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Michael McNamara: Into Something Rich and Strange
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The Private Hemingway – Homophobe or Homosexual?

In his personal life, Hemingway seemed to hold varying and opposing views about homosexuality. His relationship with Gertrude Stein shows his general acceptance of lesbians. However, he made many statements that show he was less accepting of gay males. "In the thirties," biographer James Mellow writes, "his views on writing and writers were blunt and often vulgar in print and in private, all part of his effort to stress his masculine pursuits in the literary world, particularly among the New York intelligentsia. He would pepper his published texts and letters with slurring references to homosexual writers" (397). In the posthumously published A Moveable Feast, Hemingway has a conversation about sex with Stein. He admits that he "had certain prejudices against homosexuality since...[he] knew its more primitive aspects" (18). His main experience, he claims, with male homosexuality is its seediest underside where threatening tramps tried to attack boys. With these prejudices, he attempts to hold a conversation with Stein, but she sees through his apprehension and disgust. They hold an uncomfortable conversation until finally Stein admits:

"You know nothing about any of this really, Hemingway," she said. "You’ve met known criminals and sick people and vicious people. The main thing is that the act male homosexuals commit is ugly and repugnant and afterwards they are disgusted with themselves. They drink and take drugs, to palliate this, but they are disgusted with the act and they are always changing partners and cannot be really happy" (20).

One must wonder if Stein, who counted many homosexual male companions in her charmed Parisian circle, really did say such things or if it was Hemingway’s creative imagination being affected by his homophobia.
Clearly, there is plenty of proof of Hemingway’s anti-gay stance. Other proof, however, points in an opposite direction. Mellow writes that Hemingway’s good friend Bill Bird recalled late in life a train trip that he and Hemingway had taken on which Hemingway suggested that a homosexual experience might be worth having (193). Similarly, throughout Hemingway’s life, rumors persisted of a night when Hemingway made advances on Robert McAlmon. McAlmon claimed Hemingway treated him like he "was Vicky, the buxom, tough, and beautiful tart of the cabaret’" (Mellow, 238). Given this information, many biographers and critics have polarized the question — is Hemingway a homophobe or a homosexual? Could we ever know? There is no solid proof of either, and it could probably never really be ascertained. There is proof, in his life, wife, and children, that Hemingway lived and wrote as a heterosexual; that is all we can know. Furthermore, this polarization oversimplifies Hemingway’s confusion; like his life, his work reflects a perplexity about how to treat this issue. Through this confusion, though, it becomes clear that Hemingway does, in fact, have a certain empathy toward gay men. This empathy is tied to issues of gay maleness and its origins in ideas about masculinity.

