by John Renkiewicz
April 2018

Much has been written regarding French literary theorist and philosopher Roland Barthes’ theory pertaining to the death of the author which was in simple terms removing the author in an interpretation of the text and taking the text upon its own value. Prior to Barthes’ theory it was popular for critics to look at an author’s background in interpreting a text. I acknowledge that there are instances when only knowledge of the author’s basic information is necessary to guide you to a work. For example, one is bound to be immediately able to identify the basic genres of authors such as James Patterson, Stephen King, or John Grisham yet one does not need to know or recognize the author to enjoy their novels. However, having a deeper knowledge of the author may assist a reader in appreciating the text more fully as well as furthering one’s knowledge of the author.

A primary case that comes to mind is Ernest Hemingway. In 1926 his debut novel The Sun Also Rises was published. It was, and is, heralded as a new mode of modern writing. It is relatively uncontested that the writing style was a breakthrough at the time; however, what is not clear is whether it was truly a novel or it was an excellent piece of journalistic or travelogue writing which were Hemingway’s primary forms of employment. Knowledge of the author is important in answering this question. Answering this question is important as to whether to laud the author for his exquisite work of fiction or conversely pan him for doing nothing more than cataloging the events in his life. In Everybody Behaves Badly Lesley M. M. Blume makes a compelling argument for the latter. The novel relates the relationships and activities of various characters that are based upon actual events and persons that are thinly disguised within the text.

According to Blume, some joked a more appropriate title for the novel would be “Six Characters in Search of an Author – with a Gun Apiece” (203). The Saturday Review of Literature informed readers that not a single one of Hemingway’s characters could be credited with being the product of the author’s imagination (ditto for the events that inspired the plot), implying that the book was more an example of incisive reportage than fictional accomplishment (Blume 204). Some of the characters and their real-life counterparts were Robert Cohn as Harold Loeb, a one-time friend and supporter of Hemingway prior to the publication of The Sun Also Rises. Lady Brett Ashley was inspired by Lady Duff Twysden; the nineteen-year-old matador Romero was actually Cayetano Ordonez who Lady Twysden most likely corrupted in the same manner as Lady Ashley corrupted Romero in the novel (Blume 113). Mike Campbell, Brett’s suitor, was in fact Pat Guthrie “a dissipated thirty-something Briton with a rumored aristocratic lineage . . . he was a relentless drinker . . . [who] couldn’t hold his alcohol” (Blume 86). The list goes on and the events portrayed by the characters were, for the most part, actual events. In the original manuscript, Hemingway had used the real-life names of the characters and his publisher, Maxwell Perkins, feared a lawsuit before their removal (Blume 203).

A question arises on whether Jake Barnes is Hemingway or vice versa. Some would argue that he is not due to him not fulfilling the Hemingway macho persona. For example, Jake displays a sensitive side in being a sounding board for Brett. Also, Jake is impotent–something Hemingway would probably never admit to even if it were true. In the original manuscript Hemingway uses the name “Hem” for Jake which pretty much seals the speculation anyone would have on the question of Jake/Hemingway. I posit that Jake is Hemingway’s first foray into emasculation which he later delves into in great detail in The Garden of Eden. Here is where knowing more about the author deeply comes into play.

Is it critical to the work to know that Hemingway most likely had gender identification issues which would explain his fascination with “deviant” sexual behavior? Probably not. One can still “enjoy” the work as it stands on one’s reading of the text. However, it makes the text more interesting and understandable to be able to approach it with some semblance of the author’s stance on the issues. For example, Dean Koontz in his early works always included a Golden Retriever somewhere within the text. Why? Because Koontz works with a charity that brings service dogs to people with disabilities (Pfeiffer). In his latter works, the retrievers don’t always appear, but some sort of dog does and often plays a significant role in the story. Knowledge necessary to the text? No, but it does answer a question one may have regarding an aspect of the text.

