Chris Hedges speaks with journalist and author Mark Kurlansky about living in the shadow of Ernest Hemingway and his new book, “The Importance of Not Being Ernest.”
The writer Mark Kurlansky, by a series of coincidences, spent his life as a journalist and author in the shadow of Ernest Hemingway, starting with his presence in Idaho on the day Hemingway died. Kurlansky would reside and work during his career in Paris, the Basque region of Spain, Cuba, and Ketchum, Idaho—all places where Hemingway lived, and where his myth remains firmly implanted and celebrated. Kurlansky struggled to free himself from the haunting presence of Hemingway, whose life—starting with the tales he told of being an ambulance driver in Italy in World War I—was a confusing blur of fact, exaggeration, hyperbole, and lies. There is much in Hemingway’s life and writing to admire, and much to reject. Mark Kurlansky joins The Chris Hedges Report to discuss his new book The Importance of Not Being Ernest: My Life with the Uninvited Hemingway.
Chris Hedges interviews writers, intellectuals, and dissidents, many banished from the mainstream, in his half-hour show, The Chris Hedges Report. He gives voice to those, from Cornel West and Noam Chomsky to the leaders of groups such as Extinction Rebellion, who are on the front lines of the struggle against militarism, corporate capitalism, white supremacy, the looming ecocide, as well as the battle to wrest back our democracy from the clutches of the ruling global oligarchy.
Chris Hedges: The writer Mark Kurlansky, by a series of coincidences, spent his life as a journalist and author in the shadow of Ernest Hemingway. Starting with his presence in Idaho on the day Hemingway died. Mark would reside and work during his career in Paris, the Basque region of Spain, Cuba, and Ketchum, Idaho, all places where Hemingway lived and where his myth remains firmly implanted and celebrated. Mark struggled to free himself from the haunting presence of Hemingway, whose life, starting with the tales he told of being an ambulance driver in Italy in World War I, was a confusing blur of fact, exaggeration, hyperbole, and lies. And yet, Hemingway was undeniably one of the most gifted writers of the 20th century. More importantly, he believed that writers should go places and do things, living with the writer and journalist Martha Gellhorn in the hotel Florida during the siege of Madrid during the Spanish Civil War, hunting big game in Africa, fishing for Marlin off the coast of Key West and Cuba, or joining in American combat units as they fought in France and Germany in World War II.
Mark and I pursued this life as foreign correspondent for newspapers, something Hemingway also did throughout his career, although badly. Hemingway could never disentangle fact from fiction in his life and his writing, including his journalism. There is much in Hemingway’s life in writing to admire and much to reject. Joining me to discuss his new book, The Importance of Not Being Ernest: My Life with the Uninvited Hemingway, is Mark Kurlansky.
So Mark, in your book you have some, I thought, very wise comments about writing. I want to ask you about that. You say that writing is about establishing rhythm, and rhythm is often established by repetition. If a writer seems flat and without appeal, the problem is usually not that he or she does not use the right words, as is often believed, but that the writer is arhythmic. And I thought that captured the essence of Hemingway’s power as a writer. It’s not the [parody] of the staccato sentences. It’s that almost jazz-like rhythm. And I wondered if you could talk about that.
Mark Kurlansky: Yeah. I mean, establishing a rhythm and setting up the line. I found it very rewarding that once in an interview later in his life, he listed Bach as one of his great influences. And I was thrilled to see that because I’m a classical musician, not a very good one, but I regard Bach as a tremendous influence on [writing], a tremendous influence on everything. And [inaudible], that’s what we do. We have a theme, we set it up against another theme. We have rhythms. Sometimes you change the key, but then you get back to the theme. Musicologists say that Bach did theme in variation, both horizontally and vertically, which is a very complex thing. But if you really study what Bach was doing, you can learn a lot about writing.
Chris Hedges: Well, you even say in the book, don’t listen to music while you write.
Mark Kurlansky: Oh, absolutely. It’s a terrible mistake. Because you have to establish the rhythm of what you’re working on. If you’re listening to music, you don’t want your piece to come out sounding like Motown. Although Motown’s nice, but it’s not what your piece is supposed to be.
Chris Hedges: You write in the book that you are very influenced by the [Beatniks], Alan Ginsburg. Poetry of course, like great writing, is, I think, a form of music. And you say for this reason, when you write, that poetry should not be completely understandable, that it expresses the truth that we can sense, but is slightly beyond us. I thought that was a wonderful insight. And I wondered if you could just talk about that.
