Books: An American Storyteller

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The Hemingway of World War II wore a canteen of vermouth on one hip, a canteen of gin on the other, a helmet that he seldom used because he couldn't find one big enough. Accredited a foreign correspondent for Collier's (he jokingly called himself "Ernie Hemorrhoid, the poor man's Pyle"), he took part in more of the European war than many a soldier. With Colonel (now Major General) Charles T. Lanham's 22nd Infantry Regiment, he went through the Normandy breakthrough, Schnee Eifel, the Hiirtgen Forest bloodletting and the defense of Luxembourg. Gathering 200 French irregulars around him, he negotiated huge allotments of ammunition and alcohol and assisted in the liberation of Paris. Hemingway personally liberated the Ritz Hotel, posted a guard below to notify incoming friends: "Papa took good hotel. Plenty stuff in cellar." Commander of the Chain. The postwar Hemingway settled into another good hotel, the Gritti in Venice, to write "the big book" about World War II (a draft is now finished). But a piece of gun wadding went into his eye during a duck hunt and started an infection that doctors feared was going to kill him. Wanting to get one more story out of himself, he put the big book aside and batted out Across the River and Into the Trees, which most critics found a middle-aged love fantasy with an admixture of bad-tempered military shoptalk. Said Hemingway about the critics: "I have moved through arithmetic, through plane geometry and algebra, and now I am in calculus. If they don't understand that, to hell with them."

It is impossible to overlook the adolescent in Hemingway—his bravado, his emotional friendships, his vague but all-important code, his deep sentimentality about the good, the true, the straight, the beautiful, and occasionally the unprintable. But to preserve something of the adolescent through three decades in a world of literary critics, parodizers and cocktail-party highbrows takes a certain admirable courage. Above all, Hemingway can laugh at himself. Typical of Hemingway making fun of Hemingway is El Ordine Militar, Nobile y Espirituoso de los Caballeros de Brusadelli—which means, more or less, the Military Order of the Noble and Spirited Knights of Brusadelli. It was founded by Hemingway in Italy, and named, as he explains in Across the River and Into the Trees, "after a particularly notorious multi-millionaire taxpaying profiteer of Milan, who had . . . accused his young wife, publicly and legally through due process of law, of having deprived him of his judgment through her extraordinary sexual demands." As Commander of the Great Chain of the Order, Hemingway distributed knighthoods to friends; after his recovery he returned to Cuba, and mailed reports to fellow members. A sample, written just after he had finished writing The Old Man and the Sea: "Your Cuban representative has not been able to do much for the Order in the last year due to the deplorable necessity of writing a book . . . The book will be published on Sept. 8th and all members of the Order will observe a moment of silence. The password will be: 'Don't cheer, boys. The poor readers are dying.' "

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