In this revealing and thoughtful assessment of an iconic (and problematic) author’s work, Niamh Browne looks at the work of Ernest Hemingway and its relationship with ideas of gender.
It’s almost laughable – yes Hemingway. The embodiment of toxic masculinity. The guy who writes books almost exclusively about drinking too much, hunting innocent animals, getting into fights and sleeping with heaps of adoring women. Yes, that cis-het man. I want to talk about what this man has to say on gender, which is surprisingly a lot.
One thing we often forget when we think about the past is they didn’t have gender or queer concepts in the way we do now, and often it’s reductive to say someone was queer or experienced gender dysmorphia because people weren’t aware that these concepts existed. They were simply existing. On top of that, a lot of gender norms we now have are incredibly modern. Blue was a girl’s colour and pink a boy’s colour until the mid-twentieth century. Boys, like Hemingway, were often dressed in dresses until they were in their early teens. In the late Victorian era, it was normal for actresses to play the role of men in pantomimes. The gender spectrum is ever-evolving and our concepts of what is masculine and feminine are too. I want to make the argument that Heminway, through his insane hyper-masculine overcompensation, expressed some of the most searing truths on the human experience of gender.
There’s a fascinating and almost entirely forgotten Hemingway novel which he spent 15 years of his life writing. This novel is about a newly married couple grappling with issues of gender identity and sexual dynamics. The Garden of Eden follows David and Catherine Bourne who honeymoon on the French Riviera. Catherine decides to crop her hair and bleach it blonde, she then tells her husband ‘I’m a girl. But now I’m a boy too and I can do anything and anything and anything’. The couple then begin to change positions and experiment in bed with Catherine as the ‘man’ and David as the ‘woman’. David also crops his hair ultra-short and bleaches it blonde so they can look the same. The androgyny and sexual exploration is enough to make Sally Rooney blush.
They soon fall in love with a young Spanish woman; Marita. David and Catherine both sleep with Marita but on different occasions. This, along with all the gender-bending, ultimately leads to the deterioration of their marriage. Hemingway nursed this manuscript for many years but considered it to be ‘too sexually adventurous’ to be released in his lifetime. The protagonist, like the author, was a novelist and WWI veteran and Hemingway may have felt he would have been too emotionally exposed by the gender dysmorphia in the novel.
This gender theory also wasn’t an entirely academic exercise for Hemingway, he had personal experience with gender identity issues. Gloria Hemingway was his third child, born Gregory. She struggled in and out of gender dysmorphia issues her whole life. As a child, Gloria longed to be the Hemingway archetypal hero: she was a doctor, who trained to be a professional hunter but her alcoholism meant she lost her medical license and failed to obtain her hunting one. She was estranged from the family due to her “unsuitable marriage” and excessive drug-taking. It’s not complete conjecture to say that this was possibly a by-product of her gender dysmorphia. In her book, “Papa, a Memoir”, she writes about her own struggles and experimentation with women’s clothing. She had four marriages and 8 children. When Hemingway won the Nobel prize in 1954, Gloria got back in touch with her father to congratulate him. He wrote her back and thanked her, and sent her a check for 5 thousand dollars. They maintained contact for the rest of Ernest’s days. At the time of Gloria’s death, she was in the process of incomplete gender reassignment surgery but presented publicly as Gregory in interviews.
Hemingway cultivated this persona of bravado and masculinity. He struggled with reckless alcoholism and remains one of the most conflicting and intriguing literary figures in history. His novels carry with them kernels of truth. The more I read his novels, the more I see the fingerprints of gender dysmorphia all over them.