Ernest Hemingway influenced 20th-century literature—especially 20th-century American literature—to an extent matched by few other writers. Given his continuing importance, it may come as a surprise to learn that 2011 marks the 50th anniversary of his death. To commemorate the landmark, Firefly Books has released Hemingway: A Life in Pictures, written by Hemingway scholar Boris Vejdovsky with photos from (and a foreword by) the author’s granddaughter, actress and writer Mariel Hemingway.
As the title suggests, the principal draw of the book comes from the more than 350 (primarily black and white) family photos, many of which have never before been published. There are interesting and surprising pictures of the author from every stage of his life, starting with photos of him as a child dressed in girl’s clothing, moving on through his time as a wounded young soldier in WWI, stopping to explore his five years in Paris, and, finally, settling on the older, white-bearded “Papa” that most of us probably picture when we hear the name “Ernest Hemingway.”
Aside from photos, the book also reproduces letters and other historical documents such as Hemingway’s birth certificate and his war correspondent card. One of the most revealing documents is the letter from Agnes von Kurowsky—Hemingway’s first love and the basis for the character Catherine Barkley in A Farewell to Arms—in which she tells him, basically, that she doesn’t love him. Nearly as fascinating is a hand-corrected page of text from the manuscript of A Moveable Feast in which he expresses admiration for F. Scott Fitzgerald. These kinds of personal artifacts help humanize the writer, allowing the reader a glimpse through the “man’s man” persona that he tried so hard to cultivate.
As great as the pictures and artifacts are, the confusing structure of the book lets them down a bit. Instead of being set up chronologically straight through (from the beginning of Hemingway’s life to its end) the book is broken into eight thematically specific sections—“An American Childhood,” “Africa, the Last Frontier,” and so on. The information in each section is, indeed, presented chronologically; however, each section only contains information that is linked to that section’s theme. The divisions cause problems when, for example, we’re introduced to Hemingway’s third wife, Martha Gellhorn, on page 52 (in the section on Hemingway’s attraction to war) before we meet his first wife, Elizabeth Hadley Richardson, who doesn’t pop up until page 65 (in the section about Paris). As a relative novice on the life of Hemingway, the text’s scattershot presentation of biographical details left me scratching my head (and pulling up Wikipedia) on more than one occasion.
Personally, I’ve never been a big Hemingway fan; nevertheless, the informative text and candid photos in this book succeeded in making even me feel connected to the man. Learning about—and seeing—his domineering mother and Puritanical, repressed father, for example, helped me understand why he grew into the person he became. And his childhood idolization of Teddy Roosevelt certainly explains a lot about him, too! Devotees of Hemingway will undoubtedly appreciate the treasure trove of previously unseen photos in this engaging tribute to an American literary icon.