Ten years ago, Michael Reynolds published "Hemingway's First War: The Making of 'A Farewell to Arms,' " which in several ways was a landmark publication. It avoided the cliches of Hemingway criticism, the constant Romantic references to Hemingway's life as a basis for the Hemingway "code hero." Instead, by careful examination of historical and personal records, Reynolds was able to get at the truth of Hemingway's experience in World War I and show what it was he used in his classic novel from that experience, what from imagination, and what from extensive reading about the war. It was a very readable book, fresh and wonderfully researched, which refuted persistent myths and misinterpretations, probably the best book on Hemingway and his work during the last decade and a half.
Now Reynolds has come up with a new book, again tough-minded and very readable, "The Young Hemingway," the first volume of a projected multivolume "literary biography." In this new work, Reynolds has taken a number of risks with his prose and with his organization to produce a book that will appeal to readers who may not even care much for Hemingway--the style is so engaging and the social history so pungent.
Reynolds ostensibly covers only three years--beginning with the writer's return from the war in early 1919 aboard the Giuseppe Verdi and ending with his boarding the Leopoldina with his bride, Hadley, on their way to Paris at the end of 1921. But in reality, it is the story of Hemingway's childhood and youth, from birth to manhood. Reynolds avoids having to begin with the usual boring accounts of childhood and family history by bringing relevant details from them into his ongoing narrative.
His 10 chapters give us portraits--portraits of the artist as a young man--each with a title, as if the name for a painting: "Home as Found," and "Still Life With Parents." Internally, the chapters do not always develop chronologically, but rather establish a strong central impression and then move to various points of interest--which is much the same that happens when one looks at a painting.
The picture is given depth by references to earlier (and sometimes later) occurrences, analysis of relationships and character traits, and recall of relevant family history. It is given texture by appropriate quotations from news stories or editorials in the town paper, Oak Leaves (in Oak Park, Ill.), fragments of current songs and references to historical and current events in the world at large. The appropriateness of these items creates a suspense and foreshadowing in this circular, sometimes almost static narrative that is constantly engaging.
"The Young Hemingway" will entertain and surprise. Not only is it a significant contribution to Hemingway critical biography, but it should rank as one of the best nonfiction books of the year.
William White, the editor of the new collection of Hemingway's early journalism, has for decades taken on the thankless job of serving as the ongoing bibliographer of Hemingway criticism. In 1967, he edited an anthology of four decades of articles and dispatches, "By-Line: Ernest Hemingway," which contained 29 items from the Toronto Star. Now, in the present collection, we have all 172 dispatches published in the Star from 1920 to 1924.
These articles represent the beginning of Hemingway's professional work and reflect a steady growth in prose competence and perceptiveness. Fortunately for his apprenticeship as an artist, he was given a great deal of freedom by the Star, and the collection contains a wide variety of subjects, from grim descriptions of war and evacuations to humorous commentaries on manners and customs, and a variety of styles, from straight reporting to character sketches, parodies and even prose poetry.
After so much navigating through recent biography, it is a pleasure to get back to solid ground, the writer's work itself, and although this work comes at the start of a career, it is clear and bright, displaying everywhere the shining promise of dedicated youth. The dispatches are convincing evidence that the writer's later mastery did not come from his first experiments in fiction, weak imitations of Saturday Evening Post slick stories but from his newspaper work.