Hemingway was amazingly patient with his mother, who was difficult even when he tried to help her. When she sanctimoniously dragged in God to justify her selfish and irrational behavior—“that’s why the Lord isn’t letting us sell [the house], because He knows”—he caustically responded, “It is beside the point to bring in … any discussion of our Lord or our Heavenly Father. I am glad you are on such excellent terms with Him.” He impaled her in “Soldier’s Home” by quoting his reaction to her overbearing maternal affection: “ ‘I am your mother,’ she said. ‘I held you next to my heart when you were a tiny baby.’ Krebs felt sick and vaguely nauseated.”
Since there was nothing for him to do in Key West but fish, swim, play tennis, drink and talk, Hemingway constantly urged friends to join him for bird-shooting and deep-sea fishing and even offered to pay their expenses. But friends were reluctant to spend their vacation driven by his unremitting energy and exhausting activities. Gerald Brenan told me that when Hemingway was in the room there didn’t seem to be enough air for anyone else.
As always, Hemingway was perceptive about writing. Paradoxically, he needed to be alone when working, but then felt lonely; he didn’t feel like writing when he was in perfect shape, but couldn’t write when he was seriously sick or injured. He experienced extreme oscillations of mood: “either working and not speaking to anyone and afraid each day you will [lose] it and living like a damned monk for it—then a fine time after it’s done, then hellish depression until you get into it again.” If a writer is blocked, “it’s better to write [something] than constipate trying to write masterpieces.” When conditions are most hopeless, he had to press ahead “with a novel and go straight on through to the end of the damn thing.” His best work, he believed, came not from rational thought, but from his subconscious. He not only had to feel the terrific kick of a story in himself, but also had to give that feeling to the reader. He made his fiction the same way his gunsmith made his rifle: “I don’t care about the job being too ultra, would prefer fit and sturdiness and absolute dependability of action.”
Though Hemingway patronized Fitzgerald, he took the famous conclusion of A Farewell to Arms from the style and mood of a sentence in The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald wrote of Nick Carraway leaving Gatsby and Daisy, “Then I went out of the room and down the marble steps into the rain, leaving them there together.” Hemingway followed this closely with: “After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain” (my emphasis). Gatsby’s romantic pessimism and portrayal of adultery and murder among the rich sporting set also had a powerful and hitherto unnoticed influence on the characters, plot and theme of “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” (1936).
As Hemingway hastened from forced attendance at Mass to the bicycle races at the Vélodrome d’Hiver, he became increasingly angry about Pauline’s dogmatic refusal to use contraceptives, which had led to her (perhaps unwanted) pregnancy and excruciating birth pains. This grim experience decisively turned Hemingway against the Catholic Church. In a definitive statement, he bitterly exclaimed, “If the Church insists that I must put Pauline through what I have just seen her through, am afraid I must consider myself an outlyer from now on… . If a sovereign Pontiff bore children when not built for it he might write a bull of exceptions… . If [the Church] insists on production of more Catholics by all Catholics it ought to make some provision … for members who have to risk death to conform to Papal encyclicals.” This bitter religious crisis foreshadowed his future divorce from Pauline. He would also quarrel with many of his close writer-friends of the late 1920s: Stein, Dos Passos, MacLeish and Scott Fitzgerald.
I’d imagined that the matador danced around with the dangerous bull, then killed him neatly. Not so. The bull is utterly innocent, peaceful, taunted to run about by the many cape-wavers. Then a horrid picador on a horse with a straw-mat guard about it stabs a huge hole in the bull’s neck with a pike, from which gushed blood, and men run to stick little colored picks in it. The killing isn’t even neat, and with all the chances against it, we felt disgusted and sickened by such brutality. The most satisfying moment for us was when one of the six beautiful doomed bulls managed to gore a fat cruel picador, lift him off the horse, and, I hope, make him eventually bleed to death; he was carried out spurting blood from his thigh.
