As literary blog subjects go, Hemingway is a loaded one. He’s fish in a barrel. Hell, he’s frozen fish sticks that someone’s already browned golden in a toaster oven on Christmas morn, then re-placed in the barrel like some woefully inept Santa. Hemingway has always existed: when you depict him, you might as well be describing the concept of “uncles”, or “varnish”, or “premature ejaculation.” He is ageless and forever.
Among his many virtues, Hemingway is oft-remembered as a sports aficionado, both as barrel-chested participant and sandwich-bellied observer. Hemingway once claimed that “There are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games.” What follows is a compendium of this athletic trio within his writing, alongside attempts to understand what made these three pursuits the veritable wind beneath his beard.
FIGURE I: BULLFIGHTING.
Found in: The Sun Also Rises (1925), “The Undefeated” (1927), Death in the Afternoon (1932), “The Capital of the World” (1936), The Dangerous Summer (1960).
Potent quotable: “He [the matador] must have a spiritual enjoyment of the moment of killing… when a man is still in rebellion against death he has pleasure in taking to himself one of the Godlike attributes, that of giving it. This is one of the most profound feelings in those men who enjoy killing. These things are done in pride and pride, of course, is a Christian sin and a pagan virtue. But it is pride which makes the bull-fight and true enjoyment of killing which makes the great matador.” – Death in the Afternoon.
The Suicidal Silver-Hairline’s Playbook: By the time of Death in the Afternoon‘s publication, Hemingway claimed to have seen fifteen hundred bulls die in the ring, and to have owned 2,077 “books and pamphlets in Spanish dealing with or touching on tauromania.” By comparison, I purport to be an expert on Dennis Hopper, despite owning a mere four biographies of the man and having never seen Hoosiers. Not once. Not even midway through on TBS. No limited commercial interruptions para mí. What a fraud I have become, doomed to mania-level expertise of nothing.
Regardless, Hemingway loved bullfighting. The Sun Also Rises‘s depiction of the sport’s “fiesta” life inspired a generation of leisure-class lushes to pursue casual sex with foreigners. He was fond of depicting Anglo-Saxons as life-affirming, while deeming Spainards to be morbidly enamored with death. A plausible theory, but one too alienating and exoticizing of “the Other” for my tastes. If Spaniards are damned elegiac, why is Penelope Cruz so stoked in those Nespresso ads? Coffee is for busy people on the go.
After winning the Nobel Prize in 1954, Hemingway traveled to visit the bed-ridden bullfighting master Pio Baroja. Hemingway suggested in jest that Baroja was more deserving of the Nobel than he. Baroja agreed and a heated argument ensued. But what Wikipedia won’t tell you is that their fight was broken up by a real-life milk cow, or “lady bull”, serving in Baroja’s home as a live-in nurse on call 24/7. Hemingway would go on to marry the mooing, bell-adorned caretaker, Natasha Fleischmann-Hemingway, in a private ceremony on May 3, 1959.
FIGURE II: MOTOR RACING.
Found in: Not a crapping word of any of it.
Potent quotable: Subdued coughing, awkward adjustment of uncharacteristic necktie, coursing of fingers through combover.
The Suicidal Silver-Hairline’s Playbook: Despite inclusion of professional driving within his Big Three, Hemingway did not see fit to write about it much, if at all. Dude wrote enough about fishing to be crucified at Sea World, and still manages to leave it off his All-Time Best Sports list in favor of bumper cars de la Daytona. It’s as if he simply forgot to include fishing, the way one forgets a spouse in an acceptance speech, or mixes up phrases in a hungover stupor. “Did I say motor racing? I meant the one with worms and them hooky-cord sticks.” Of all of his work (that I’ve read), only “Fifty Grand” from Men Without Women makes mention of racing at all, ‘cept it’s that of horses.
Hemingway also failed to practice expert wheelsmanship in daily life. He is said to have been in a number of drunk driving accidents, including one in 1930 with John Dos Passos that resulted in a broken arm for Hemingway, and the spillage of an entire wine chalice for Dos Passos. Another, in 1945, came about after pounding one too many midday daiquiris while mourning the end of his marriage to Martha Gellhorn. Daiquiris, bro? Was the post-war equivalent of T.G.I. Fridays out of piña colada mix? Did some barkeep who bombed Dresden not know how to make a Fuzzy Navel? For an abject misogynist, Hemingway sure seems to have enjoyed what lesser gents than I would deem “girly drinks”. Now please, do pass the s’mores-infused vodka, won’t you?
FIGURE III: MOUNTAINEERING.
Found in: “Cross Country Snow” (1924), “Big Two-Hearted River” (1925), Green Hills of Africa (1935), “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” (1936).
Potent quotable: The trail went up into the hills and the cattle in the summer were shy as deer. The bawling and the steady noise and slow moving mass raising a dust as you brought them down in the fall. And behind the mountains, the clear sharpness of the peak in the evening light and, riding down along the trail in the moonlight, bright across the valley. Now he remembered coming down through the timber in the dark holding the horse’s tail when you could not see and all the stories that he meant to write. – “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.”
The Suicidal Silver-Hairline’s Playbook: While Mauna Kea, Mauna Loa, Mount McKinley, Kilimanjaro, and the weakest chump hills among the Himalayas had all been ascended by the time Hemingway was a famed writer, others – such as Everest, K2, and Kangchenjunga – mocked the mustachioed gents and pompadoured broads who would attempt to scale them. Most people who dared even look at a tall mountain during the Jazz Age were soon stricken with a condition known as “Jazz Vertigo”, their precursor to a slow, painful death. But then, from what we’ve learned here, the entire appeal of sports for Hemingway appears to have been the potential opportunity to “accidentally” get “straight-up murdered”.
James R. Mellow’s fine biography Hemingway: A Life Without Consequences makes but one off-handed mention of Papa doing any mountaineering of his own: a 1922 excursion to Chambly-sur-Montreux in Switzerland with first wife Hadley Richardson. Today, Hemingway is the namesake of several mountaineering ventures, including the Hemingway Buttress found on the Lost Horse Trail of the Joshua Tree National Park. Many a horse has been lost in said buttress, its winding cracks and ragged crannies ever inviting. Yet no roughed-up buttress can diminish Hemingway’s sharply refined prose. His beloved style of minimalism and omission is in fact often dubbed “the iceberg theory”. And what, Dear Reader in Search of Tightly Distilled Prose, is an iceberg if not a really, really, really, totally, really cold mountain?