Notes on ‘Papa Hemingway’ by A.E. Hotchner

Papa Hemingway  is a biography, written by one of the men who was closest to Hemingway, a journalist and writer named A.E. Hotchner. Hotchner met Hemingway in 1948, when he was sent down to Cuba to meet with the author and commission him on behalf of Cosmopolitan to write a story. Hotchner believed so completely that he was going to be rejected that he sent Hemingway a note letting him know he’d been sent but that he wasn’t going to call on him. Hemingway called him instead, took him out for drinks, agreed to do the story, and planted the seeds of a friendship with Hotchner that would last until his suicide in 1961.

Hotchner tells Hemingway’s story entirely from his third-person perspective, showing only snapshots from the times they spent together in the years subsequent to their meetings, and filling in the rest of the pieces with phone calls and correspondence. He makes small spaces for analysis, but the majority of the book is filled with pure recounting; portraits of Hemingway himself.

Hotchner is a master at description, and at capturing the essence of people. Hemingway comes alive on the page — his character, his personality, his preferences and his habits. His presence is so vivid you can almost watch the pattern of its breathing. Hotchner writes in a mode similar to that of his friend: rich in detail, but sparing in language — precisely enough to make you understand, and no more.

“These Cuban girls; you look into their black eyes, they have hot sunlight in them.” – Ernest Hemingway

The book, in both a specific sense and a broad one, hits on fundamental truths. Specifically, it hits on the truths of Hemingway’s character — though they’re never explicitly explained or perhaps even understood, you can feel their presence. Broadly, it hits on truths of human nature, and of the nature of an artist — tempestuous, moved, curious, hungry, full of stories and never satisfied with what’s already been accomplished.

Following Hemingway from Cuba to Key West to Ketchum, Idaho, across Europe and through lengthy tours of Spain, Hotchner captures the evolution of an artist — starting at the midpoint of Hemingway’s life, after the penning of some of his most famous works — and then riding his slow spiral from prowess to self-sabotage. He recounts the early glory years through Hemingway’s own retellings — reminiscings on wild parties, grand adventures, bloody wars, past lovers, ex wives — and he looks at his evolution of a writer through Hemingway’s own eyes.

In their travels, they revisit places Hemingway used as settings for his novels, and you see both the place and the work through his eyes. Over the years, the story slowly unfolds of the real people and events behind the novels — the rich fabric of Hemingway’s life upon which he drew to craft his work.

“My credo is to write as well as I can about things I know and feel deeply about.” — Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway had a deep sense of life, and also a deep thirst for adventure — and a certain restlessness that moves throughout the pages of the book, becomes disorganized at the end as Hotchner recounts the events leading up to Hemingway’s suicide: a shot to the head one morning in his study in Ketchum, Idaho, in the summer of 1961.

He had a taste for good liquor, beautiful women, and for testing man’s fortitude against the forces around him, a theme that crops up again and again in his works and can be seen perhaps most prevalently in Old Man and the Sea. When he died, he left his “big book” — the magnum opus he’d always planned on writing — as a dream unrealized.

In the words of Hemingway:

“All good books have one thing in common — they are truer than if they had really happened, and after you’ve read one of them you will feel that all that happened, happened to you and then it belongs to you forever: the happiness and unhappiness, good and evil, ecstasy and sorrow, the food, wine, beds, people and the weather. If you can give that to readers, then you’re a writer.” — Ernest Hemingway

Five stars.

If you enjoyed this book, you may also like:
-Old Man and The Sea by Ernest Hemingway
-The Collected Short Works of Ernest Hemingway
-Chronicles, Volume One by Bob Dylan
-The Long Valley by John Steinbeck

“I spend a hell of a lot of time killing animals and fish so I won’t kill myself. When a man is in rebellion against death, as I am in rebellion against death, he gets pleasure out of taking to himself one of the godlike attributes, that of giving it.” — Ernest Hemingway, 1954

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