The young Plath is jejeune and conventional, enthusiastic and energetic, competitive and intense, precocious and perfectionist, eager for culture and keen to be admired, always preparing her face to meet the faces that she meets. Why is it so difficult to like such a beautiful, intelligent and talented young woman? Her unrelenting egoism, overbearing emotion, naked ambition and aggressive quest for superiority are extremely off-putting. The late poet and editor Peter Davison, her sometime lover, told me that she was sexually demanding and became very angry and critical if she did not achieve orgasm. — Plath unwittingly defined the negative aspects of her own character when criticizing another young woman: “[she] typifies vividly all I dislike most in extrovert, surface, blithering America: sorority president, silly conventional patter all the time, enthusiastic about everything, continually without the slightest vestige of reserve or discrimination.” She also gave a neat account of her own duplicity: “I find, alarmingly, that I am just the kind of person who can lie successfully: I have a direct honest look; I am plausive as the devil with my reasons; my actress-side is sensitive to mood and situation and, without calculation on my part, responds as the occasion demands.”
This massive volume mostly adds in over-abundant detail to what we already know about Plath: childhood in Wellesley, father’s death from untreated diabetes, Smith College, summer at Mademoiselle, suicide attempt, Fulbright to Cambridge University, secret marriage to Hughes, honeymoon in Spain. She was very adept at seeing what editors wanted and published acceptable poems in important magazines: the Atlantic, Harper’s and Nation. But there’s no strong evidence here of her future greatness. As the poems poured out of her, the main difficulty was to rev herself up to superior work instead of “writing to sell.” Like Saul Bellow with his four bruising broken marriages, she needed the emotional devastation of her marriage to Ted Hughes to create her greatest poems in Ariel.
The only doubt in my mind was the precise time and method of committing suicide. The only alternative I could see was an eternity of hell for the rest of my life in a mental hospital, and I was going to make use of my last ounce of free choice and choose a quick clean ending… . I took out the bottle of 50 sleeping pills, and descended to the dark sheltered ledge in our basement… . I swallowed quantities and blissfully succumbed to the whirling blackness that I honestly believed was eternal oblivion… . [But] I had stupidly taken too many pills, vomited them, and came to consciousness in a dark hell banging my head repeatedly on the ragged rocks of the cellar in futile attempts to sit up and, instinctively, call for help.
Her eminent Cambridge teachers got a C-minus. She wittily dismissed the testy F. R. Leavis as a “tan, devastating leprechaun of a man.” The brilliant John Holloway (whom I knew) she condemned as “very disappointing; a tall, pale, quick-eyed dark-haired chap with horn-rimmed spectacles and a fluid meandering talk.” While in a swingeing mood, she sent a shot across the bow of the Almighty: “I find God hideously conceited; every time you want to argue with the apostles, the saints, about the origin of evil … they blind you with some hocus-pocus about God’s inscrutability.”
Plath wanted her ideal Aryan husband to be tall, blond, from a good family, a graduate of Ivy League school, with professional qualifications, wealthy or soon to be, and a conventional country-club chap. After playing around with the small fry, she finally landed a shark. Ted Hughes, who had none of these qualities. She ecstatically described him as “tall, hulking, with rough brown hair, a large-cut face, hands like derricks… . The strongest man in the world, ex-Cambridge, brilliant poet whose work I loved before I met him, a large hulking healthy Adam, half French, half Irish, with a voice like the thunder of God.” Though smitten, she was well aware of the dangers: “he has never thought about anything or anyone except himself and his will … and has done a kind of uncaring rip through every woman he’s ever met.” She thought she could change and tame him, but was ripped up herself.
In a striking passage in her last letter, the self-confident and always competitive Plath rightly matched herself against some leading contenders: “I am convinced that there will be a market for a woman lyric poet who is not a man-imitating neo-platonist intellectual (e.g. Kathleen Raine ) nor a bitter-sweet coy feminine one, like the weaker Millay, sarcastic Dorothy Parker, or miserable [suicide Sara] Teasdale.” In a triumphant moment she fantasized about her future greatness: “They will be flocking to the dock in hundreds when we arrive: children, begging you to autograph fables, TV and movie producers; everybody.” She would eventually get all the fame she ever dreamed of but—her references to gas fires are very creepy—only after she died in the most tragic way. In a half-page, absurdly inappropriate Foreword, her daughter Frieda claims, “the reason my mother should be of interest to readers at all is due to my father”–not to Plath’s poetry, which he distorted and suppressed–and morbidly hopes that “my parents are as married in death as they once were in life.” If so, they could continue to torment each other like Paolo and Francesca on their infernal whirlwind.