Hemingway Beats Up a Poet — and Why
“In the fall the war was always there, but we did not go to it anymore.” — from In Another Country
Starting out newly married and living over a saw mill in Nineteen-Twenties Paris, Illinois-born Ernest Hemingway became an international idol of Modernism as much for his larger-than-life personality as because of his startling disillusioned prose. Other writers whose careers he eclipsed became bitterly jealous of his youth, genius, and movie-star good-looks, his World War I heroism under fire and love of boxing, skiing, bull-fighting, fishing, and big-game hunting in Africa. As Edmund Wilson noted, the young men in bars were all trying to talk like Hemingway. And Hemingway was trying to write like Gertrude Stein.
Hemingway always credited Stein with teaching him how to rewrite “Big Two-Hearted River” until it became one of the three or four best short stories of the 20th century. A great teacher who never took her own advice, Stein’s impatient complaint to a slow-working garage mechanic — “You are all a lost generation!” — served as epigram for Hemingway’s first novel, The Sun Also Rises, and gave his generation their legend.
Something personal happened between the two as the Nineteen-Thirties Great Depression banished the easy-living tourists from the French Quarter bistros. Gertrude Stein’s 1933 The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas launched the bitchy sneer that Ernest was too virile to be true and so must be play-acting. She even called him “yellow.” Hemingway’s excuse for his friend’s treachery — aside from her lover Toklas’ jealousy — was that the egotistic teacher could not admit her pupil’s short stories had taught her how to write dialogue.
Stein’s sublimated envy became critically fashionable. Talented but unpleasant Wyndham Lewis in 1934 spoke of how Hemingway’s work possesses a “penetrating quality, like an animal speaking,” and then named the animal: a dumb ox. Lewis damned the Hemingway hero as fatally passive, somebody “to whom things happened.” Ernest shrugged and, three decades later in A Moveable Feast, skewered the painter-author as having “the eyes of an unsuccessful rapist.”
Hemingway’s “rugged individualism” and romantic antebellum weltschmerz got a rude dismissal from Thirties socialist group-thinkers, who saw in his manly example a threat to political conformity. Critic Max Eastman, in a 1937 review (“Bull in the Afternoon”) of Death in the Afternoon, at last managed to push anti-Hemingway slander to its logical ultimate: “Come out from behind that false hair on your chest, Ernest. We all know you.” Hemingway disliked “fairies” and to be called one led to a famous scuffle in editor Maxwell Perkin’s New York City office at Scribners, Hemingway’s lifelong publisher.
So, in his Selected Letters, Hemingway occasionally griped about how everybody wanted a piece of him, in print or, increasingly often, by out-and-out physical assault. One particular fist-fight boasts the sort of glittery popular-fiction symmetries Hemingway would never have allowed in his own writing. Nonetheless, the violent encounter between the greatest novelist and the greatest poet of their era perhaps shows how “things that happen to people are like them,” as Aldous Huxley argued in his famous novel Point Counterpoint.
Hemingway wrote about this particular fight in a February 27, 1936 letter to Sara Murphy. Sara and Gerald Murphy were well-to-do Twenties French Riviera expatriates — he was scion to the Mark Cross Leather business — a golden American couple who themselves became figures in the mythology of Modernism. F. Scott Fitzgerald based the two main characters of Tender is the Night on the Murphys because of their nearly magic ability to gather geniuses together socially.
If it sounds unlikely Hemingway and a poet would battle, Wallace Stevens was even more unlikely as a poet. A Harvard-educated Modernist poet, Stevens won the Pulitzer Prize for his Collected Poetry in 1955, yet worked all day most of his life as a Hartford Insurance executive.
In Hemingway’s own words and spelling and grammar…
“Remember Mr. Stevens? Nice Mr. Stevens. This year he came again sort of unpleasant like the cholera and first I knew of it my nice sister Ura (Irsula) was coming into the house crying because she had been at a cocktail party at which Mr. Stevens had made her cry by telling her forcefully what a sap I was, no man, etc. So I said, this was a week ago, “All right, that’s the third time we’ve had enough of Mr. Stevens.” So I headed out into the rainy past twilight and met Mr. Stevens who was just issuing from the door (of a bar) haveing just said, I learned later, “By God I wish I had that Hemingway here now I’d knock him out with a single punch.” So who should show up but poor old Papa and Mr. Steven swung that same fabled punch but fertunatly missed and I knocked all of him down several times and gave him a good beating. Only trouble was that first three times put him down I still had my glasses on. Then took them off at the insistence of the judge (Arthur Powell) who wanted to see a good clean fight without glasses in it and after I took them off Mr. Stevens hit me flush on the jaw with his Sunday punch bam like that. And this is very funny. Broke his hand in two places. Didn’t harm my jaw at all and so put him down again and then fixed him good so he was in his room for five days with a nurse and Dr. working on him. But you mustn’t tell this to anybody. Because he is very worried about his respectable insurance standing and I promised not to tell anybody and the official story is that Mr. Stevens fell down a stairs. I agreed to that and said it was o.k. with me if he fell down the lighthouse stairs. So please promise not to tell anybody. But Pauline (Hemingway’s wife) who hates me to fight was delighted. Ura had never seen a fight before and couldn’t sleep for fear Mr. Stevens was going to die. Anyway last night Mr. Stevens comes over to make up and we are made up. But on mature reflection I don’t know anybody needed to be hit worse than Mr. S. Was very pleased last night to see how large Mr. Stevens was (Mr. Stevens is 6 feet 2 weighs 225 lbs.) and am sure that if I had a good look at him before it all started would not have felt up to hitting him. But can assure you that there is no one like Mr. Stevens to go down in a spectacular fashion especially into a large puddle of water in the street in front of your old waddel street home where all took place… I think he is really one of those mirror fighters who swells his muscles and practices lethal punches in the bathroom while he hates his betters. But maybe I am wrong. Anyway I think Gertrude Stein ought to give all these people who pick fights with poor old papa at least their money back. I am getting damn tired of it but not nearly as tired as Mr. Stevens.”
In a July 29, 1948 letter to W.G. Rogers, Hemingway put the last word to his relationship with Gertrude Stein in the Twenties. “…I used to listen and learn and I always wanted to fuck her and she knew it and it was a good healthy feeling and made more sense than some of the talk.”