Mark Kurlansky: Yeah. You know, William Carlos Williams, one of the great modernist poets, was giving a reading somewhere and somebody complained. They didn’t understand the poem. And he said, I’m not asking you to understand it. I’m just asking you to listen. And this is actually very much in line with Hemingway’s thinking about prose, which has famously become known as the iceberg theory, where he didn’t believe that everything should be explained. I think this is a very important idea, a very counterintuitive idea if you’ve spent time as a journalist. Newspapers like you to explain things. If you’re recreating the experiences of life, everything in life isn’t explained, you don’t understand everything, you see.
Chris Hedges: You say in the book, don’t go to school to learn how to write. That if writing is any good, it’s too personal an endeavor to be taught by someone else. I also thought, especially with the proliferation of all these masters of fine arts, this was pretty wise advice.
Mark Kurlansky: Yeah. On the rare occasions when I find myself giving a writing course, I always begin by talking about a conversation I once had. I used to know Isaac Bashevis Singer, and he taught a course at the University of Miami. And I said to him once, what is it you teach there? And he said, I teach what can’t be taught. That’s it, you can’t really teach writing. So when I give a writing course, I mean the worst thing you could do to somebody who’s struggling to become a writer is to tell them how to write. They have to find it in themselves. What I do in a writing class is that I ask everybody to write something and read it and everybody else to criticize it. And what I’m doing is I’m trying to teach critical thinking and how you evaluate criticism that you receive. But also just how you regard things critically. And I think that’s all you can do. I mean, you can’t, you can’t tell somebody how to write.
Chris Hedges: But would it be fair to say that you can teach someone to write clearly, but to write lyrically would be a difference?
Mark Kurlansky: Yeah. You don’t want to teach… I mean, lyricism is something… If you’re not Irish, forget it. But yeah. What you shouldn’t do, and what is done a lot in writing classes, you cannot teach people how to develop their prose style. Your prose style is your voice, and everybody has their own. Some voices are better than others.
Chris Hedges: And yet I think all writers, like many artists, begin by imitation. In your case, I think it was Hemingway, in mine it was Faulkner. I was trying to write a lot of drivel that sounded like Go Down, Moses. And it’s a kind of trap. I mean, you need to break free from it. But talk about those initial stages, because I think that is how you learn how to write and how you learn, perhaps, any artistic expression, is beginning through imitation.
Mark Kurlansky: Yeah, I suppose so. And I suppose when I was really young, I mean was in something like third grade when I decided I wanted to become a writer. And when I was young, well, I mean, Hemingway was a huge influence. Lawrence Ferlinghetti was a huge influence. But you eventually just have to find the voice that’s within you. And a good way to do this is don’t try to write, just tell somebody the story, listen to how you’re telling it. Because for some reason we almost always use our own voice when we tell a story, when we speak. But we have this, if we’re novices, and experienced people have this tendency to imitate great writers when they’re writing, if they just listen to how they speak. Basically, most people do write the way they speak. Hemingway did, if you ever heard recordings. You read Hemingway and it’s sort of odd the way people are talking, but he talked like that.
Chris Hedges: Well, Hemingway was a very stilted public speaker.
Mark Kurlansky: He didn’t like public speaking, no.
Chris Hedges: But he wasn’t very good at it.
Mark Kurlansky: No he wasn’t. And it’s funny because he worked so hard at having a public persona, but he just hated getting up and speaking. He claimed ill health and not going to his Nobel Prize speech. But I think he just didn’t want to do it.
Chris Hedges: Let’s talk about Hemingway, who is this kind of shadow character in your book. He began very early on to turn himself into a myth, into a celebrity. He came back, he was 19 or something. And as you point out in the book, by the way, he only spent a week, I believe, in the front lines in Italy –
Mark Kurlansky: Not as a combat soldier.
Chris Hedges: And not as a combat soldier, although he rapidly inflated his role. And you write that he essentially made himself a fictional character. And what dogged him throughout his life as he became more famous, in the same way that I think it did a figure like Hunter Thompson, I want to speak about that idea of artists becoming myth, because I think it’s very dangerous.
Mark Kurlansky: Well, it is. And it doesn’t make you happy. Hemingway, towards the end of his life, was complaining a lot how nobody knew who he really was. And well, whose fault was that, Hem? But he did create this mythical person that wasn’t him. But he was also a very complicated person, which becomes clear when you talk to people who knew him, which there are not many around, but there were still a few when I was working on the book. And they’re all talking about a different person. The Hemingway who hunted in Idaho was not the Hemingway who hung out in Nevada. Who was the real Hemingway?
I think he was an intellectual. [Dorothy Dugby] who was his secretary and later his daughter-in-law said, when you really got to see the real Hemingway, as if you get him to sit down and talk about writing and painting, that’s who he was, an intellectual. He talked about these things. The Hemingway who talked about fishing and hunting and boxing, that wasn’t who he was.
