Literary daybook, July 2

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

Published July 2, 2002 7:00PM (EDT)

Today in fiction

On July 2, Nicholas makes his way to Zaccoís.
-- "To Lie With Lions" (1996)
by Dorothy Dunnett

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
Know when something that did not really happen
occurred? Send it to

- - - - - - - - - - -

Today in literary history
On this day in 1961, Ernest Hemingway committed suicide, at the age of 61. There have been five suicides in the Hemingway family over four generations -- father Clarence; siblings Ursula, Leicester and Ernest; granddaughter Margaux. The generation skipped was just barely: Hemingway's youngest son, Gregory, died in 2001, as a transsexual named Gloria, of causes that put a lot of strain on the term "natural."

Memoirs written by those close to Hemingway convey different impressions of his suicide. Mary Hemingway does not refuse the idea that it was a noble, destroyed-but-not-defeated act, but she stresses the sure fact that her husband was mentally ill, and getting worse. Brother Leicester chooses the heroic interpretation: "Like a samurai who felt dishonored by the word or deed of another, Ernest felt his own body had betrayed him." Having hunted with his big brother, and heard him talk about giving animals "the gift of death," Leicester believes that Hemingway chose to give it to himself. Greg categorizes his father's death as "semi-voluntary," an act born of lifelong defiance and momentary delusion.

Whatever the truth of the death, the son's memoir, "Papa," provides interesting snapshots of the life. Greg was a child of Hemingway's second marriage, and his quality time with Dad came early. When Hemingway died, Greg hadn't seen him for a decade, since the age of 19. This last visit was just after the death of Greg's mother, Pauline, an event that had occurred suddenly, and about the time that Greg had gotten into trouble for taking drugs. The visit to his father's home in Cuba seemed to go well, or well enough for Greg to confide his plans for medical school, and to bring up his drug incident. "It wasn't so bad, really, Papa," he said. "No? Well, it killed Mother," said Papa.

The book describes moments of love and honesty too. Also humor: In one of his arm-around-shoulder moods, Hemingway congratulates his son for his fine attempt at a short story, one that Greg had cribbed word for word from Turgenev. But there are many other moments that cast a shadow long enough for Greg to write that he was glad that his father was dead so "I couldn't disappoint him any more." The writing of "Papa" must have brought Hemingway's son some therapy or confessional relief -- "I shot eighteen elephants one month, God save my soul" -- though clearly not enough.

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," contact Steve King.

By the Salon Books Editors

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Books Richard Blumenthal