Book review: Fifth volume completes biography cycleBy BRIAN BURNES
The Kansas City Star
John F. Kennedy LibraryHemingway writing at a London hotel in early summer 1944, reporting from his third major war.
This story originally appeared in the June 27, 1999 edition of The Kansas City Star
That Ernest Hemingway could be exasperating has been established.
Happily, that's not the entire agenda of Michael Reynolds, the Hemingway scholar who now has completed his cycle of Hemingway biographies with Hemingway: The Final Years.
This is the fifth and final volume of the series Reynolds began back in 1986 with the appearance of The Young Hemingway. Through these books Reynolds has established himself a scholar who, while possessing a vast store of sympathy for the Hemingway the artist, has never hesitated to identify troglodyte conduct when he encounters it.
Of that, there's plenty to describe in the period of Hemingway's life this last volume spans, from 1940 through to his 1961 suicide.
Hemingway's public disregard, for example, of his fourth wife Mary Welsh when in the company of younger women such as Venetian teen-ager Adriana Ivancich was embarrassing 50 years ago and hasn't improved with time.
He did his best to disparage James Jones, author of From Here to Eternity. Jones' sin apparently was to be a young war veteran who in 1951 published a celebrated war novel -- rather like the once-young Hemingway had done in 1929 with A Farewell to Arms.
Some of Hemingway's behavior improves when put in context. An example is Hemingway's decision to lead an armed crew on his private yacht during the early years of World War II, patrolling for German submarines in Cuban waters.
Reynolds supplies such compelling evidence of German submarine activity in the Gulf of Mexico that if Hemingway's apparent adventurism seems amusing in 1999, Reynolds assures the reader it had little comic value in 1942.
These also were the years when Hemingway began to orchestrate his own legacy, alternately fighting off and welcoming entreaties by academics such as Charles Fenton of Yale and Princeton's Carlos Baker, both of whom produced significant biographies of the writer. These and others would pursue scholarship that would help establish Hemingway criticism as the small industry it is today -- despite the exaggerations and outright hooey Hemingway sometimes supplied them.
But then Hemingway may have been beguiled by his own developing cult of personality.
Being Hemingway in the 1940s and 1950s meant wandering the globe in well-publicized sojourns and safaris. Reynolds' book includes seven maps, allowing the reader to follow the author's travels to and from China, to northern Italy, to central Africa and elsewhere.
Such relentless living -- Theodore Roosevelt's strenuous life updated and run amok -- arguably shortened Hemingway's life. While touring Africa in January 1954, Hemingway and Welsh survived two plane crashes in two days. Among the author's injuries after the second crash was his fourth serious concussion in a decade.
Yet Hemingway stayed at the typewriter through everything.
Reynolds describes how, for all of Hemingway's achievements through the 1920s and 1930s, the author's postwar period now ranks as his most productive.
Books produced then include Across the River and Into the Trees in 1950, which was largely reviled, and The Old Man and the Sea in 1952, which represented to many a stirring comeback. Hemingway also assembled several unfinished manuscripts that have been released in the years since his death, beginning with A Moveable Feast in 1964 to True at First Light, which is coming out in July.
Ultimately, though, Reynolds' story is one of profound sadness. It concerns how the author kept writing while wrestling with the deep depression that, as the years passed, seemed ever more capable of swallowing him whole.
In retrospect, Hemingway's mood swings could be plotted, Reynolds writes.
"Frequently when the curve moved upward, he was writing well, followed by depression with a book's publication," Reynolds writes.
"Always when a book was completed he was faced with the immediately unanswerable question of what to write next. If the last book was as good as he could create, how then could he now create a better one? Each book used up experience he could not use again, making the answer more difficult to know and longer to find."
In April 1961 Hemingway wrote his editor expressing doubt that he could complete his sketches of his young life in Paris -- the work that would become A Moveable Feast. Despite the best efforts of doctors at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, Hemingway's depression apparently was such that the author saw no way out.
When he finally succeeded in shooting himself on July 2, 1961, it was mere