Chris Hedges: Right. Well, it was this kind of hyper masculine myth. And yet if you read, I think some of his best stuff was written in his early 20s, A Clean, Well-Lighted Place, these are incredibly – Cat in the Rain – These are very sensitive stories that I think show exactly what illustrate the point you’re making.
Mark Kurlansky: He wrote a story that, the title escaped me at the moment, he wrote a story, one of his earlier stories about this guy who comes back from the war. It’s one of the Nick Adams stories. He comes back from the war and he makes up all sorts of stories about his bravado and his war experience. And they’re all lies. And he can’t face himself or deal with his guilt over the things that really happened because he lied so much. Isn’t it interesting that Hemingway wrote that story?
Chris Hedges: Right. So you and I both worked as newspaper reporters, and you write in your book that newspaper writing can crush creative expression. And that’s why, as you say, the prose of many fine journalists, if stretched to book length, induces real pain. And then you quote the novelist William Kennedy, who also worked as a newspaper reporter, who says that while journalism gave him entry into a world he had no right to enter – Which I think is one of the reasons to be a journalist – It also pounded into him the voice of literary objectivity, which he calls “a journalistic virus that paralyzes the imagination and cripples the language.” So I think there are benefits to having worked as a newspaper reporter. Part of it is being able to go places and do things as Hemingway correctly points out. It also teaches you to write cleanly and quickly. But I think that transition to being a book writer, also that newspaper ethos, as you correctly point out, can cripple you. Just talk about that.
Mark Kurlansky: Yeah. I mean, when I was writing for newspapers, I mean, I loved it, but I never intended to remain a newspaper writer. It was more formulaic then than it is today; it was like the lede and the nut graph. And then I always felt like if I wrote a good lede and a good nut graph, then the other 600 words would just be there and you were done.
Chris Hedges: Well, we used to call it B matter. It was just vomiting up what you’d written a few days before.
Mark Kurlansky: Right. And I remember once talking to my editor, foreign editor of The Chicago Tribune, who was one of my favorite editors. He was a really great editor, and an experienced foreign correspondent, and a good guy to work with. And he called me up one day and said, you have just written a 50 word lede. And the only thing I could think of to say to him was, have you never read Proust?
Chris Hedges: Right. Proust did not write for newspapers I believe.
Mark Kurlansky: No, I don’t think he did. Writing for newspapers, exactly like Bill Kennedy said. It teaches you how to get in places and talk to people you’d never get to meet otherwise. And it’s a great experience, but the writing part is not a great experience.
Chris Hedges: Although, a clever lede, I mean, we used to spend a lot of time on our ledes because it’s a hook, and it’s something that Graham Green would always do at the front end of his novels, is use a very clever, well thought-out lede to hook you into the novel.
Mark Kurlansky: Hemingway too. Look at Hemingway’s short stories. Every one of Hemingway’s short stories has a great opening line. Really understood the idea that you hook them in the first line. “In the fall, the war was [always] there, but we didn’t go to it anymore.”
Chris Hedges: Yeah.
Mark Kurlansky: [The opening line of] In Another Country. And you know, it’s often said there’s a lot that’s been written about what Hemingway learned from writing for newspapers. I don’t think he learned much from writing for newspapers. If you read his newspaper copy, he didn’t even learn how to write for newspapers.
Chris Hedges: No, it’s pretty bad. That’s the interesting…
Mark Kurlansky: And I mean, I don’t know how he got away with it. No editor I ever worked with would’ve taken copy like that. But what he learned from that is that he was an avant-garde writer part of the modernist movement. And it’s modernism that made him so clean and concise. It’s not this cable [inaudible]… It’s how they say that how he cabled stories to newspapers is how he got his style. It’s not true. He got this style from Ezra Pound and even Gertrude Stein. He had an interesting relationship with Getrude Stein. He thought that her writing was really interesting but hopelessly unreadable, and he kind of admired the way she didn’t care that she wasn’t commercial. But of course, she came from a wealthy family, so she could do that. But Hemingway wanted to be that experimental modernist, but do it in a way that he would be popular and have readers. And that is really what shaped his writing style, not newspaper work.
Chris Hedges: Well we forget that he was quite close to Joyce, and they would all go out drinking. And Joyce loved drinking with Hemingway because he was a big guy, so when they both got obnoxious in some French bar, people would leave them alone. Although, as you point out in your book, his bravado as a boxer, again, was a myth. He used to fight Ezra Pound, of all people, because Pound knew nothing about boxing. And he liked to knock people down, but he couldn’t actually fight anybody who was a boxer. You and I, by the way, both boxed.
