Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The fiction of nonfiction

The cliché used to be that history was written by the winners. Then, Max Lerner revised it, saying “History is written by the survivors.”

Now, Ernest Hemingway’s grandson has proven history can be revised by the progeny.

Seán Hemingway has re-edited his grandfather’s memoir “A Moveable Feast,” casting Papa as equally culpable in his first divorce.

First, some back story is in order. Hemingway divorced four times. “Feast” included the story of how Hemingway left his first wife, Hadley Richardson, for her friend, Pauline Pfeiffer.

“Feast”—which was cobbled together posthumously by Hemingway’s fourth wife using unpublished scraps—placed the onus for the divorce primarily on Pfeiffer. Hemingway is portrayed as the prey, Pfeiffer as predator.

Seán Hemingway is Pfeiffer and Hemingway’s grandson. He has included other unpublished Hemingway passages in a new edition of the memoir. If the new passages do not exonerate Pfeiffer, they make Hemingway equally guilty.

I’m not here to hash out Papa’s romantic history. My question is this: How valid is this sort of revisionist history?

I’d argue that it’s fair for three reasons.

One, “A Moveable Feast” was never a Hemingway-sanctioned manuscript. He made it clear that it was an unfinished piece shortly before it died. So it can’t be treated as an accurate history, or even as an accurate portrayal of how Hemingway wanted to be remembered.

Instead, it can only be treated as how Hemingway’s fourth wife, Mary Hemingway, wanted him to be remembered.

Similarly, this new edition is how Seán Hemingway wants Hemingway (and his grandmother) to be portrayed.

Two, both are still using Hemingway’s words. It’s not like Mary or Seán Hemingway wrote unauthorized biographies. Even if Hemingway’s stories are not edited as he would have liked, at least they are his stories.

While Hemingway’s mind could change (as proven by his several divorces), at least the words Seán used were true to his grandfather when he wrote them.

Finally, any nonfiction that involves an opinion or supposition is a fallacy. Margaret Atwood wrote:

It’s impossible to say a thing exactly the way it was, because what you say can never be exact, you always have to leave something out, there are too many parts, sides, crosscurrents, nuances; too many gestures, which could mean this or that, too many shapes which can never be fully described, too many flavors in the air or on the tongue, half-colors, too many.

We cannot write things exactly as they were. (This is something I struggle with everyday as a newspaper writer.) Even the most objective writer must still decide what details are worth including, what statements merit quoting.

You can try to be fair. You can try to be objective. You can try to be accurate. Ultimately, you must admit what you write is an account of the events, not the account of the events.

This doesn’t mean Mary, Seán or even Ernest Hemingway are liars. It just means most things in life are subjective. “A Moveable Feast” is no exception.

-Jason Lea, JLea@News-Herald.com

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