One of the most recognized American novelists in history is among literary scholars’ greatest curiosities.
BY TOBY THOMPSON
Tthe scholars are dancing. It’s the last night of the 2022 Hemingway Society Conference and aficionados of the American novelist from as far distant as Japan boogie feverishly. They hustle, jitterbug, sashay and two-step beneath a ceiling of hand-hewn logs and sturdy beams canopying the Range Rider Lodge in Silver Gate, Montana. The conference goers have sampled a bevy of Hemingway cocktails distributed gratis: Papa Dobles, Old Fashioneds, Jack Roses and Pauline’s Preferences. Within this cathedral to masculinity hangs an exhibit of photographs of Ernest Hemingway fishing, hunting and posturing manfully. To the scholars’ left, a display of Hemingway-era rifles and pistols, a grizzly hide and tie-flying gear further connect to lore of the writer’s virility and this rustic Montana setting. Dancers gyrate to a band that roars as loudly as might the mountain beasts that surround them—the bears and wolves of Yellowstone National Park and the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness.
Amid celebrants at the conference is Chris Warren, author of the 2019 book “Hemingway in the Yellowstone High Country,” a work which changed much in Hemingway scholarship. Warren is the director of this leg of the 2022 Sheridan/ Cooke City/Silver Gate conference and is a compact man of 50, with a dark crewcut and stubble beard, wearing loose khakis and black sneakers.
“It was a handful,” Warren says of organizing the fete. “First it was the pandemic, which canceled the 2020 and 2021 conferences, then the floods,” which closed access via the Beartooth Highway and the northeast entrance to YNP, thereby isolating Cooke City/Silver Gate from the world. As conference director Larry Grimes has quipped, “We’re waiting for the locusts.”
Previous scholarship has downplayed Hemingway’s time near Cooke City, but as Warren has written, “Hemingway stayed at the L-Bar-T ranch, 13 miles from Cooke, in 1930, ’32, ’36, ’38 and ’39,” for long summers and falls. “He wrote significant parts of [the novels] Death in the Afternoon, To Have and Have Not, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and [the stories] “Light of the World, A Natural History of the Dead, and the preface to The First 49 Stories here.” The region also appears in [the books] Green Hills of Africa, True at First Light, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Across the River and into the Trees, Islands in the Stream, [the stories] The Gambler, the Nun and the Radio, A Man of the World, Fathers and Sons, and The Clarks Fork Valley, Wyoming.
It seems to have been, in numerous ways, Hemingway’s last good country. “But the 2021 Ken Burns film on Hemingway gave one sentence to Wyoming and Montana,” Warren says.
What the Pulitzer-and-Nobel-Prize- winning Hemingway loved about the Cooke City area, with its trout-heavy Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone River and rugged Beartooth Mountains, was its isolation. With 200-400 inches of snow a year, an 80-person population and limited access, the town was cut off, even in summer, from the outside world. Hemingway could write in the mornings and fish or hunt in the afternoons. He spoke of being “cockeyed happy” there. His second wife, Pauline, and their two sons camped with him in the L-Bar-T’s rustic log cabins, and friends regularly visited. But as scholars at this conference reminded, the writer’s infamous demons nagged.
There was his trophy hunting of grizzlies, mountain sheep and elk, and his larder-stuffing pursuit of trout; all a manifestation of his extravagant interest in killing wed to compulsive risk-taking and an obsession with suicide. As he later told an acquaintance, “I’ve spent a lot of time killing animals and fish so I won’t kill myself.”
On Friday morning of the conference in Silver Gate, and again that afternoon, Stephen Gilbert Brown, of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, spoke of Hemingway’s deep psychological wounds. Even the most casual devotee of the Hemingway saga knows that at age 19, as a Red Cross ambulance driver on WWI’s Italian Front, he was hit by machine gun and mortar fire and spent half of the next year in treatment for extreme lacerations of his legs. The PTSD he suffered from that wounding manifested itself as sleeplessness, a near life-long dependence on alcohol, and possibly his suicide in 1962.