Mark Kurlansky: Yeah. I boxed enough to know he wasn’t, I wasn’t either. I was not a great boxer. I was the opposite of Hemingway. I really didn’t want to hurt anybody.
Chris Hedges: That’s the whole point of boxing, Mark.
Mark Kurlansky: I know.
Chris Hedges: That was the difference between you and me.
Mark Kurlansky: No, if I planted a good punch, there’d be a part of me that might pull back [inaudible]
Chris Hedges: Okay. So you make the point in the book that I thought was also really true and interesting that Hemingway really didn’t know Spain or Cuba, but that he created these powerful fictions of these places that we’re still grappling with, in many ways we still can’t overcome.
Mark Kurlansky: Yeah. You know, he may have known Spain, what he didn’t know is the Basques.
Chris Hedges: Right. That you were specific about that. Yeah.
Mark Kurlansky: He had no idea who the Basques were. And as someone who spent a lot of my life around Basques, I read Hemingway, and it’s a little strange, that’s not who Basques are. Never met a [inaudible] He was a fiction writer, and he created fiction. But you know, as you say, For Whom the Bell Tolls, pretty good portrait of what Spain was like in the Civil War. And you know, one of the interesting things for me, I mean, I didn’t go to Spain because of Hemingway. I went to Spain because it was an incredible experience to see the last 1930s fascist dictatorship still in power.
And it was a fascinating place. It was very different from any place else in the world because it was in this time warp, but it was… The Paris that I went to was completely different than the Paris Hemingway went to. And the Cuba I went to, his Cuba was pre-revolutionary, mine was post. Everything was different except Spain, the Spain I went to, because I went to Spain when Franco was still in power. And the Spain I went to was really the same Spain that he left.
Chris Hedges: I want to talk about Spain. So he had a rupture with John Dos Passos in Spain, Jose Robles Passos he had taught at Johns Hopkins. He translated Dos Passos. He was a Colonel in the Republican army during the war. He was arrested in December of 1936 by the principal communist hatchet man and homicidal maniac Andre Marty. He was the political commissar of the international brigades, credited with the executions of 500 people that he suspected of being spies. Hemingway knew about the executions.
And he knew about who Marty was in his novel For Whom the Bell Tolls. He said that “his face looked as though it was modeled from the waste material of his victims that you find under the claws of a very old lion.” And yet during the war, Hemingway would not denounce the crimes in the way that Orwell did, because of course it would’ve made him a pariah, and he was feted and a celebrity in Spain. It would’ve shattered his privileged status. And he turned his back on Robles, he turned his back on Dos Passos, and I want to talk about that dishonesty, that cowardice, and that betrayal.
Mark Kurlansky: Well, I mean, let’s be honest about this. I mean, so there’s all these reporters there, and he is getting better information, better sources than anyone because he’s a celebrity. Most of his sources are from communists. And if he reported on the bad stuff they were doing, he’d lose his sources. Now you and I both know this is not a unique thing. It’s often without naming names in every war, in every difficult situation, there are reporters who gloss over truths so that they won’t offend the people who are feeding them information. It’s actually, in a way, it’s the most journalistic thing he ever did, unfortunately.
And then he wrote a novel and told all, revealed all the truth, because he didn’t need his sources anymore. It is completely dishonest. It’s interesting, because he was around a lot of good reporters like Herbert Matthew, and they sort of accepted that he would do this. But you know, [inaudible], the Civil War was covered. The New York Times had Herbert Matthew for the Republic, and they had somebody else for the fascists. And Matthew who worked his side, this other guy worked his side, and they filed stories. And I think it must have been extremely confusing for New York Times readers to try to figure out what was going on in Spain. Because you’re getting two different versions all the time. They won the battle, then they lost the battle. I mean it was just completely opposite.
Chris Hedges: Well that’s how The New York Times works. So as a foreign correspondent, I’m writing one thing in El Salvador and the Washington Bureau’s writing another based on administration sources, and it’s that old IF stone line that people who have sources to the powerful, he said they know more than I do. Unfortunately, most of it’s false, and Hemingway spewed propaganda. I mean he talked about how they were winning the war on the Eve of the Republican defeat.
Mark Kurlansky: Yeah. I mean, yeah, it’s the whole thing about journalism. But one thing I always struggled with was the reporters who took everything the US government told them. And sometimes the US government had their own propaganda reasons. Sometimes they were just completely misinformed, but these guys would just take what they were being fed. There’s laziness. You know, you don’t have to go out and find a source.
