‘Only death can stop it’: the Hemingway writing legacy

Ernest Hemingway's grandson unfolds the various personalities of the writer, lending a sensitive portrayal of a troubled background in his novel Strange Tribes: A Family Legacy

Ernest Hemingway stands when he writes. To be specific, on the skin of a lesser kudu that warms cold yellow tiles, with feet encased in size 11 loafers.

It is probable that he is writing in Finca Vigía, or ‘Lookout Farm’, in San Francisco de Paula. The sunny Cuban suburb will remain his home for the next twenty years, until 1960 – long after a deteriorating US/Cuban relationship caused most Americans to head for home.

A feverish morning writing and rejecting prose, again and again to the point of madness would be cut off by a daily midday trip to the local swimming pool to soothe his legs, ruined by a mortar attack in Italy.

His habits, captured by the Paris Review in 1958 when a guarded Ernest begrudgingly invited them into his quarters, revealed an intensely singular mindset. “When you stop [writing], you are empty,” he told the interviewer. “Nothing can hurt you, nothing can happen, nothing means anything until the next day when you do it again… Only death can stop it.”

ernest hemingway key west
Hemingway also owned a house in Key West, Florida, where he wrote 'A Farewell to Arms'

One of the stalwarts of 20th century fiction, who inspired generations of American writers with his sparse, declarative prose, Ernest Hemingway lived a life of extremes.  

His compulsion was macho, flashy pursuits: big-game hunting – he sulked when wife Mary bagged a lion before him on an African hunting trip – deep sea fishing; bull running; harness racing.

He both intentionally and accidentally courted danger: he was desperate to be on the front line, getting as close as he could to the action as an ambulance driver and reporter in two World Wars, but also seemed to run into trouble of his own accord. He was in two consecutive plane crashes in Nairobi, and a selection of more banal accidents – permanently scarring himself with a light switch, for example.

But for all this masculine posturing, there was a softer, more fluid side to Ernest, now revealed in his grandson’s memoir: Strange Tribes: A Family Legacy.

“My grandfather was to my mind a good father. As good as he could be, given the circumstances,” says John Hemingway. The 59-year-old is in Dubai both to promote his memoir at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, and also for a collaboration with Montegrappa, which has produced a selection of pens based on the different personalities of Ernest: the writer, the fisherman, the soldier.

john hemingway
John Hemingway speaking at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature

The characters were, says John, an indication of Hemingway’s prowess when it came to the earliest forms of social media.

“He was very savvy at the nascent form of mass media in terms of film, interviews, photo opportunities…. I’m not saying that’s why he became famous, but that contributed a large part to this image built up of him as this outdoorsy macho man. He pushed that, helped to a large extent by my grandmother Pauline, an editor of Vogue.”

Yet details that keep cropping up seem to reassemble this one-note masculinity into something far more complex. A New Yorker piece in 1950 detailed his life with his wife, a domestic staff of nine, fifty-two cats, sixteen dogs, a couple of hundred pigeons and three cows. He was known for his animals, especially cats, which he gave names like ‘Princessa’ and ‘Furhouse’. The polydactyls he kept at home in Key West, Florida are now almost a national institution, with the museum continuing a breeding programme for the unusual six-toed felines.

He displays a softer side too in his dealings with family and friends, known for assigning them affectionate nicknames: his first wife Hadley was ‘Tiny’, or ‘Tattie’.

Nothing can hurt you, nothing can happen, nothing means anything until the next day when you do it again

Ernest Hemingway, Paris Review, 1958

In the memoir, John seeks the truth at the heart of this myth, delving into never-seen correspondence between Ernest and his son Gregory, as well as scrutinising Hemingway’s writings for its more fluid, less masculine elements.

“Remember: this was a man prized as an icon of American machismo, so when he writes about the statue of Rodin, the androgynous “summer-tanned” couple in The Garden of Eden, the entirety of A Sea Change… I think, who is making you write this? No one. This is something within you.”

He also explores, in painful detail, the fractured relationship between Ernest and his son Gregory – John’s late father, who also suffered from bipolar disorder.

In a discussion during the festival, John becomes emotional when he is asked what he would say to his father if given five more minutes with him.

“As it became more bitter and spiteful, reading the correspondence between Gregory and Ernest was extremely difficult for me,” he says. “Both blamed each-other for their ills, but there was a sense that these ills were shared. Ernest said at one point: “Gigi [his nickname for Gregory], you and I come from a very strange tribe.” And I think Gregory knew that he and his father shared an unspoken bond, despite their acrimony.”

finca vigia interior ernest hemimgway
Inside Finca Vigía. Paris Review described it as containing: "stacks of letters; a stuffed toy lion of the type sold in Broadway nighteries; a small burlap bag full of carnivore teeth; shotgun shells; a shoehorn; wood carvings of lion, rhino, two zebras, and a wart-hog"

John, who is all affability, expresses a palpable relief that the mental illness that plagued both Hemingway’s has skipped a generation. Yet, he doesn’t dismiss the fact that this struggle may have contributed to Hemingway’s genius.

“I think Ernest really had a need to write,” he says. “It was religious for him, a compulsion. It allowed him to channel all of these emotions and feelings onto paper. You have to love it, there’s so much grief, so much rejection. I’m not bipolar or clinically depressed, so I can only imagine at the pain they endured. I’ll never truly feel what they went through.”

For all the stability John has found in a tumultuous life – and though he may not always allude to it – there is a sense that he, too, is aware of his place in this strange tribe. And as we sit in the Dubai sunshine, I am reminded again of Ernest in Finca Vigía: a cat weaving in and out of his legs, the sun streaming in through the window, and an undimming desire to create.

John Hemingway awarded the first-place winner of the fifth Montegrappa Writing Prize, Rebecca Heaney, a Limited Edition Montegrappa Pen from the newly launched Ernest Hemingway Collection during the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature 2017