When Ernest Hemingway’s novel The Garden of Eden was published in 1986, it changed our reading of the author’s life and work. Uncompleted at his death in 1961, the Garden manuscript revealed the “depth of his interest in homosexuality and the mutability of gender,” writes literary scholar Valerie Rohy. Combined with his widow Mary Welsh Hemingway’s diary and memoir, the book suggested a different way of looking at an author who wore his hypermasculinity on his safari jacket sleeve.
In the novel, David and Catherine, a honeymooning American couple in Europe, explore switching gender roles. Catherine bobs her hair to a boyish cut, explaining, “I’m a girl, but now I’m a boy, too.” When they have sex, and she evidently penetrates him (it’s ambiguously written), she says, “Now you can’t tell who is who can you?”
Since the 1980s, Rohy writes, Hemingway studies has undergone “a fundamental revision as scholarship revealed unimagined complexities in the gendered life of the iconically masculine author.” Some have labeled Hemingway perverse and deviant, suffering from, in the phrase of one critic, a “wound of androgyny.”
“Diagnoses of his supposed perversity not only limit our understanding of Hemingway; they also perpetuate gender biases whose effects are by no means confined to literature,” Rohy argues. “…[T]he derogation of Hemingway’s femininity perpetuates a critical discourse in which intolerance of gender variation persists.”
Hemingway’s most prominent critics in the 1980s found his literary and life explorations in gender fluidity, sexual metamorphosis, and disruptions of gender normativity “essentially and irremediably pathological.” They faulted Hemingway for his “failed masculinity.”
“The notion of Hemingway’s femininity as pathological has continued into the twenty-first century, despite the presence of more progressive voices in Hemingway scholarship and in modernist studies,” according to Rohy.
Rohy does not propose to categorize Hemingway’s gender identity but terms the responses to it in English departments “transphobic.” This she defines as a refusal to accept “gender complexity, targeting persons whose apparent ‘physical’ sex does not match their felt or expressed gender.” She argues for a transgender reading of Hemingway “whether or not we see him as a transgender author.”
Not that Rohy necessarily believes Hemingway should be inducted “into the pantheon of LGBT writers.” “His macho reputation seems to license today’s critics to devalue his femininity, as if demonstrating their loyalty” to a mythic image of the author. In twentieth-century culture, “Papa” Hemingway was orthodox masculinity personified: a big game hunter and war correspondent who married four times and honed an influential, unadorned prose style that has frequently been characterized as “masculine.” Hemingway’s own “less than liberal remarks on gender and sexuality”—as in his comments on measuring F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “phallic adequacy” in A Moveable Feast—were typical of someone trying hard to be the manliest man in town.
But Hemingway’s gender complexity means he was neither a cartoonish he-man nor someone suffering under what one critic terms “androgynous weakness.” Rohy concludes that the “ability to imagine non-normative gendering in terms of plentitude rather than lack yields a better understanding of female masculinity and male femininity[.]”
The Ken Burns and Lynn Novick documentary Hemingway is now streaming on PBS.