Identifying Hemingway’s foray into the feminine clarifies his choice of textual structures. There have been a number of guesses as to Hemingway’s true sexuality ranging from his being a homosexual to a sexual masochist; few identify him as being transgender; however, I posit that given the opportunity, that is the direction Hemingway would have taken to assuage his sexual confusion. Clues to this assertion appear both in his work and in his personal life. In his personal life, a certain macho image of Hemingway was developed as a hard drinking, gun toting, womanizing character. This “over the top” machismo may have been his cover for a more feminine private persona that he did not want to become public. His lead male characters portray a sensitivity, and finally femininity, that Hemingway himself would not publicly admit to, starting with Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises and culminating with David Bourne in The Garden of Eden. Hemingway portrays Jake as a virtual Janus having the face of a man’s man, but with the ability to understand and comfort a woman in a sisterly fashion in his interactions with Brett. All while being physically unable to consummate a male/female sexual relationship due to impotence sustained from a war wound. With Jake, Hemingway appeared to feel the need to find a manly way to feminize his character.

By the time Hemingway penned David, he did not feel the need to hide behind the tactic he took with Jake. Perhaps he never intended the book to be published, as he began it in 1946 and worked on it intermittently for the 15 years until his death, but then why write it at all? David is, like Jake, a veteran of the First World War; like Jake (and Hemingway) he is a writer. Note the transition: prior to The Sun Also Rises Hemingway primarily earned his living as a journalist a la Jake; by 1946 Hemingway was primarily earning his keep as a novelist, as was the David character. David on the surface is to Hemingway as night is to day. David is submissive to his wife Catherine. Sexually, he plays the girl to Catherine’s role as a boy while physically he adopts the same hairstyle and, in some cases, manner of dress as his wife.

In The Garden of Eden the following exchange occurs between Catherine and David:

[Catherine] “You are changing,” she said. “Oh you are. You are. Yes you are and you’re my girl Catherine. Will you change and be my girl and let me take you?”

[David] “You’re Catherine.”

[Catherine] “No. I’m Peter. You’re my wonderful Catherine. You’re my beautiful lovely Catherine. You were so good to change. Oh thank you, Catherine, so much. Please understand. Please know and understand. I’m going to make love to you forever.” (17)

What makes the preceding so telling as a part of Hemingway’s actual life is the sex-change fantasies Mary Hemingway recounts from a 1953 African safari in her memoir quoting from her diary. Papa Hemingway established a “New Names Department,” rechristening himself as “Kathrin Ernest Hemingway” and [Mary] as “Peter Mary Welsh-Hemingway” (qtd. in Rohy 149).

In the novel, life with Catherine begins to unravel after she brings another woman, Marita, into the relationship. David stands by as Catherine first maintains Marita as a lover for herself and then acquiesces to taking on Marita as a lover as well. David and Catherine come up with a schedule for who will be with who when. Marita’s presence allows David to act as a typical male lover and resume his role as a man while he retains his femininity with Catherine. Does David/Hemingway maintain his manhood by submitting to sodomy by Catherine (Eby 79)? Is it a gender or sexual dysfunction per se? Then again, does one being a homosexual disallow machismo? I think not, but in Hemingway’s era “gender bending” or being bi-sexual would not be acceptable to maintaining a macho image.

A quick look at Hemingway’s childhood may explain some of his actions and desires as a man. His mother, Grace, dressed him in girl’s clothes and referred to him as his sister Marcelline’s, twin as they were born only a year apart. They slept in the same room, played with the same dolls, and literally lived as sisters until Ernest was about five years old (Lynn 38-40). Basic formative development occurs from birth until two years of age at which point around age two a child identifies himself or herself as a boy or a girl. Preschoolers associate toys, clothing, games, colors, etc. with one gender or another (Berk 117, 211). It is unclear whether gender identification is a result of genetic or environmental factors (Dunn and Craig 345), but considering how Ernest was raised during his formative years and the fact that social factors may influence gender identification it appears likely that Grace’s influence may have played a role in Ernest’s later gender explorations. According to J. Gerald Kennedy, a biography of Ernest Hemingway by Kenneth Lynn argues,

…that Hemingway was afflicted from childhood onward by gender anxiety as a consequence of his mother’s dressing the boy as a girl and passing him off as the same-sex twin of his sister Marcelline. To compensate for early insecurity about his gendered role, Hemingway affected an exaggerated bravado, Lynn claims, and pursued activities which would exhibit male prowess. Yet recurrently in private life and more overtly in writing, he manifested a preoccupation with gender-crossing which expressed itself (Lynn asserts) in his fondness–as a man and as a writer–for short-haired women. (191-192)

Papa Hemingway’s interest in gender-crossing comes through in a conversation with his transsexual son Gregory who was also known affectionately as Gigi: “Listen, Mr. Gig, I can remember a long time ago seeing a girl on a street in Paris and wanting to go over and kiss her just because she had so much damn red lipstick caked on. I wanted to get that lipstick smeared all over my lips, just so I could see what it felt like” (“Papa’s Boys”). This comment implies a certain fascination of Papa’s own with adopting a woman’s appearance.