Trapped in the Gap - Turn-of-the-century American Masculinity

In the introduction to his book American Manhood, E. Anthony Rotundo reminds us that, "Manhood is not a social edict determined on high and enforced by law. As a human invention, manhood is learned, used, reinforced, and reshaped by individuals in the course of life" (7). The fluidity of masculinity’s definition caused Hemingway to suffer because he grew up in a gap between two separate definitions — the prudish ideas of nineteenth century Victorian American culture and the more modern ideas of the twentieth century.
spacer.gif (67 bytes)In nineteenth century America, Rotundo claims, the path to manhood was less clearly marked than it is today. However, the distinction between being a boy and being a man was much stronger than it is now. Boys were allowed to be playful, whereas men were expected to be distinguished and somber. The line between boyhood and manhood was clearly drawn, but there was not an equally clear path for boys to follow so that they could get across that line.
American men in the 1800s also felt conflict in their gender roles. "As small boys, they were dressed in the clothing and hairstyles of girls" (7). This was especially true of Hemingway. Mellow writes that Hemingway’s mother Grace "had an unexplained penchant for wanting to pass off her two eldest children, Madelline and Ernest, as twins, sometimes in dresses and floppy or organdy hats, or, in the summer, in boy’s overalls" (11). Meanwhile, "middle-class culture seemed to place gender labels everywhere. A man’s aggressions were male; his conscience, female; his desire to conquer, male; his urge to nurture, female; his need for work and worldly achievement, male; his wish to stay home and enjoy quiet leisure, female." (8) This "inner woman" was not necessarily the problem. However, the society of the Victorian era, Rotundo believes, "elevated gender to such a high level of moral and political meaning [that] a man with feminine qualities was bound to face difficulties" (265). The extremely effeminate man who did not fit into society’s defined gender role was bound to have problem but so was the extremely masculine man who could not control his masculine impulses.
In the twentieth century, with rises in urbanization and industrialization, American men became less focused on masculine somberness and spent more time concerned with luxuries. Rotundo writes, "Certain uses of leisure time and certain consumer tastes became marks of manliness — whereas one hundred years before, any fondness for leisure or material goods would have been scorned as effeminate (283)." With industrialization came the creation of the relaxing modern phenomenon of the weekend. Through this, men became more domesticated, spending more time at home with wives and children. Because of these switches or in spite of them, the remaining qualities now considered truly masculine, "the competitive, aggressive drives— though still defined as male— [were] seen with less fear and more reverence. We think of them as vital contents of a man’s true self in an era when the true self is regarded as sacrosanct" (Rotundo, 286). However, in a time when men were able to be emotional in ways that had previously been allowable only in women, and society was becoming more female, it was becoming increasingly more difficult for men to relate to their "male passion."
One way to deal with this problem was through what Rotundo calls the "existential hero." This man cannot deal with his true masculine impulses within modern society, so he lives outside of it in order to be able to keep his masculinity pure from civilization’s influence. Rotundo’s existential hero has been "embodied in such popular figures as Humphrey Bogart, Ernest Hemingway, and John Wayne (286)." The image of masculinity that Hemingway created in his novels was idealized by American popular culture; however, Hemingway himself felt more conflict than his characters living on the fringe ever did.

"Hemingway’s Pain" – The Failure of the Masculine Mentor

Benjamin Kriegel in his essay "Hemingway’s Pain" writes of the search held by many individual men for an adoptive-father to tell them that:

the idea that manhood was a natural process, that in seizing the opportunities open to us we were establishing ourselves as men and as Americans — a most potent combination. Manhood reflected those distinct portions of existence that we read about in the actual lives of the men we admired. We did not literally want to become what other men appeared to be. But reading about their lives made us probe our own possibilities of becoming the men we thought we might become. We sought subaltern fathers in the hope that their very presence in the world would sponsor (Kriegel’s emphasis) our emergence into the manhood we wanted (92).

For many, Hemingway was the idealization of becoming a man, and therefore he was idolized by adolescent and grown men everywhere. He became a celebrity; his every move was recorded as if he were a Hollywood movie star. His work, for a time, became definitive of American masculinity.
Hemingway wanted to create this ‘adoptive-father’ image at least partially because he wanted it for himself. He found himself between two worlds. He was a child of the Victorian era and of Victorian parents. All aspects of sexuality, passion, or masculine drive had to be kept in check. Because of this, some claim that Hemingway was a overgrown boy who never grew up. If this is true at all, it is because Hemingway lived in changing times. As a Victorian boy, he never knew a clear path to twentieth century adulthood.
Hemingway’s Victorian childhood also left him with gender role confusion. His father’s suicide, which Hemingway perceived as a desperate escape from the combined tortures of his domineering mother and manhood in general, left Hemingway with skewed ideas of the masculine struggle; "She forced my father to suicide" (Mellow, 565), Hemingway said of his mother nearly twenty years after Clarence’s suicide. As his writing continued and he became more and more celebrated as the symbol of manhood, he realized that the position of masculinity mentor that he wanted to fill could not exist. What Hemingway wanted from himself and what others wanted from him, Kriegel argues, "was probably beyond his power, indeed beyond the power of any writer, to offer (93)." The ambiguities of sex and gender and their roles were too much for Hemingway to deal with as an individual; there was no way he could teach its secrets to others. He could not provide the American public who idolized him with what they wanted; he couldn’t provide himself with what he wanted. In the end, not even Hemingway could be Hemingway.

