Ernest Appraisals

The whore with a heart of gold will always be a fixture in pop culture, but in an Ernest Hemingway novel, the archetype is like an ink spill on an immaculate sheet of paper. His women -- dream nurse Catherine from A Farewell to Arms and Georgette the prostitute in The Sun Also Rises come to mind -- are either idealized daydreams or miserable wrecks, pockmarks on novels that otherwise radiate profundity and skill. Creative-writing teachers tell their students, "Write what you know," which is something Hemingway did famously well, for the most part. His treatment of women was the stark exception, the one thing about which critics assert he was extremely misguided.

The author committed suicide in 1961, ending an improbably full life a week and change short of his 62nd birthday. In celebration of the centennial of Hemingway's birth -- on July21, 1899 -- the Florida Center For the Book will launch a year-long program next week. The series of arts and literature events kicks off with a one-woman theatrical performance by Betty Jean Steinshouer, which, appropriately enough, is an examination from a feminine perspective of Hemingway's life andwork.

For years Steinshouer has been doing dramatizations of American women writers Willa Cather, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, and Gertrude Stein. "Hemingway would always pop up as an aside," Steinshouer says of the shows. So the next logical step was to fashion Three Views, a piece about Hemingway featuring those writers.

"Of the three, Cather knew him the least," claims Steinshouer. "Hemingway disliked her, especially after she won the Pulitzer for One of Ours." Despite this antipathy, an interesting connection exists between the two. "[Hemingway] never admitted it," says Steinshouer, "but his spare style shows the influence of Cather's work, which he was very familiar with." Rawlings, though on friendlier terms with the author, didn't get too close. "Rawlings was acquainted with him, but he always kept her at arm's length," explains Steinshouer. "She was never in his circle of friends, though she did become very close with his [third] wife, Martha."

On the other hand, Gertrude Stein and Hemingway were very good friends -- at least for a while. "I end the show with her because she gives the most definitive portrait of him for the age," says Steinshouer. Stein was a pivotal figure in Hemingway's life; she helped him and his first wife, Hadley, adjust to '20s-era Paris and was godmother to their first son, John. But Hemingway's disapproval of Stein's lesbianism and his impatience with her subdued evaluations of his work, among other things, eventually led to the demise of their friendship. When Stein became bitter, Hemingway's masculine posturing turned into a convenient target. "She came to believe that he was really a homosexual," says Steinshouer. "She thought that he was so full ofshit."

The material for the show comes entirely from the correspondence and writings of the women, so there is no room for editorializing. "I've pretty much had to wipe my slate clean," says Steinshouer. "My feelings about [Hemingway] have changed over the years. I think I've grown more sympathetic. Basically, he's a hell of a writer and a very jumbled human being."

Not everyone feels the same way. Feminists, in particular, continue to assail Hemingway, saying the violence that played a big role in his life and work serves as evidence of machismo and insecurity. But Steinshouer believes that Hemingway was just as puzzled and pained as others by the savagery of society. She tells the story of his forced departure from Cuba during the revolution in the late '50s, when "the hardest thing for him wasn't leaving, but that [soldiers] had killed hisdog."

Not too long after his exodus from Cuba, Hemingway killed himself with a shotgun, a tragic event that injects sadness into Steinshouer's portrait. "The poignant part is, you have these women," she says, "talking about him and the violence and savagery in his life, not knowing how he'll eventually end up." -- ElbertVentura

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Elbert Ventura