The androgyny of being Ernest: A gender-fluid reading of Hemingway that upends his macho image

PBS' "Hemingway" docuseries touches on the author's exploration of gender, but his writing revealed much more to me

Published April 12, 2021 6:46PM (EDT)

Ernest Hemingway in "Hemingway" (A.E. Hotchner/PBS)
Ernest Hemingway in "Hemingway" (A.E. Hotchner/PBS)

Three things freed me from the ultra-masculine theatrics I learned from Ernest Hemingway as a young man. Ironically, all three were his own books: the short story collection "In Our Time," the sweeping war drama "A Farewell to Arms," and the gender-bending "The Garden of Eden." Each represented disparate periods of the author's life, and in their heterogeneous ways, each guided me out from the thorny thicket of machismo that Hemingway had helped lead me into.

A few days after my father's funeral I came across the copy of "In Our Time" that I'd given him for his birthday a mere two months before he killed himself. A veteran and lifelong outdoorsman, Hemingway had been dad's favorite writer.

I was flipping through the collection of stories when I came across an underlined passage in "Indian Camp":

"Why did he kill himself, Daddy?"

"I don't know, Nick. He couldn't stand things, I guess."

"Do many men kill themselves, Daddy?"

"Not very many, Nick."

Something heavy moved in me. Here was my own name cast in a discussion of suicide. Why had dad underlined these words in particular, so soon before taking the Hemingway exit himself? Was it some sort of message? Were they his terrible inspiration?

Two months later I went or fled to Paris where I claimed to be studying literature but where I primarily studied dark bars and back alleys and the rough characters who hung around the canals at night. At that point in time, I — like so many other young men — was very caught up in the business of being tough, and Ernest Hemingway stood as the grand archetype of that posture. At my father's suggestion I had devoured "The Sun Also Rises," "For Whom the Bell Tolls," and "A Moveable Feast," and now I was immersing myself in the hard drinking, dangerous life of the aspiring artist abroad, playing into the pantomime of Hemingway that enthralls so many students of interwar literature.

Today as I watch Ken Burns and Lynn Novick's new PBS docuseries "Hemingway," it's easy to see how a young man can get drawn into such exhilarating bluster.

Papa Hemingway was king of the stereotypical man's man. In "Hemingway," Burns and Novick spend the first two of three installments cataloging some of Hem's more notorious escapades. Alcohol and art-fueled rollicking in Paris. Bullfights in Spain. Big game hunting in Africa. Marlin fishing and scouring the high seas for German U-boats in the Caribbean. His obsessions with war, women, boxing, booze, and guns. There's so much thrill and daring to the Hemingway modus vivendi that it's hard not to get swept up in it — just so long as you ignore the brutality, the tormented wives and children, and the brain damage, of course.

But the series also hints at an altogether different side to the great writer. From a contemporary perspective, it becomes clear that he spent a lifetime grappling with a carefully concealed anxiety regarding gender identity. As "Hemingway" explains, "The world saw him as a man's man, but all his life he would privately be intrigued by the blurred lines between male and female, men and women."

The Garden of Eden

I first became aware of this unexpected twist in the Hemingway narrative upon my arrival in Paris. While browsing the shelves of Shakespeare & Company I encountered the only of his titles with which I was unfamiliar: "The Garden of Eden." The book revolutionized my conception of its author.

According to Burns and Novick, Hemingway himself called the book "too sexually adventurous to be published during his lifetime." Released posthumously, this edited version represents a small portion of a much larger opus that the writer struggled to complete over the course of his final 15 years.

"The Garden of Eden" follows the newly married David and Catherine Bourne as they honeymoon along the French Riviera. Everything seems typically Hemingway — a writer protagonist and plenty of fishing, fine food and wine, and allusions to war — when Catherine takes a sharp turn into gender-switching. "I'm going to be changed," she informs her husband before cutting her hair "short as a boy's."

"I'm a girl. But now I'm a boy too and I can do anything and anything and anything," she teases or warns. "I'm going to wake up in the night and do something to you that you've never even heard of or imagined." A few pages later our Hemingway avatar David experiences "the strangeness inside" as Catherine penetrates him.

From there the gender roles continue to evolve as Catherine (then eventually David) falls in love with another woman. Catherine has all three of them cut their hair into matching school-boy styles, and she and her husband dye their hair the same blonde. "You are changing," she tells him. "Yes you are and you're my girl Catherine. Will you change and be my girl and let me take you?"

As it turns out, these were not idle fantasies. According to Burns and Novick, Hemingway's fourth wife Mary Welsh cut her hair short and dyed it platinum at his request — and he bleached his to match.

Mary Welsh and Ernest Hemingway (A.E. Hotchner/PBS)

Speaking in the documentary, Hemingway biographer Mary Dearborn elaborates, "He really had a thing about androgyny and liked to switch sex roles in bed. And he tells Mary, 'Let's play around. I'll call you Pete and you call me Catherine.' She's satisfying that intense desire of his to play with sex roles that way. It took a lot of guts for him. In a way he wanted to be a woman who loved another woman. Now this kind of thing, it's all on a spectrum, right? But then it was unheard of."

As the writer himself says via androgynous Catherine in "The Garden of Eden," "Why do we have to go by everyone else's rules? We're us."

The androgyny of being Ernest

Hemingway's exposure to this sort of gender-ambiguous lifestyle started at an early age. According to the documentary, beginning in his infancy Ernest's mother would "twin" him with his sister, sometimes dressing them up as boys and sometimes as girls. They wore the same haircut and played with the same dolls, tea sets, and air rifles.

