Ernest Hemingway — Gertrude Stein

And the Paris of the early 1920s

Gertrude Stein. Image: rdnarts.com

Hemingway introduced himself (with the help of a letter from Sherwood Anderson) to Gertrude Stein, who immediately lectured him (while her lover and secretary, Alice B. Toklas, fed Hadley tea and cakes in a separate room) on what it was to be a writer, on what it was to be a painter, to be a musician, to be a dancer, to be, to be…

Hemingway knew, when he looked at Stein’s impressive collection of Cezannes, and Monets, and Picassos, that he wanted to write the way they had painted, and were painting: with a clarity, and a vision, and with all the colours, the smells, and the tastes, and, and, well everything.

Gertrude Stein was born in Pennsylvania in 1874 into a progressive, wealthy, and intellectual family of German-Jewish origin. She studied psychology at Radcliffe College and then the anatomy of the brain at John Hopkins. In 1902 she went with her brother Leo — with whom she later fell out — to Paris where she settled into a first- floor apartment in the Rue de Fleurus, just off the Luxembourg Gardens.

Her home soon became a literary salon and art gallery, and a centre of the emerging avant-garde. Her lover, the strange bird-like Alice B.Toklas, was born in San Francisco in 1877 and was a thin, beak-nosed woman, whereas Stein was short and very stout. Stein became the great authority on art and literature without doing very much, that is until Hemingway encouraged her. In the end she wrote several lasting works, most notably The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933).

Like James Joyce, whom she never met (whose work she didn’t like), she was a master of the long unpunctuated sentence, and one of the originators — along with Proust and Joyce — of the stream-of-consciousness style of prose writing, of which Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake is now the best known, and perhaps the least accessible example. Stein is often credited with inventing the phrase: ‘The Lost Generation’ which, for her, describes best the destruction of the young men who fought and died in the First World War, and those who survived, who, as far as she was concerned, were also lost. Hemingway informed her forcibly on more than one occasion that he was not, in any way ‘lost’.

But Hemingway soon got bored with Stein (as did Hadley with Toklas) treating him like a naughty, yet promising, but noisy child. Hemingway wanted to be where the action was, to see what made post war France, and post war Europe, tick.

The Paris of 1922 was, for writers like Anatole France and Poincare, a city, “…where the rich and the poor had the same rights to sleep under the bridges of the Seine.” It was a period (not unlike that in America after the Vietnam War) where Hemingway watched a generation uncaringly ‘tossed off base’ and uprooted by a war which had gained a peace that was no peace at all. It was the end, and the beginning, of at least two, if not three, other conflicts.

Young people in the 1920s wanted an escape route, which they found in jazz and dancing, in sex, in booze, and in drugs, and in more sex, and more booze, and more drugs. More young men than women became prostitutes in an age of sexual imbalance due to the carnage of the trenches. Homosexuality and lesbianism became more open. It was a statement of intent — a ‘stuff you’ gesture — and a public turning of the tables that Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas — who were of a generation which hid their lesbianism behind the tweed exterior of ‘companionship’ — may have found hard to understand. The young — or if you prefer: the prematurely old — may have been a lost generation but they were out there looking for something: even if it was only Hemingway’s nada — nothing.

Hemingway knew that Paris had two things in common with Chicago: the best and the worst. As Kurt Singer reminds us “…both cities were cultural, each in its own way, and both were depraved, real and wrestling.”

“What a town” Hemingway wrote Sherwood Anderson as he and Hadley roamed the streets looking for that perfect corner cafe, or that bookshop with that first edition of D.H. Lawrence’s The White Peacock. They wandered around the Louvre, gazed at Napoleon’s tomb. They met the White Russian aristocrat who was now a doorman at the Cafe de La Paix, and the duke with the dueling scars who drove a broken- down old taxicab. They mingled with the shopkeepers and the whores, with the bartenders and the street cleaners, with the milkmen and their herds of goats, with the bakers and the butchers, who were bitter and unforgiving and hated the Germans with a ferocity that saddened Hemingway beyond imagination. They gave the odd dollar to the legless beggars who were unemployed — unemployable — and could not even sell their bloodstained Croix de Guerre for a cup of coffee.

And then the chance came, and Hemingway was asked by the Toronto Star to try and interview the former prime minister of France, Clemenceau: the “…grey-gloved fighting tiger,” of The Great War. And Hemingway did, and the old statesman in a moment of clarity admitted to him that his son had joined the communist party as a youngster, but countered that by saying, “…if you are not a communist at eighteen something is wrong with your heart, but if you are still a communist at forty something is wrong with your head.”

The Canadian newspaper loved the interview and Hemingway was asked to find out more about Mussolini, whose Fascisti were causing a lot of trouble in Rome.

Hemingway travelled to Italy and eventually concluded that Mussolini was not the saviour of the Italian people — although he did eventually get the trains to run on time — but a genuine danger to world peace, and “…a man of bad character.” The following year Hemingway was one of the first to interview El Duce.

El Duce 1920s

When not interviewing old prime ministers, and travelling across Europe, Hemingway wrote about the artist colonies in Paris, and how many writers and painters spent all night drinking at the Café Rotonde talking about their art, but doing precious little writing or painting. He considered them all to be loafers — not in the Whitman sense of a thinker, but in the Hemingway sense of a worthless idler — who would talk endlessly about the novel they were going to write, or the great painting that would shake the world with its originality. They were nada — nothing.

Then Hemingway found the American poet Ezra Pound, who was probably Ernest’s greatest influence and a man of huge generosity who gladly gave away whatever money came his way to help any writer who was short of a dollar or two. Pound also thought Mussolini was the second coming, and in the end moved to Italy to live to be nearer his god. Hemingway always loved him and forgave him for his misplaced love of the Fascisti.

Hemingway knew Pound was probably one of America’s greatest poet, but he also realised he was the most naive of men. Nada — nothing.

Just after Hemingway published his Mussolini piece the would-be-dictator marched on Rome and became the real dictator, and the following month Kemal Pasha — Attaturk — drove the Greeks out of Asia Minor.

Bibliography:

Carlos Baker — Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story (Wm. Collins, London, 1969); Bernice Kert — The Hemingway Women (W. W. Norton & Co, New York, 1983); Ernest Hemingway — Islands in the Stream (Wm. Collins, London, 1970); Mary Welsh Hemingway — How it Was (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London,1977, & Alfred A. Knopf, USA,1976); Charles Whiting — Hemingway Goes to War (Charles Sutton, UK, 1999); Hemingway’s Boat — Paul Hendrickson (The Bodley Head, London, 2012); An Historical Guide to Ernest Hemingway — Edited by Linda Wagner-Martin (Oxford University Press, Oxford & New York, 2000); Caroline Moorehead — Martha Gellhorn: A Life ( Chatto & Windus, London, 2003); A. E. Hotchner — Papa Hemingway: A Personal Memoir ( Weidenfeld and Nicholson, London, 1967); Lillian Ross — Portrait of Hemingway (Simon & Schuster, New York, 1961); Jeffrey Meyers — Hemingway: A Biography (Harper/Collins, London, 1985); John Atkins — Ernest Hemingway: His Work & Personality (Spring Books, London, 1952 & 1961);…

Note: I shall always be indebted to Charles Whiting for the many conversations we had with regard Hemingway Goes to War, and his own experiences during WWII in the same field of operations as Hemingway.

Playwright, Historian, Biographer & Freelance Writer Living and Working in Shakespeare’s Stratford

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