Papa became aware of Gregory’s cross-dressing when he was caught climbing into a pair of white nylons at about age 10. Hemingway blamed his divorced wife Pauline for Gigi’s apparently ‘unmanly’ ways. In 1951, when Gigi was 19, he went to a cinema in Los Angeles in drag and was arrested entering the women’s toilet (Lewis). Pauline notified Papa by telephone in Cuba and they commenced to have a screaming match over the phone with each blaming the other for Gregory’s miscreant ways. At about 1:00 a.m. Pauline awoke with terrible abdominal pain and was taken to the hospital where she died of shock on the operating table three hours later. Hemingway blamed Gigi’s arrest for causing his mother’s condition while Gigi insisted that it was Papa’s haranguing of Pauline that caused her to die due to emotional distress. In a letter to his father when he turned 21 Gregory wrote:

You accused me of killing her–said it was my arrest that killed her. For your information, a heart condition is incurred over a period of time. Do you think that little scene did her any good? I would never think of accusing you of killing her … but you accused me, you cocksucker–you wonder if I don’t forget all and kiss your sickly ass when you send me a birthday greeting? You think you can repair a break in the dam with a telegram? God have mercy on your soul for the misery you have caused. If I ever meet you again and you start pulling the ruthless, illogical and destructive shit on me, I will beat your head into the ground and mix it with cement to make outhouses. (Hemingway’s Boat 556)

There was a P.S. added to the letter:  “I suppose you wonder what has happened to all my filial respect for you. Well, it’s gone Ernestine, dear, it’s gone!” (Hemingway’s Boat) It is interesting that their original disagreement over Pauline’s death happened just a few short months after it occurred, when they met in person, but seemed to come to a head on the occasion of Gigi’s twenty-first birthday. After their initial meeting when Gregory was 19, he and his father never saw each other until Ernest’s death although they remained close through correspondence.

Gregory’s feminization of his father’s name may be telling in that as a transvestite and later a transsexual he could see through Papa’s machismo and know that the two were more alike than Papa would ever admit. In “Papa’s Boys” Hendrickson wonders, “There are Freudians afoot – especially in light of so much of the recent Hemingway scholarship, and the publication last year of his novel The Garden of Eden, which is awash in transsexual fantasies – who would raise the question: was the son merely acting out what the father felt?”

Rohy would not identify Hemingway as transgendered (168), but I differ in that regard. Hemingway had a penchant for writing truth as fiction as is so aptly demonstrated in The Sun Also Rises as well Islands in the Stream–the only novel in which he directly used his children. It stands to reason that a certain amount of Papa lives in The Garden of Eden as it does in his other novels and stories. Rohy herself writes,

. . . Hemingway did not suffer the stigma that most transgender people endure; indeed, he retained the dubious privilege of stigmatizing others. (His macho reputation seems to license today’s critics [circa 2011] to devalue his femininity, as if demonstrating their loyalty to that other Hemingway.) Despite his self-consciousness about being differently gendered, he would hardly have identified with a trans community, even had the term been available to him. He seemed to think he had personally invented male femininity, “something quite new and outside all tribal law,” though he did recognize his likeness to his transsexual son Gregory. (qtd. in Mary Welsh Hemingway 370)

Do Hemingway’s gender issues have any bearing on our understanding of the text of The Garden of Eden? Perhaps in and of itself no, however we have a better understanding of the author and given his reputation can see why he never chose to finish the novel in his lifetime, just as he kept other gender questions and comments to the confines of Mary’s diary rather than making them public. Additionally, this knowledge of the author gives us insight into the text itself to better understand its origin and significance.