This gender fluid influence seeped into Hemingway's writing in more places than just "The Garden of Eden." In "The Sun Also Rises," for example, the central protagonist is an impotent man who lusts after Lady Brett Ashley — a tough-talking woman whose "hair was brushed back like a boy's" and who lives a promiscuous lifestyle that at the time was considered decidedly unladylike.

And while machismo is almost a character unto itself throughout Hem's bibliography, there are also a plethora of strong hints that he has given more than a little thought to the experiences of women.

For example, speaking in the documentary about his short story "Up In Michigan" — which narrates a date rape from the woman's perspective — the renowned Irish writer Edna O'Brien explains, "I think many women feel, and indeed, broadcast the idea that Hemingway hated women, and wrote adversely always about them. This isn't true. I would ask his detractors, female or male — just to read that story. And could you say in all honor that this was a writer who didn't understand women's emotions and who hated women? You couldn't. Nobody could."

And there are other examples. "Hills Like White Elephants," for one, which portrays a man trying to convince a woman to have an abortion by using many of the subtle tactics that modern readers will recognize as gaslighting.

Or there's "A Farewell to Arms."

"He gets all the boy stuff, the man stuff. He gets the horror of the war," says O'Brien in "Hemingway." "But when people put that book down, what will they remember? They remember a woman dying in childbirth."

I remember the first time I read that scene. It was the second indication after reading "The Garden of Eden" that perhaps this Hemingway fellow had a more complicated view of men and women than I'd previously understood.

I'd left Paris to spend a month traveling through Spain with the woman I loved at the time. We had been through a tremendous spectrum of wonderful and terrible things over the course of our two years together, but increasingly there was an unspoken, tragic sense that we would soon be going our separate ways.

Now we were in the big park in Sevilla killing time before the last flight we would ever take together. We found a quiet, shaded place in the grass and made absinthes in the cut-off bottoms of a pair of plastic water bottles then laid down to read. It was here that I finished "A Farewell to Arms." I remember reading the line ". . . it was like saying goodbye to a statue," after which I burst into tears.

Searching for a paradise lost

What was meant by the title "The Garden of Eden"?

According to the Bible, the garden was a paradise that was lost through the pesky imposition of knowledge. It wasn't until they looked at one another and recognized each other as men and women that Adam and Eve felt shame and donned the fig leaves. With this they lost their androgynous innocence and were cast out of Eden to suffer for eternity.

In "The Garden of Eden," David Bourne often refers to Catherine — Hemingway's androgyne avatar — as "Devil." In the Biblical story, the Devil tempts woman with knowledge thereby bringing the downfall of man. In Hemingway's, the Devil tempts with genderfluidity, and while this certainly stirs up a lot of confusion and soul-searching, there really isn't any punishment. The marriage falls apart, but Catherine goes on her (or their) own way, seemingly with a new confidence about who she is and what she wants. David's story is destroyed, but then he manages to rewrite it, perhaps even better than the first go-around.

Genders were explored — or negated altogether — and the world continued to turn. Unlike Hemingway's other novels, there is no grand tragic finale. What a revolutionary tale for him to have been working on at the dawn of the 1960s. 

I first chanced upon "The Garden of Eden" as a 22-year-old tough guy who looked to Hemingway the Man as a literary mentor, only to find a writer who was far more labyrinthine than the popular caricature. "I contain multitudes," wrote another of the great American writers. Indeed.

For many, Burns and Novicks' docuseries will provide the first exposure to the manifold nature of their author's character. The compassion and the brutality. The talent and the pettiness. The lover and the controlling abuser. And, yes, the man and the woman.

Hemingway seemed to understand or at least intuit something that has only recently begun to gain widespread noesis: that we're all born more or less androgynous, with our identities to be gradually formed by a complex blend of social, biological, and personal influences. Boys become boys thanks to obvious biological considerations, mass media and marketing, gender reveal parties, and — for better or worse — Ernest Hemingway novels.

Paradise regained

Time passed, and one day while visiting home I once again came across the gifted copy of "In Our Time." With a distinct sense of unease I decided to face the story that had continued to haunt me.

I'm not sure what I was looking for — after a suicide everyone turns into an amateur detective — but I opened the cover and noticed something I hadn't before. In it was a stamp from a used bookstore. Flipping through the pages, I saw that they contained notes jotted in handwriting that had not belonged to my father. I turned to the suicide passage in "Indian Camp" and realized that the wavering underlinings that had once struck me as so portentous could not have come from him, for his penmanship had always been precise and untrembling.

Relief, relief, relief swept through me, for as young men we're taught that the world rests on our shoulders, but suddenly I understood that it was not on mine. The weight we carry — a toxic load foisted upon us by a toxic culture and the macho posture we think it necessitates — is all in our heads. If only we could recognize its fiction then perhaps we could return to the innocence of Hemingway's lost garden.

And just like that, I was free of the great writer's hypermasculine myth. The world — or at least mine — would no longer be dictated by the generational quest to "be a man" that has permeated our culture for far too long.

Or at least I thought so then, or maybe only wished it.

By Nick Hilden

Nick Hilden's writing has appeared in the Daily Beast, Thrillist, Men’s Health, Vice, the Los Angeles Times, and more. You can follow his writing and adventures via Instagram or Twitter.

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Androgyny Ernest Hemingway Gender Gender Fluidity Hemingway Pbs The Garden Of Eden