When UC Davis professor emeritus Peter Hays teaches a course on the writings of Ernest Hemingway, he naturally assigns some of the famous author’s short stories and novels as texts that students are expected to read.
Hays also likes to take his students to a bullfight. When Hemingway visited Spain as a young man, he was fascinated by bullfighting, and wrote about it in books like “The Sun Also Rises” and “Death in the Afternoon.”
“Most people, and even most Californians, are unaware that bullfights happen every spring through fall in the Central Valley of California,” Hays said.
Several rural towns with a significant population of residents of Portuguese heritage have bull rings that seat hundreds (or even thousands) of spectators — the town of Thornton, in San Joaquin County, being an example. In Portuguese-style bullfights, ASPCA rules are observed, the bull wears a pad and does not die, and the bull’s horns are capped for the safety of the men and horses in the ring.
But the encounters between the bull and men on horseback or on foot are still “spectacular,” according to Hays.
And at the end of the fight, when the bull is exhausted, the fight ends “with what I can only describe as a manhood festival,” Hays added. “Eight men come in to face the bull. The smallest man charges the winded bull, wrapping his arms around the bull’s neck from the front — he becomes a human blindfold. The biggest guy goes around and grabs the bull’s tail. The other six wrestle the bull to a standstill. But I’ve seen the bull get the better of the eight men on occasion.”
It’s the sort of spectacle that entranced Hemingway decades ago, and Hays is certain that the experience enhances his students’ understanding and appreciation of Hemingway’s writing, to say nothing of his ideas about bravery and masculinity.
Essays on Hemingway
Hays’ new book is “Fifty Years of Hemingway Criticism” (Scarecrow Press, 2014) and it collects essays published as far back as 1966 — the year Hays started teaching at UCD. And after several decades of studying Hemingway’s life and works (and teaching Hemingway courses), Hays has reached a number of conclusions.
Hemingway was born in 1899 in Oak Park, Ill. — an upscale Chicago suburb where the young architect Frank Lloyd Wright (not yet world-famous) maintained his residence and studio. Hemingway is said to have referred to Oak Park as a place of “wide lawns and narrow minds.”
The town had quite a few elegant Protestant churches but “did not have a saloon … there was no bar in the entire municipality,” Hays said. Hemingway, who worked as a cub reporter for the Kansas City Star after he graduated from high school — in an era when journalists were notorious smokers and drinkers — wanted to get away and see the world.
Hemingway went to Italy and became an ambulance driver during World War I. He was seriously injured by a falling mortar shell while carrying an Italian soldier to safety, which figured in his fiction as well as his medical condition in years that followed. Hays believes Hemingway probably experienced what today might be called post-traumatic stress disorder, in addition to severe concussions.
It also appears that Hemingway may have inherited a depressive disease, perhaps bipolar disorder.
“Hemingway had all three things going on, and the symptoms of all three overlap — including insomnia, irritability and eventually mental decline,” Hays said. “So it’s hard to say. … He had distinct cycles of manic energy and depressive episodes in Paris (later on).
“He did the stories for the book ‘In Our Time’ in about three months, and then almost a year where he did almost nothing, accompanied by weight gain.” (Hays’ new book includes photos of a skinny Hemingway and a beefier Hemingway, taken only a few years apart.)
Hemingway would later suffer significant concussions in a car accident and two plane crashes — something that Hays takes into consideration given the recent settlement between the NFL and former players over concussions on the football field.
“This went on through his life — there were bouts of great energy, usually accompanied by a new woman; then long fallow periods where he wasn’t doing anything, and he’d self-medicate with copious amounts of alcohol,” Hays said.
Hemingway also told stories of romantic liaisons, some of which appear dubious. Hemingway claimed at one point to have had a fling with the spy Mata Hari; Hays points out that Mata Hari was executed by a firing squad in France in 1917, before Hemingway had graduated from Oak Park High School. Hemingway also claimed to have had an affair with the girlfriend of gangster Legs Diamond in New York during the 1920s, but he never lived in New York in the 1920s.
“He had an actual relationship with Marlene Dietrich; they were very good friends,” Hays said. “He met her on a trans-Atlantic crossing and they got together frequently when he was in New York.”
But biographers differ as to whether that friendship became a romance. There is no doubt, however, that Hemingway married four times, and that those marriages were sometimes stormy.
Hemingway also became a heroic pop culture figure in addition to a widely read author, and winner of both the Pulitzer and Nobel prizes. Hemingway made the cover of Time and Life magazine in the 1960s. And Playboy published compilations of statements attributed to Hemingway in 1961, a few months before his death, and again in 1963 and 1964.
Hays has concluded that the first Playboy article is probably based on a genuine interview, but he regards the quotes in the later articles as spurious.
Hays has watched Hemingway’s public reputation change over the years.
“In the ’60s, he was the macho author — that’s undoubtedly why Playboy used him,” he said. “Then came the feminist movement … in the ’70s, it became popular to denounce Hemingway as a misogynistic pig.”
But that, too, changed with time. Women have served as the editor of the Hemingway Review, a scholarly journal, and as president of the Hemingway Society. And with the posthumous publication of Hemingway’s novel “The Garden of Eden” in 1986 — written late in his life, with an interest in androgynous characters — “he’s been looked at as much more sensitive to women’s issues,” Hays said.
When readers, including university students, focus more on author’s text as compared to the legends that flew up around his life, “there’s actually a lot of ambiguity in Hemingway,” Hays said. “As a result, different generations of critics find different interpretations. He becomes a Rorschach test.
“When I teach a Hemingway course, I like to start with (the early short story collection) ‘In Our Time’ (from 1925). It’s got a scene with British troops manning a barricade and as German soldiers come over, they shoot them.
“Are you supposed to be sad at the loss of human life or happy because they are the enemy? Are you supposed to be appalled?” Hays added. “There are gaps to be filled in, and that’s what Hemingway expects readers to do.
“Aldous Huxley said the basic material of Hemingway was between the lines, and I try to get my students to look between the lines. They read, they decide.
“Does the woman in the story ‘Hills Like White Elephants’ (from the 1927 book ‘Men Without Women’) have an abortion? I don’t tell them. Does Margot (in the story ‘The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,’ from 1936) shoot her husband in the head on purpose (while they are on a big-game safari in Africa) — or not?
“In most critics’ views, those answers are predetermined by their biases — not Hemingway’s.”
— Reach Jeff Hudson at email@example.com or 530-747-8055.