Richard Fantina points out late 20th and early 21st century criticism which notes Hemingway’s “homoerotic wishes,” “suppressed femininity,” “transvestic impulses,” and “ ‘queer’ desires” (85).  In The Sun Also Rises Jake Barnes is the embodiment of what Kaja Silverman calls “phallic divestiture.” The abolition of the phallic signifier in the hero conforms to Silverman’s reading of a cultural production that consciously undermines an obsolete equation of the penis and phallic power (qtd. in Fantina 86). Fantina also notes:

In Hemingway’s work the male heroes seldom penetrate women but rather are sometimes penetrated themselves . . . the most vivid description of penetration . . . occurs when Catherine Bourne sodomizes her husband in The Garden of Eden . . . she [tells him] “I’m Peter. You’re my wonderful Catherine.” Catherine’s appropriation of the phallic name Peter gives some indication of what transpires here.

[David] lay there and felt something and then her hand holding him and searching lower and he helped with his hands and then laid back in the dark and did not think at all and only felt the weight and the strangeness inside and she said, “Now you can’t tell who is who can you?” (GoE 17)

Later the narrator [in the Garden of Eden] relates that,

[Catherine] made the dark magic of the change again and he did not say no when she spoke to him and asked him the questions and he felt the change so that it hurt him all through and when it was finished after they were both exhausted she was shaking and she whispered to him, “Now we have done it. Now we have really done it.” (GoE 20)

This description remains uncharacteristically explicit for Hemingway. A crossed-out phrase in the unpublished manuscript contains more graphic detail describing how David feels “something that yielded and entered.” What “yielded” can only be David’s sphincter and what “entered” refers to the device – her fingers or some object – that Catherine uses to penetrate him. (Fantina 92-93)

There can be little doubt that Fantina is correct in his assertion of David being sodomized by Catherine in this scene. With the David character so closely resembling Hemingway and the characters named as Hemingway named himself and Mary in her diary there can be little doubt that the incident actually occurred in Hemingway’s life or at the very least was fantasized about.

Looking at Jake Barnes’s wound-induced impotence and David Bourne’s submissiveness to Catherine, Hemingway’s work “rather than exalting the male phallus . . . constantly seeks to dethrone it” (Fantina 97). Hemingway appears to endorse sodomy on a male if it is performed by a female (Fantina 97). Fantina goes on to say,

While male-on-female and male-on-male sodomy both have long literary traditions, novelists seldom portray female-on-male sodomy in their fiction. Hemingway’s overt use of such sodomy as the expression of the physical love between Catherine and David Bourne in The Garden of Eden remains remarkable because of this rarity. (97)

He later adds that:

. . . since homosexuality is not an option for Hemingway [his homophobia exists throughout his writings], he needs the phallic woman to perform the chosen sexual act and to otherwise dominate his male heroes. (103)

Carl Eby has much more to say about sodomy and transvestism in Hemingway’s work. Eby writes,

“Catherine’s searching hand, I will argue, does indeed sodomize David – but in doing so serves as the catalyst for something still more unusual and profound: a transvestic hallucination . . . [there is] a kindred group of cryptic transvestic metamorphoses in The Garden of Eden, the Islands in the Stream manuscript, Across the River and into the Trees, and True at First Light. In each passage, the male protagonist enters a state of “not thinking” and then, aided by fetishistic/transvestic ritual and some form of anal penetration, hallucinates that he is physically transformed into a “girl.” What [is interesting] is not just the heterosexual sodomizing of the male protagonist . . . but rather the intensity of the male protagonist’s conviction that he has been physically transformed into a girl, however temporarily, by this act.” (79)

As Hemingway writes in The Garden of Eden, “she had made the dark magic of the change again and he did not say no when she spoke to him and asked the questions and he felt the change so that it hurt him all through” (20). When taken together with the entries in his fourth and final wife’s, Mary’s, diary it seems certain that Hemingway’s “fiction” in The Garden of Eden is in essence more reporting as in The Sun Also Rises.

Eby shares parts of Mary’s book How It Was in his piece on Hemingway. The following observations from Mary’s work further support Papa Hemingway having gender issues:

. . . many, if not most, of us know about Hemingway’s sexcapades during his 1953 safari: his entries in his wife’s diary calling himself Mary’s “girl” and calling Mary his “boy” . . . his obsession with cutting and bleaching Mary’s hair; his decision to shave his own head like a Kamba girl [and] dye his clothes rusty Masai ochre . . . and his desire to pierce his ears and undergo tribal scarification (a drive strong enough that Mary called it the “earring crisis” and had to struggle to talk him out of it). Sodomy, too, has its place in this pattern. On 3 November Mary noted in her journal “Papa’s definition of buggery: ‘Sodomy when practiced by those who are not gentlemen.’” And then there is the well-known mock interview “with recondite magazine” that Ernest wrote in Mary’s diary on 19 December and which Mary reprinted in How It Was:

REPORTER: ‘Mr. Hemingway, is it true that your wife is a lesbian?’

