Citadel professor’s research on Hemingway reveals different man than imagined
The author of the first major Ernest Hemingway biography in more than 20 years wants the world to know Hemingway as he believes he was. Citadel Professor James M. Hutchisson, Ph.D. wrote Ernest Hemingway, A New Life, which Penn State University Press published this year. Hutchisson is a professor of American literature at the college, and this is his eleventh book.
What compelled Hutchisson to write Ernest Hemingway, A New Life?
“For starters, I thought that the existing major biographies of Hemingway were swaybacked by their insistence on seeing Hemingway through a single, very limited critical or ideological lens,” he said. “I also felt that most biographers, whether they admitted it or not, didn't much like Hemingway. I think that over time many of his statements and public gestures were misinterpreted, and I wanted to give a fairer and more balanced portrait of the man. I see him more sympathetically, I think, than many other critics do.”
Hutchisson started Ernest Hemingway, A New Life in 2007, in the midst of his more than 25 year career as a professor at The Citadel.
“I made six or seven trips to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Museum and Library in Boston, Massachusetts, where the Hemingway Collection is stored. I spent hour after hour examining his manuscripts and private papers. It is a beautiful building, and Hemingway's study in Havana has been recreated on the top floor. I also went to Chicago and his hometown of Oak Park, Illinois, numerous times.”
Hutchisson estimates that it took two and a half years between 2007 to 2016 to complete Ernest Hemingway, A New Life. He hopes his readers take away, at the minimum, three important factors.
“First, Hemingway had a complex medical history, including a lifelong battle with depression and mental illness, which I don't think has been completely understood. I think it was this condition, much more than the idea that he was felled by fame or corrupted by the allure of celebrity, that propelled him down the slope into suicide at the end of his life,” Hutchisson said. “Related to this were his physical problems—recurrent vision complications, particularly, and a pattern of accidents, injuries, and illnesses that plagued him throughout his life.”
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“I also look at the pattern of how his writing was influenced by women and by place—the sequence of results, in other words, produced in his work by his various wives, lovers, and mistresses. Hemingway’s relationships with women were also inextricably bound to geographic locale. The battlefield seems to have been the most recurrent setting, but he also adopted a series of spiritual homes including Cuba and Spain that became stimuli to creativity.”
According to Hutchisson, the third most important takeaway from his book is that Hemingway was a hard-working writer who withstood a lot of personal and professional pressure to keep honing his craft. “Often, because of the clinical depression that beset him much of the time, he tried to counterbalance his sometimes bad public behavior with a much more accurate honesty of character and generosity of spirit that was utterly natural and instinctive.”
Reviewers seem to appreciate Hutchisson’s premise. Shortly after its release, Ernest Hemingway, A New Life, was described as “refreshing” and “masterful.”
“Like a masterful visual artist who takes a familiar subject and makes it fresh and interesting, James Hutchisson gives us an original and compelling biographical portrait of Ernest Hemingway,” said Ruth Hawkins, author of Unbelievable Happiness and Final Sorrow: The Hemingway-Pfeiffer Marriage.
Additionally, Kirk Curnutt, boar member fo the Hemingway Society, and author of Reading Hemingway's “To Have and Have Not”: Glosses and Commentary, wrote:
“A perception exists that everything we need to know about the author of A Farewell to Arms and A Moveable Feast (among so many other great works) has been said ad infinitum. James M. Hutchisson’s Ernest Hemingway: A New Life proves how untrue that thought is. Nearly 30 years after a revisionary wave of biographies reimagined the man, Hutchisson arrives to reset the scales once more, giving us a fuller, more nuanced portrait than we’ve ever enjoyed. Every generation deserves its own Hemingway, and this is ours.”
A description of the book on Amazon says, “James Hutchisson’s biography reclaims Hemingway from the sensationalism, revealing the life of a man who was often bookish and introverted, an outdoor enthusiast who revered the natural world, and a generous spirit with an enviable work ethic.”
Hutchisson believes everyone could take something away of value from his book. “It's a book for Hemingway specialists, of course, in that academics will find much original new material in it that will be, I hope, of use to their own further research, but I wrote it mainly to appeal to the widest possible audience.”
In addition to writing and teaching, Hutchisson currently serves as the director of graduate studies for The Citadel Department of English.