Chris Hedges: Right. Well that’s the difference, because most reporters in a war zone, the war zones I’ve been in, they don’t want to go out. They want to get the handouts, and they’re used against the rest of us that do go out. And Hemingway wrote a lot of his stories at the bar. He didn’t go out.
Mark Kurlansky: No, he did go out. He did both. He did both. I mean all the material for For Whom the Bell Tolls was from a story he reported on. There’s things that actually happened about blowing up the bridge and stuff. And it was this story that the Communist Party put him up to. You know, they said you go to this place and you’ll get a good story.
Chris Hedges: But did he go or did he interview the people who did it?
Mark Kurlansky: No, he actually went, he went, he went out a lot. He’d go out with Herbert Matthews and they’d go to places. You’ll appreciate this having been in Nicaragua, that he had a great advantage that he had a car and plenty of gasoline. When I was in Nicaragua, I mean, it was pathetic. I just couldn’t get anywhere unless I’d befriended somebody who had a car and a tank full of gas. I was noticing in your new book, you talk about how you avoided working with people who were green and didn’t know what they were doing. In principle, I agree, but the truth is in Nicaragua, I would work with anybody who had the gasoline.
Chris Hedges: So I want to talk about World War II. Hemingway blurred the line between correspondent and combatant, and you and I both know that that’s exceedingly dangerous for those of us who attempt to report in a war zone. He, because Hemingway of course carried a weapon, and perhaps used it, and it’s already dangerous enough.
Mark Kurlansky: Right. Don’t shoot at me, I’m not a combatant. Oh, but this guy over here is. Really bad, but it’s not clear how much of that he actually did.
Chris Hedges: Well, that’s the other thing we can’t tell, which I think you acknowledge in your book, since he’s an unreliable source.
Mark Kurlansky: Yeah. I don’t think he had nearly the role in the liberation of Paris that he claimed he did. They know he didn’t liberate the rips. There were no Germans in the Ritz by the time he got there. Which, if you think about it, the allies have come down from Normandy, they’ve [inaudible] Paris, the troops have come in, and the Germans are sitting around in the Ritz hotel. Really? So he would just make these things up. But one of the interesting things is that the other correspondents got fed up with him doing this stuff and having weapons and acting like a combatant. And they complained about it. And they had a hearing, they examined him. They were considering throwing him out of the front for violating the rules of correspondence. And he denied everything, said, oh, I never did this stuff. You never know when Hemingway was telling the truth.
Chris Hedges: I want to talk about – This is from Hemingway and he is dead on, in the book. This is from your book. He said, “Writers should work alone. They should see each other only after their work is done, and not too often then. Otherwise they become like writers in New York. All angleworms in a bottle, trying to derive knowledge and nourishment from their own contact and from the bottle.” I thought that was kind of brilliant.
Mark Kurlansky: It is. And as a writer who lives in New York, I have to tell you that my saving grace is that I live in Manhattan, whereas all the other writers live in Brooklyn.
Chris Hedges: I want to talk a little bit about his fiction. And I think before we went on the air, you said the only time he’s honest is in his fiction, what do you mean by that?
Mark Kurlansky: Yeah. Well, I mean, he had this code about his fiction, about it being true and honest that he didn’t have about his journalism. So you see in For Whom the Bell Tolls, he talks about the atrocities on both sides. He has this book that was published posthumously in which they’re game hunting, big game hunting in Africa. And there’s this character named Hemingway who was talking about how really awful it is, these white guys going to Africa and killing all their natural resources, and really questioning the whole role of hunters. And he would bring up lots of issues and lots of points of view. And he really, in his fiction, he wasn’t really trying to indoctrinate you. He was trying to just show how it is.
Chris Hedges: Would it be fair to say that’s because he wasn’t writing about himself? That when he wrote about himself, in a way he was building this kind of mythic idea of who he was, but when he stepped out of himself, he could be honest?
Mark Kurlansky: Yeah. I don’t know. You know, it’s not clear when he was writing about himself because in his fiction he has all these characters, Nick Adams, for example, all these characters that clearly seem to be Hemingway, or some aspect of Hemingway. And then he writes about them in ways that are often critical, big and small ways. Jake Barnes, who you really feel is Hemingway, cheats as a fly fisherman and uses bait, something probably Hemingway wouldn’t have done. He was just very complicated.
Chris Hedges: Well, you capture it in the book, which is a great read. That was Mark Kurlansky on his book, The Importance of Not Being Ernest: My Life With the Uninvited Hemingway. I want to thank The Real News Network and its production team: Cameron Grenadino, Adam Coley, Dwayne Gladden, and Kayla Rivara. You can find me at chrishedges.substack.com.