I love Charles Dickens not only for creating remarkable characters but also because he WAS such a remarkable character. He and Lord Byron are the two British authors who are known equally as personalities and as writers. And in American literature, Ernest Hemingway stands virtually alone as the single-most important personality in modern American fiction. Granted, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and John Steinbeck all rival him as novelists but certainly not as personalities. Hemingway was even more famous for who he was than for what he wrote. The Hemingway hero in fiction – brave, stoic, aloof, and sensitive – possessed the very traits that Hemingway himself tried to project as his public persona.
How well he succeeded in this attempt is a sad story. Even though I was only thirteen years old, I vividly remember that Sunday morning of June 30, 1961, when it was announced that Ernest Hemingway had committed suicide at his home in Ketchum, Idaho. His failing health (a depressing combination of diabetes, insomnia, hypertension, kidney trouble, and glaucoma) was cited as a possible reason for taking his life. Here was a man who defined the term “courage” so succinctly and brilliantly as “grace under pressure,” but when the pressures of advancing age undermined him physically he failed to possess the courage to struggle on.
The Hemingway oversized personality was even an influence on my childhood. Hemingway’s passion for bullfighting introduced so many Americans to the joy of the Spanish sport that it actually filtered down to the suburbs of Indianapolis when I was a child in the 1950’s. My best friend Andy and I spent hours in our backyards engaging in bullfights of our own imagining. They were a unique mixture of sport and farce. With my – shall we say – directive personality, I carefully chose my childhood friends based on their gullibility. Thus, I always starred as the gallant Matador and assigned Andy the fatal supporting role of El Toro. Yes, I bullied him into always being the bull.
I used a yardstick for my sword which, ironically, turned out to be a literary weapon. It was emblazoned with the name of the largest hardware store in Indianapolis which happened to be Vonnegut’s owned by the parents of Kurt himself, our great hometown author. Andy would raise his arms over his lowered head and wiggle his index and middle finger to signify the bull’s twitching horns. What he lacked in taurean stature, he more than made up for with his amazing adenoidal snorts.
He would charge at me when I boldly waved the red cape in front of him. Toreador capes being in short supply at my house, we were reduced to pilfering my sister’s fiery red skirt from her closet. Alas, it had a large dancing poodle on it (as many 50’s skirts did) which detracted somewhat from the gravity of the blood sport. As often as not, Andy would butt into the skirt before I could whip it aside: therefore, when we clandestinely returned it to my sister’s closet it was in desperate need of dry-cleaning from the stains of pomade (we called it “butch-wax”) which Andy had applied liberally to his crew-cut to keep it spiked.
I mention all this although my heart was never into the macho bullfighting drama, probably due to my utter lack of athletic grace. As a child, I would have had to have been twice as good in sports as I was to be considered merely uncoordinated. When the Hemingway-inspired fad for bullfighting swept through my elementary school, I would never have confessed to the name of my favorite literary steer.
But I do now. It was sweet Ferdinand, the bull from the famous Spanish fairy tale who would rather smell the marigolds than slash the matadors. I especially identified with the part of the story when his mother suggested that he run and play sporting games with the other little bulls:
“But Ferdinand would shake his head and announce ‘I like it better where I can sit quietly and smell the flowers.’ His mother saw that he was not lonesome, and because she was an understanding mother, even though she was a cow, she let him just sit there and be happy.”
I had a mother like that. After fruitless attempts to sign me up for little league, my mother let me cultivate my own garden. But my flowers had pages rather than Ferdinand’s petals. They were the many books I inhaled (perhaps “ingested” is the better image) as a child. And eventually they led me to a love of Hemingway, Jack London, Jack Kerouac, and other virile authors whose athletic prowess I could not emulate but whose love of the sporting world I could appreciate due to the magic of their enthralling stories. And any former student of mine would tell you that I’ve taught my beloved books from a “bully” pulpit ever since.