Hemingway Encounters: A Biographer Reminisces

Article excerpt

In this memoir, Donaldson recalls informative and interesting meetings with several major figures in Hemingway studies, including Charles A. Fenton, Malcolm Cowley, Carlos Baker, Mary Hemingway, Michael S. Reynolds, Paul Smith, and Paul Montgomery. The essay is a lightly revised version of his kickoff address at the 2010 Hemingway Conference in Lausanne, Switzerland.

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The story begins in a large college classroom at Yale, fall of 1949. About a hundred of us, mostly juniors and seniors, were there to witness Charlie Fentons inaugural talk for Daily Themes. This course, still functioning, was designed to give semi-literary or at least literate Yalies a chance to test themselves as writers. Five times a week, we were required to produce up to 500 words of copy: not themes at all, really, but fragments of fiction, anecdotes, sketches, descriptions, scenes. These effusions were often composed late at night, after beery outings at the tables down at Mory's. A cadre of four instructors read them and in one-on-one conferences suggested how they might be improved. Three of the four were well-established professors. The fourth was Fenton, a young graduate student who'd earned his master's degree the previous spring. Once a week we met as a group to hear one of these mentors illustrate by example the five Daily Themes slogans, or rubrics, containing as Professor Richard Sewall (later the biographer of Emily Dickinson) assured us, "all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."

1.) Individualize by specific detail.

2.) Vivify by range of appeal.

3.) Characterize by speech and gesture.

4.) Clarify by point of view.

5.) Unify by a single impression.

Well, Charles A. Fenton stood there before us that October morning. He wore the Ivy League uniform: gray trousers, tweed jacket, striped tie, very Brooks Brothers. In no other way, though, did he resemble the typical Yale professor. Curly-haired and slightly sardonic, he looked five years younger than his actual thirty. We took to him as more like one of us than his colleagues in the English department. Except that he was different, and the difference appealed to us too. The class of 1950, Yale's largest ever, accommodated a sizable number of World War II veterans, and soon we heard that Fenton had left Yale during his sophomore year in 1940 to join the Royal Canadian Air Force, that for four years he served as a tail gunner on bombing missions over Germany, that he was shot down at least once but managed to survive. We also gathered that he'd worked on metropolitan newspapers, that he'd won a prize for a novel (or part of a novel) about the war, and that he was soon to embark on a book about Ernest Hemingway.

In short he had done and was doing the things we ourselves yearned to do. We liked that, and liked the way he carried himself with the side-of-the-mouth offhand wit and irreverent stance of the hardened warrior and newspaperman. Young as he was, he'd been around barracks and city rooms long enough to acquire a cynicism that made him dubious about almost all received wisdom and distrustful of anyone who dispensed it.

For his talk, Fenton chose to read from a characteristically non-canonical story, James Thurber's "You Could Look It Up." Thurber told his tale through the voice of a tough-talking trainer traveling with a major league baseball team. What we could look up, the trainer said, was the time that manager Squawks Magrew sent a cigar-chomping midget (named Pearl du Monville) up to bat in an important game, feeling sure that the opposing pitcher would be unable to locate the diminished strike zone and the little guy would get a base on balls. The midget came to the plate with strict instructions to crouch, making the pitcher's task more difficult, and under no circumstances to lift the bat off his shoulder. Everything would have worked out as planned, except that Pearl developed delusions of grandeur and decided to take a whack at the ball. …