Author: Mary V. Dearborn

Data: Knopf, 627 pages, $35.

By Hansen Alexander

For the Times-Union

Mary Dearborn has written the first full-blown biography of Ernest Hemingway from a woman’s perspective and the practical consequences are a better understanding of the famous author’s bitter and contentious relationship with his mother, an explanation of the sibling rivalries with his sisters, and a sympathetic take on his four wives and the sex with each of them, which most dramatically involved gender role playing with wives Pauline Pfeiffer and Mary Welsh.

The downside of taking a woman’s point of view in this 627-page biography is that Dearborn cannot decide at times whether she wants to be Hemingway’s biographer or his mother Grace Hemingway’s biographer.

The indecision comes shockingly to the fore early in the book when Dearborn describes the mind games and humiliations Grace Hemingway visits on Ernest in making him and his sister Marcelline dress identically in attending high school functions, indeed forces Ernest to be Marcelline’s date at her first dance. Among the mind games was making the siblings have exactly the same haircut, and Dearborn later suggests that Hemingway’s erotic fascination with the hair of his wives, which involved extensive rituals, derived from his mother’s insistence of looking like his sister. What Dearborn ignores, and it sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb, is the psychological impact this monstrous behavior would later have on Ernest’s belligerent behavior and false bravado.

This is a sprawling and informative biography thath benefits from a careful reading of Hemingway family letters from a time in which people communicated with each other mainly through letters, often several times a day. No member of the family, particularly Ernest, held back in the correspondence, and the result is a baring of the family’s soul where no slight went unanswered, no scandalous conduct goes unreported. For example, Ernest and his siblings freely discuss their mother Grace Hemingway’s lesbian affair with the family babysitter, Ruth Arnold, with whom Grace lived with after the suicide of her husband.

Dearborn’s major success in this very well-written book is to establish that Ernest Hemingway’s self-centered, bullying behavior was a product of an artistic family in which several members, including himself, were bipolar. His mother was both a talented singer and painter who performed in Madison Square Garden before she married and made money as a painter well into old age.

Ever since the posthumous publications of Hemingway’s novels “Islands in the Stream” and “The Garden of Eden,” in which Hemingway’s characters engage in gender role playing, literary scholars have been entranced by the subject of Hemingway’s sexuality, and Dearborn explores this subject in depth and great detail.

What is more controversial in these pages, however, is the evidence Dearborn has compiled from Hemingway’s own letters that she believes shows he was curious about having sex with men, a possibility that Hemingway pushed back against, almost violently, his whole life, both in the creation of his he-man image and his almost frantic distancing of himself from that possibility in angry letters and pronouncements the rest of his life.

Dearborn’s contentions about Hemingway’s interest in men comes down to several letters he wrote to a rich American, Jim Gamble, 12 years older and Red Cross volunteer, who comforted Hemingway while his shrapnel was removed from his legs, and who became a friend as Hemingway recovered from his war wounds in a Milan hospital. Hemingway later joined Gamble on a vacation to Taormina, Italy, paid for by Gamble.

Grateful to Gamble for the Sicilian trip, Hemingway wrote in March 1917, “Every minute of every day I kick myself for not being at Taormina with you. When I think of old Taormina by moonlight and you and me…strolling through the great old place.” Later, Hemingway writes Gamble that he is “sick” not being at Taormina…”thinking of us sitting in front of the fire.” In 1920, Gamble reached out to him again, telling Ernest he was returning to Europe and heading to Rome and invited him on another tour. Hemingway responded that he would “Rather go to Rome with you than heaven.”

Based on these letters, Dearborn states rather melodramatically that Hemingway “suppressed any knowledge he might have had of the kind of relationship seemingly sought by Gamble.” She asks, in what is certainly a rhetorical question, “Was he uneasy that the trip would involve homosexual relations…?”

While these letters do sound romantic, Dearborn admits that there is no evidence at all to suggest Gamble was even gay, and nothing is really known of his personal life other than he was briefly married. Furthermore, Hemingway always wrote for effect, intending for all his writing to be preserved for posterity. The time period was only some 20 years after Oscar Wilde was imprisoned for his homosexuality in 1895, making it highly unlikely that Hemingway would have put such a confession in writing if it were true.

For the first time reader who may not have read any Hemingway or about him, this serves as an excellent introduction because Dearborn’s handling of Hemingway’s works is superb, not only in the best explanation I have yet read of his “iceberg” theory of writing, keeping the real meaning below the surface with a minimalist touch, but also with an excellent overview of Hemingway plots and the real people who served as models for his major characters. Dearborn also does a good job of explaining how Hemingway, heavily censored in his day for sexually explicit details, became all the more famous because of it.

Jacksonville author Hansen Alexander’s most recent books are ”How the Lions Ate Tim Tebow” and “One Brave Man,” a biography of Roger Clemens.