But he was the victim of psychological trauma that occurred before his service, scholars argue, ones inflicted by his mother, who twinned him with his older sister, Marcelline, and dressed him as a girl until he was almost 7. Gender confusion resulted, as did the suppression of his feminine side and the hyper-expression of his masculine one. He fist-fought, fished, philandered and killed, yet was androgynous in bed. These contradictions are discussed in Brown’s 2019 book, Hemingway, Trauma and Masculinity: In the Garden of the Uncanny.
“The critical assumption,” Brown notes, “is that these two wounds (war and androgyny) are in reality the same wound: a wound of emasculation— suffered in infancy, sustained through childhood, boyhood and adulthood, and compounded by the wounds not only of war, but love.”
Gender and sexuality weren’t the only contexts in which Hemingway presented duality. On the first morning of the Cooke City conference, the burly but reticent Brown stood before scholars and delivered a paper titled “Hemingway in Wolf Country,” in which he posed the question: “If Hemingway were living in this wolf country today, what would be his relationship to the wolf?’
Brown’s answer was contradictory. “If Hemingway was living in this country today, it is easy to imagine him systemically tracking down and killing wolves,” Brown said. “And yet, as seemingly warranted as this judgment is, it is a simplistic and reductive one, for it tells only half the story of his relationship to nature and its big game. For side by side with the predator lived the naturalist; side by side with the big game hunter dwelt the ‘animal whisperer,’ who harbored a deep, spiritual, if not pagan, reverence for select big game.”
Brown related tales of Hemingway consoling the corpse of a lion he’d shot in Kenya by softly speaking to it, and of calming a bear threatening tourists in Yellowstone by doing the same.
Doug Peacock, an authority on grizzlies, listened to Brown attentively. “That’s exactly what I do,” he said before rising to present his own keynote address.
Balding and muscular, the 81-year-old activist Peacock had been the model for Edward Abbey’s radical saboteur, George Washington Hayduke, in 1975’s The Monkey Wrench Gang, as well as a Green Beret medic during the Vietnam war and the author of two stunning memoirs about his postwar experiences in wilderness: The Grizzly Years and Walking It Off. Much of what Peacock shared at the conference dealt with Hemingway’s story, The Big Two-Hearted River, a fishing and backpacking tale that, as Hemingway recalled in A Moveable Feast is bare bones in its described emotions and is “about coming back from the war,” but with “no mention of the war in it.” The story concerns postwar trauma and the soothing powers of camping in a minutely detailed wilderness.
“I read that story before Vietnam, then after,” Peacock said. “The wounds were there.” He hesitated. “These are the kind of wounds that, after a while, they’re not going to mend and you learn to accommodate them. Because you know they’re not going away.”
Early in the conference, I had given an introductory talk about Montana writers. I explained how Livingston had been a Vietnam-era and postwar enclave for a contingent of these writers, and that authors like Thomas McGuane, William Hjortsberg, Richard Brautigan and Jim Harrison had gathered to write and tell stories in Paradise Valley, much as Hemingway’s expats had gathered in Paris. Though Peacock settled later in the Paradise Valley, he was of that group.
“When I came back from Vietnam,” he said, “like many other veterans, I was way out of sorts. Couldn’t be around people. Couldn’t be around my family. So I went to the one place where I had always been comfortable, which was the wilderness.”
Eventually, Hemingway would do the same. He split his time between Key West, where he explored the vastness of ocean, and beginning in 1928, that of Wyoming and Montana. He lodged at the Sheridan Inn, the Folly Ranch near Sheridan, Wyoming, and the Spear- O-Wigwam Ranch in the Bighorn Mountains, before in 1930 finding the L-Bar-T Ranch near Cooke City. Its valley was “a cockeyed wonderful country,” he wrote to a pal, and it filled his need for “someplace where there is a good stream and I can fish 1⁄2 day and work the other half.” And it soothed his demons. As his Paris friend, Gerald Murphy, wrote after a visit to the ranch, “I find him more mellowed, amenable, and far more charitable and philosophical than before—more patient also.”
But the killing proceeded. To fellow novelist John Dos Passos in the fall of ’32, Hemingway wrote: “Was on the way back to Timber Creek—killed two fine [elk]—one a seven pointer—hell of a big bear—8 foot spread—shot eagle on wing—trapped a coyote where we killed elk—2 magpies. Grouse every day for a week. Country just as lousy with game as it was empty when you were up.”
