Kenneth S. Lynn, an award-winning biographer best known for his intensive examinations of the lives of Ernest Hemingway and Charlie Chaplin, died Sunday in New York of complications from leukemia. He was 78.
A professor emeritus of history at Johns Hopkins University, Lynn wrote or edited 15 books on subjects including Mark Twain, Theodore Dreiser, William Dean Howells and Harriet Beecher Stowe.
He won a Los Angeles Times book award for biography in 1987 for "Hemingway: The Life and the Work," though some Hemingway admirers were angered by the book's explanation of the iconic American novelist's fascination with androgyny and sex roles.
Lynn took special note of the fact that Hemingway's mother raised him as if he were the twin of his older sister. Grace Hemingway dressed her daughter, Marcelline, and Ernest sometimes as boys and sometimes as girls. She gave them identical white cribs, dolls and toy china sets, held Marcelline back so that she could start school with her brother--in short, did "all she could to make Ernest and Marcelline inseparable," Lynn said.
The result, the biographer concluded, was to produce "a larger drama of sexual confusion" in Hemingway's life that played out in his fiction. His "manly man" world of hunting and fishing, and his penchant for female characters with short hair and men who made love belly up were aspects of Hemingway that Lynn evaluated in the light of the author's unusual upbringing. The writer's knowledge of "how it felt to look like a girl but feel like a boy . . . was the fountainhead of his fascination with the ambiguities of feminine identity," Lynn wrote.
Many critics generally admired the biographer's interpretation of Hemingway's life and work. Harold Beaver in the Times Literary Supplement said Lynn examined the author's absorption with sex roles "without appearing a Freudian busybody. His interpenetration of literary text with biographical comment . . . is masterly."
Other critics accused Lynn of exaggerating the importance of Hemingway's sexual hang-ups. "He treats it as a drastic and hitherto unsuspected secret, one that must radically upset our notion of the man and the writer," Richard Eder wrote in the Los Angeles Times. Overall, however, Eder found "Hemingway" to be a "thorough, detailed and often sensitive job."
Although best known as a literary biographer, Lynn spent six years studying Chaplin, the London tramp who rose from slum poverty to become the most beloved film star of the silent movie era. "I have always been fascinated by the detective work of connecting the lives of artists to their art," Lynn wrote in the introduction.
He cast a withering eye on Chaplin's account of his early hardships, his womanizing and his communist leanings. Chaplin, he argued, secretly anticipated and welcomed the revocation of his reentry permit to America during a visit to England in 1952, which resulted in his long exile and subsequent image as a Cold War martyr.
Lynn gave credence to the charges against Chaplin in the late 1940s that he harbored communist leanings, calling him a "multimillionaire tyrant who spouted the peace messages of the communist line."
Several critics found Lynn's views of Chaplin overly harsh. David Robinson, a noted Chaplin biographer who reviewed the book in the Los Angeles Times, called the biographer's charges of the film star's willing exile his "most startling thesis" as well as "quite unsubstantiated." Lynn, Robinson wrote, "shows such mistrust and distaste for Chaplin's character, morals and politics that one wonders why he embarked on the project in the first place."
Likewise, Andrew Sarris in the New York Times Book Review said that "at times Mr. Lynn considers it his obligation to disabuse us of any warm feelings we might harbor toward Charlie."
Yet other critics praised Lynn's prodigious research and revision of Chaplin's legacy. "The author has done a first-rate job of fact-finding, clearing aside many myths, particularly about the London childhood," George MacDonald Fraser wrote in the National Review.
Lynn's other major works included "The Dream of Success: A Study of the Modern American Imagination," published in 1955, and a 1983 compilation of essays and reviews titled "The Air-Line to Seattle: Studies in Literary and Historical Writing About America."
Lynn was a Cleveland native who earned his bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees at Harvard. He taught English there from 1954 to 1968, when he moved to Washington to join the faculty of Federal City College. In 1969, he became a history professor at Johns Hopkins, where he remained until his retirement in 1988.
He is survived by his wife, Valerie; a son, Andrew, of New York City; two daughters, Betsy, of New York, and Sophia, of Washington; three grandchildren; and a sister.