PAPA: ‘Of course not. Mrs. Hemingway is a boy.’

REPORTER: ‘What are your favorite sports, sir?’

PAPA: ‘Shooting, fishing, reading and sodomy.’

REPORTER: ‘Does Mrs. Hemingway participate in these sports?’

PAPA: ‘She participates in all of them.’

REPORTER: ‘Sir, can you compare fishing, shooting and cricket, perhaps, with the other sports you practice?’

PAPA: ‘Young man, you must distinguish between the diurnal and the nocturnal sports. In this later category sodomy is definitely superior to fishing.’ (83)

On 20 December Ernest again wrote in Mary’s diary “[Mary] always wanted to be a boy” and “loves me to be her girl, which I love to be, not being absolutely stupid” (Eby 84).

Eby supports my conjecture regarding Hemingway’s childhood in his 1999 book Hemingway’s Fetishism where he argues that a splitting of the ego was rooted in Hemingway’s childhood and manifested itself in his adulthood in the split-off other-sex half of his ego that Hemingway named “Catherine.” Such split-off other-sex halves of the ego are commonplace in fetishism and central to transvestism . . . this is the key to understanding the role of heterosexual sodomy in Hemingway’s life and fiction. (86)

Note how, in essence, knowing the author is key to understanding their life and writing according to Eby. Which brings us back to Barthes’ famous essay “The Death of the Author.”

Barthes ends his essay with the words, “the birth of the reader must be ransomed by the death of the Author;” however, if we are to follow Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory of Writing where 1/8 is the surface reading and the remaining 7/8 is below the surface, then knowledge of the author may contribute to understanding that 7/8 which is “hidden.” Unfortunately, such knowledge may come at a price. I enjoy reading Hemingway’s works for their entertainment value, for a look at the past, for insight into the times in which they are set; there is knowledge to be gained even from the reading of fiction. Unfortunately, Hemingway was a Janus much as Jake Barnes is–he could be kind and generous but also one of the most rotten son-of-a-bitches to ever walk this earth. He was a troubled soul who, if he had not committed suicide in 1961 at the age of 61, probably would have died an early death due to various maladies attributed to his hard drinking, hard living lifestyle. Researching his life and writing this piece has made me feel as if I was pissing on his grave. It has been 56 years since his physical death and we are still dissecting his life. Perhaps we should let him and all authors finally rest in peace.

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author.” UbuWeb.

Blume, Lesley M. M. Everybody Behaves Badly. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016.

Eby, Carl. “He Felt the Change so that it Hurt Him all Through: Sodomy and Transvestic Hallucination in Hemingway.” The Hemingway Review, Vol. 25, No. 1, Fall 2005, pp. 77-95.

Fantina, Richard. “Hemingway’s Masochism, Sodomy, and the Dominant Woman.” The Hemingway Review, Vol. 23, No. 1, Fall 2003, pp. 84-105.

Hemingway, Ernest. The Garden of Eden. Scribner, 1986.

Hemingway, Ernest. The Sun Also Rises. Scribner, 1926.

Hendrickson, Paul. Hemingway’s Boat. Vintage, 2012.

Hendrickson, Paul. “Papa’s Boys.” The Washington Post, July 29, 1987.

Kennedy, J. Gerald. “Hemingway’s Gender Trouble.” American Literature, Vol. 63, No. 2, Jun 1991, pp. 187-207.

Lewis, Peter. “Hemingway – the macho monster whose son turned into a transsexual.”MailOnline, Jan 13, 2012.

Lynn, Kenneth S. Hemingway. Harvard University Press, 1995. Pfeiffer, Ben. “The Rumpus Interview of Dean Koontz.” Web, Dec 21, 2015.

Rohy, Valerie. “Hemingway, Literalism, and Transgender

Reading.” Twentieth-Century Literature, 57.2, Summer 2011, pp. 148-179.


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