"The Women Within" – The Emasculation of Homosexuals

As the Victorian age gave way to more modern sensibility and all men were attempting to establish a new place within this sensibility, homosexuals were also finding their own place. Homosexuality, of course, already had a long history before the late nineteenth century when the word ‘homosexual’ entered popular usage in the United States. The name represented something new. Eve Kosofsky Sedgewick writes that:

What was new from the turn of the century was the world-mapping by which every given person, just as he or she was necessarily assignable to a male or a female gender, was now considered necessarily assignable as well to a homo- or a hetero-sexuality, a binarized identity that was full of implications, however confusing, for even the ostensibly least sexual aspects of personal existence. (Epistemology, 2)

At the same time, because of this new label and increased urbanization, "men and women whose sexual desires focused on their own sex began to think of themselves as separate social groups. Those who lived in large cities formed communities within the whole, an experience that fostered a sense of ‘us’ and ‘them’ (Rotundo, 275)." The stronger that sense became, the stronger the idea that homosexuality was an innate human characteristic became. The identifier ‘homosexual’ made homosexuality seem less like a disease, a bad habit, or a passing fancy and more like it was something in-born1. Male homosexuals were considered to have been born with the soul of a woman. Before this, too much effeminacy had been the traditional marker of a male who engaged in homosexuality, but with the creation of an other known as the homosexual, this issue became more complicated. Now, to avoid being thought of as someone who practiced homosexuality, it was not enough to avoid being caught in action; instead, one had to avoid being thought of as part of that other group. Through this, the marker became not an abundance of feminine qualities; instead a lack of enough masculinity marked homosexuals. Rotundo writes:

The stigma gained insidiousness from the modern notion that sexual ‘inversion’ was no a beastly moral failure or an unnatural visitation, but a natural condition that might be lurking in anyone, regardless of the individual’s purity or moral vigilance. This added urgency to a man’s desire to distinguish himself from the homosexual. The more he feared he might be one of the stigmatized group, the more he needed to prove himself a man. (278)

Hemingway obviously felt this pressure to be masculine enough to avoid this stigma. As an artist, he was part of a profession that was often considered feminine, especially in the United States, and had many homosexual members. His attacks against these members show his insecurity. Although he was criticizing their literature, he focused his attacks on their sexuality, drawing attention to his insecurity. These insecurities were only fueled by the McAlmon rumors and are known to have affected his work. In the first manuscript version of the "The End of Something," Mellow writes, after Nick Adams ended his relationship with Marjorie, Hemingway wrote that "He lay there until he felt Bill’s arm on his shoulder. He felt Bill coming before he felt his touch." However, Hemingway changed this section twice, making it less physical each time. Mellow believed that, "In this story in which a young man sends his girl away, reverting to the companionship of another male, Hemingway may have wanted to avoid any sense of homosexual connection...The changes, that is, seem to have been dictated more by the author’s fearfulness than by the narrative logic of the story (109)."

Comely and Scholes explain Hemingway’s definition of maric—n in a similar way; Hemingway was trying to distance himself from homosexuality by the tone of the definition. The use of the word ‘fags’ wasn’t added until after the first draft. However, it is not enough to say that Hemingway’s writing was not homophobic because he was fearful of his own image — this fear is an inherent part of homophobia anyway.
A more complex answer to Hemingway’s homophobia comes from the reverse of Hemingway’s fear. This stigma of masculinity means that in order to not be considered a homosexual, one must be enough of a man. For this to be true, then, the definition of homosexual must be emasculated. Homosexual men cannot be masculine under this definition and are forced create a new maleness for themselves. Like Hemingway and other men leaving the Victorian age and entering the twentieth century, homosexuals were forced to forge a new path for their own adult manhood while also questioning their gender and sexual identity. Hemingway identified with homosexual men for this reason and with this empathy explored homosexual issues fairly in a number of his short stories.

 

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