Stephen Brown remarked at the conference, “At first, one is left to conclude that Hemingway’s compulsive blood lust (honed through 1,000 hunts across two oceans, three continents, and five decades) has devolved into the realms of the pathological.”
A half-dozen papers or panels presented at the conference related to Hemingway’s trauma. This seemed not unusual for the study of a suicidal storyteller whose grandfather, father, brother, and granddaughter all committed suicide. Consensus was that as a young adventurer, Hemingway headed West not just for fun, but to heal; to find “the safe place.” In my remarks to the conference about Montana writers— particularly those I’d known during the 1970s—I’d posited that as a postwar movement, they also had migrated West to heal. “The culture had come apart like a frag grenade,” I remembered Tom McGuane saying. They were hearty expats, but damaged.
On Saturday at the Range Rider Lodge, Ernest’s daughter-in-law, Valerie Hemingway, spoke on a panel titled “Nonfiction about a Fictionalized Life.” A memoirist who’d written of her years, first as Hemingway’s secretary and then as the wife of his third son, Gregory (who would later identify as transgender), Valerie said the wounded Hemingway was one she did not recognize.
“He loved to kid and joke,” she said. “I can’t see this person who was broken.”
But concerning Ernest’s alcoholism, another Hemingway son, Patrick, had told me in 2003 that early on Hemingway had begun drinking all day, a fact verified by a bartender at Hoosiers Bar in Cooke City that Warren had interviewed: “She remembered Hemingway coming in the morning or early afternoon,” Warren wrote, “sitting at the end of the bar writing, and pushing his glass forward when he wanted another drink.”
Valerie denied that he imbibed while working. “He didn’t want his drinking to interfere with his writing, or his writing to interfere with his drinking,” she said.
After Ernest’s death, Valerie worked with his widow, Mary, organizing his letters. Gregory had stolen a batch that was never recovered. During a break, I pressed Valerie on the letters’ contents, but she wouldn’t reveal them. This was history, I argued. “Families have secrets,” she countered. She had pledged to Ernest that she’d not reveal personal information about him or his family (“It was a handshake agreement”), and certainly not anything in those letters. This irked Stephen Brown. “They were probably about incest,” he said.
Questions about Hemingway’s sexuality beguiled the young gender and sexuality scholars at the conference. Panelist Verna Kale, editor of 2016’s Teaching Hemingway and Gender and associate editor of the Hemingway Letters Project, explained to me that “Every generation that reads Hemingway finds new things to talk about … now people are finding a lot of interesting depictions of gender and sexuality in Hemingway’s work that were always there.”
To wit, Ernest’s posthumously published novel, The Garden of Eden, concerned a honeymooning couple in Le Grau-du-Roi, France, that experimented with alternating sex roles and brought a second woman to their bed. In sex play, the husband became female, the wife male, and their friend, bisexually amorphous. The novel’s descriptions, when overlayed with passages in Mary Hemingway’s 1976 memoir, How It Was—about her and Ernest’s role switching and his predilection for sodomy—had intrigued scholars since the novel’s appearance.
“Hemingway’s life,” Brown wrote (quoting panelist Debra Moddelmog), “far from being ‘outdated,’ remains at the ‘updated crux of gender and sexuality debates.’” Hemingway’s garden, Brown added, was “a haunted forest: a fallen Eden in which the wounds of nature bleed into those of the self.” Nature was for Ernest, “a post-traumatic landscape of the self.” This dovetailed with Brown’s thesis that Hemingway’s primary wounding had been that of emasculation—incurred by his mother’s twinning him to Marcelline and dressing him as a girl.
All this required a drink. At 10:30 Saturday morning, following a persuasive request from mixologist Philip Greene, Warren, Valerie and Greene knocked back shots of dark rum, a Hemingway favorite. Greene is a cocktail historian and co-founder of the Museum of the American Cocktail in New Orleans. “Ernest started drinking about noon,” Greene said. “It’s 12:30 in Key West, so we’re fine.”
