Review of: Everybody Behaves Badly: The True Story Behind Hemingway’s Masterpiece The Sun Also Rises. New York: Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 373 pp. $29.95.
For decades, The Sun Also Rises, along with such classics as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Great Gatsby and The Catcher In The Rye was required reading for millions of high school and college students. Is it still the case? Either way, Lesley M.M. Blume’s biography, Everybody Behaves Badly, despite the trivial title, is the perfect companion to Ernest Hemingway’s first novel. Hemingway was nothing if not ambitious, even ruthless. And not just in the sense of getting published. No, the newspaperman from suburban Chicago, influenced by Leo Tolstoy and Ivan Turgenev, wanted to do nothing less than create a new way of writing in English. Hemingway’s style was “high, low,” fiction that could be read by PhDs and high school dropouts alike.
The ambitious young man had plenty of help along the way. Pivotal was Sherwood Anderson, who in the early ’20s, was the most famous novelist in America. Hemingway and his bride, Haley, had planned to settle in Italy, where the journalist would continue to hone his craft. Anderson suggested that they move to Paris, then the art capital of the world. It was advice well-taken. In Paris, Hemingway became friends with Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, the bookseller Sylvia Beach and Ezra Pound. The latter made a deal with Hemingway: If you teach me how to box, I’ll teach you how to write.
Everybody Behaves Badly is not hagiography. There was Hemingway the artist and Hemingway the man. This book takes us through the arduous process where this son of the Midwest did “bend the English language to his will.” Hemingway the man was another story.
“When they review your books, they don’t say if you are a good husband and father,” Hemingway told a friend. The man was jealous over his crown. Early in his career, he spoofed the kindly Anderson in a parody of the man’s prose, The Torrents Of Spring. At the end of his days, Hemingway, in A Moveable Feast, turned his sights on Fitzgerald and Stein. In between, he wrote, but did not publish, an incredibly mean-spirited poem about Dorothy Parker, the famed critic who used her perch at The New Yorker to advance Hemingway’s career. Donald Stewart, the screenwriter and Hemingway’s friend, got it right. After A Moveable Feast, Hemingway had no one left to annihilate in print. And so, he destroyed himself.
The unflattering portrait should not keep readers away from the man’s work. In Paris, Hemingway was poor, but remarkably industrious. While other expatriates wasted away their talents in bouts of debauchery, Hemingway would retire to quieter cafes and fill notebook after notebook with prose narrative. He aimed high. The Sun Also Rises isn’t War and Peace, but the effort to reach Tolstoyan heights reaped handsome results. Most surprising is Fitzgerald’s editing of The Sun Also Rises. The latter excised early chapters, having the novel begin with the story of Robert Cohn. Fitzgerald’s bold editing was similar to Pound’s Cesarean operation of the draft of T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” a poem that also inspired Hemingway’s first novel. In both cases, the result was revolutionary art. (Fitzgerald’s example proved that a man need not choose between art and decency.)
A dramatic tale of a young man who makes the leap from a short story to a best-selling novelist, Everybody Behaves Badly succeeds admirably at its goal: It will send the reader back to The Sun Also Rises, something many of us probably haven’t done since our own high school days.