., illustrated)

December 08, 1985|Irving Marder | Marder, a novelist and editor, is writing a biography of Ezra Pound. and

. . . And now let us go back to the Philoctetes as a parable of human character. I should interpret the fable as follows: The victim of a malodorous disease which renders him abhorrent to society and periodically degrades him and makes him helpless is also the master of a superhuman art which everybody has to respect and which the normal man finds he needs. . . . --Edmund Wilson: "Philoctetes: The Wound and the Bow," 1941.

Question: How do you treat a wounded grizzly?

Answer: Cautiously.

Q: Even if the grizzly in question has in fact been dead for 24 years?

A: With grizzlies, you can never be sure.

Q: But should you approach him with elderly jokes in questionable taste?

A: There is no safe way to approach the individual in question. As for the question of taste: He himself set the outer limits, in comparison with which any approach must seem restrained. For example: He attacked a fellow writer of a younger generation, James Jones, in terms so disgusting that no American newspaper, even in this permissive age, would think of printing them. What was Jones' offense? He wrote a fine novel, "From Here to Eternity," about the Army on the eve of World War II, thereby violating the grizzly's territorial rights: Any fool knows that World War II was one of the grizzly's wars.

Yes, but what if the wounded bear in question had the faculty, when he was in the mood, of telling marvelous stories? And what if, after a tumultuous life, he died tragically by his own hand?

This difficult problem of approach is one that Hemingway's newest biographers have failed to solve. But they are in distinguished company: The problem has existed ever since the start of Heminway studies, half a century ago. No one has come as close to solving it as Hemingway's great contemporary, Edmund Wilson. No one was as well-equipped for the task; no one before or since--Wilson wrote his indispensable essay, "Hemingway: Gauge of Morale," in 1939 and added a postscript in 1941 when "The Wound and the Bow," his collection of literary studies, was published--has been able to portray the man and the artist at, so to speak, ground level, undaunted by the glare noise surrounding him.

In the first "big" Hemingway book since the weighty 1969 biography by Prof. Carlos Baker, Jeffrey Meyers, professor of English at the University of Colorado, takes the "warts-and-all" treatment somewhat further--and some of the warts are indeed big enough to hang a hat on. Certainly the Baker approach can stand a corrective--our guard went up with his opening sentence: "As soon as it was safe for the boy to travel, they bore him away to the northern woods. . . ." Was this the tone of biography or of liturgy?

But Meyers, if not quite as awe-struck, has his own problems: One is a style so graceless and so imprecise that, at crucial points, there is only ambiguity. We slog ahead, wincing periodically over the accumulation of the kind of detail that tends to make American literary scholarship an international joke. Among Carlos Baker's contribution to the Legend was the fact that Hemingway, during one stressful period, had 150 bowel movements in a single day (is this a record?). Meyers, not a man to take this lying down, tells us about Hemingway's maternal grandfather , Ernest Hall, who "had some comical troubles with constipation on the ship that brought him from England in his late teens."

Meanwhile we are trying to keep in focus the first major writer whose work is almost inseparable from hype--a man whose personality engulfed his work in an almost unprecedented way. A writer who once said in effect, echoing the ancient epigram, "Everything I say is a lie."

How much this mattered, in relation to his art , can be debated endlessly. At first he was able, so to speak, to keep tabs. But at some point, the confusion of true and false became part of the madness that destroyed him.

Peter Griffin's "Along With Youth," apparently based on a doctoral dissertation, is billed as "the first installment of a projected three-volume life." As apprentice work it has its moments. It is unpretentious and includes material of great interest to Hemingway specialists: new letters and five unpublished early stories.

Hemingway had withheld publication on the ground that the juvenilia would be "used against" him. It was one of his sounder decisions. Both the stories and the letters test severely the theory that everything from the pen of a major writer is worth reading, which begs the question: By whom?

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