Brown laughed. “This is the loosest conference I’ve been to.”
Scholars dispersed that afternoon to hikes around Cooke City, drives to Ernest’s favorite hunting and fishing sites, horseback excursions into wilderness, and biking into the ravaged Yellowstone Park.
I hiked Silver Gate’s Bannock Trail with Steve Paul, author of the 2018 biography, Hemingway at Eighteen, until flooding turned us back. We retreated for a stroll along Soda Butte Creek. “I don’t buy it,” Paul said of Brown’s and others’ trauma theories. “I get a little glassy-eyed when confronted with that strain of Hemingway psychoanalysis.” I didn’t argue and instead basked in Paul’s conversation, the perfect weather and the pleasure of watching a young family fly fish in Soda Butte Creek.
During a podcast recorded live at the conference, Chris Warren spoke eloquently of Hemingway’s last published story, 1957’s A Man of the World, set in a Cooke City surrogate called Jessup. It was a violent tale of a man blinded, emasculated and vocally impaired in a bar fight. Jessup is a small town, and the character, Blindy, knows his assailant. At the 2018 Paris conference, Warren had presented a paper about the story that sowed seeds of interest for this Cooke City conference.
“What makes Blindy a ‘man of the world’ is his stoicism in the face of adversity,” Warren wrote. “Blindy’s only complaint about [his attacker] is that he has no sense of humor … [Blindy] has accepted his new role in the world and the limits the altercation has put upon him.” The story, Warren added, addresses “how men deal with injury.” He included a Heart of Darkness reference during the podcast. Having ventured to this part of Montana, Hemingway went “further up the river and deeper into the mountains.” He came to see the region “almost like a Valhalla or a Shangri-La.” But also as a place that offered tough lessons.
“Blindy leaves the world blind, impotent, and voiceless,” Warren said. “And there you have Hemingway’s body of work.”
In the end, there isn’t left a debate or theory that will cease the scholars’ jubilee. They have waited through Greene’s lecture on Hemingway cocktails—Greene’s books are To Have and Have Another and A Drinkable Feast—and have sampled a few. They’ve listened to this farewell and that, and now they are dancing. Some make youthful turns, but as most conference-goers are middle- aged, there is awkward galumphing. The banquet of rare roast beef, steamed trout, baked beans, potatoes, and watermelon salad (catered by Missoula’s Second Set Bistro) hasn’t slowed them, nor has a modicum of post-conference imbibing. Indeed, the scholars in their pleasure resemble William Holbrook Beard’s celebrated painting, The Bear Dance. I consider the end of Peacock’s keynote address: “Once, taking [a comrade] to the Grizzly Hilton [in Glacier] and the two of us watching a circle of friends tightly gather around a small water hole: four swaying adult mother grizzlies, four bear cubs, a yearling, and two sub-adult grizzly bears, a prime litter of one of the moms. Science doesn’t admit this separation of behavior—the bears were dancing.”
Steven Brown and Valerie Hemingway swing-step together. Is it wilderness that has gladdened them? Or perhaps Peacock’s words, which have moved everyone.
“Thirty years ago,” Warren says, “friends and myself were ripping around and to have Doug Peacock here. It’s like a lifelong dream.”
At last call, I take in the exchange of ideas and ponder Steve Paul’s musings on the validity of the theories about Hemingway’s many traumas. I recall an excerpt from a story that Paul had shared in a recent Hemingway Society newsletter:
“Then you remembered coming on the three grizzlies in the high country at the head of Crandall Creek. You heard a crash of timber and thought it was a cow elk bolting, and then there they were, in the broken shadow, running with an easy, lurching smoothness, the afternoon sun making their coats a soft, bristling silver.”
In the end it was the writing that mattered. And the courage it had taken to produce it.
The scholars boogie down.
Toby Thompson is the author of six books of nonfiction, including Positively Main Street, his biography of Bob Dylan, and Riding the Rough String: Reflections on the American West. He has written for publications as varied as Esquire, Vanity Fair, The New York Times, Outside, and Men’s Journal. He is a part-time resident of Livingston, Montana, and teaches nonfiction writing at Penn State.