In journalistic and scholarly terms, here is the main thought. Hendrickson makes a convincing case that Gregory Hemingway, the author’s transvestite (and eventually transsexual) son, was acting out in extreme ways a gender confusion shared by — and sympathetically understood by — his father. Contrary to other accounts, including Gregory Hemingway’s own memoir, which depicts them as totally estranged for the last decade of Ernest’s life, their contacts continued, by letter and phone, until a few months before the father killed himself in 1961. By the time of Gregory’s first arrest for entering a ladies’ restroom in female attire in 1951, the father already knew about his son’s gender issues, often writing him caring letters, paying his psychiatric bills, and advising him on business and marital disasters. True, the ensuing 10 years were also marked by storms of rage on both sides, but the record is clear that an author who supposedly was terrified of homoeroticism understood that Gregory’s obsessive need to wear women’s clothes was linked genetically to the elder Hemingway’s own penchant for gender-switching, role reversal in lovemaking, and the fetishism underlying his fondness for dying and cutting women’s hair to make them boy-like. Hendrickson shows that, contrary to critics and psychobiographers who have depicted Hemingway, almost gleefully, as a self-deceiving homophobe, both the author and his son were psychosexually aware and “far braver human beings than anyone ever knew” in confronting their compulsions.
By a meticulous attention to medical and behavioral records, Hendrickson gives us a valuable new tool for the task, as defined by Thomas McGuane, of seeing Hemingway “the great artist, the hero, and the fool” as “the same person.” He does this by documenting a fourth persona: Hemingway as a medical basket case. Indeed, this re-telling of Hemingway’s illnesses and his lack of self-control convinces me that, for the last third of his life, he was probably suffering from organic brain damage due to traumatic, blunt-force head injuries, a syndrome now readily diagnosed among professional football players. Four times between1928 and 1954 Hemingway suffered major brain concussions in planes crashes and other accidents, often in combination with spinal and intestinal injuries. Then there was his mid-life mania for boxing against much younger men and, in one case, a knockout inflicted by a boxing professional.
Add the decades of untreated alcoholism and the hereditary manic-depresssion that was ignored medically until the last year of his life, and we have an important way of understanding the man’s mountainous health issues. Ernest Hemingway was not the architect of his pathologies. He died of his imposed and inherited illnesses as surely as we will all die of ours. Less charitable readers may say that he chose the fame that made his incidents of erratic behavior into public spectacles. However, I’m not sure that Hemingway readers and scholars have allowed sufficiently for the florid evidence that we were watching, as early as World War II, a man without a fully functioning brain and intellect. The great novels were all before 1940, and even his last generally admired book, “The Old Man and the Sea” in 1952, was conceived in 1936.