Book Review
Sunday, March 3, 2013
Paul Hendrickson: Writer of Good Fortune and Great Talent

By Brewster Chamberlin

If I were to begin a review of Paul Hendrickson's "Hemingway's Boat," about which he will speak at the Friends of the Key West Library lecture on Monday, March 4 at 6 p.m. in The Studios of Key West, I'd do it this way:

There has never been a nonfiction book on Hemingway that reads something like a combination of "Tristram Shandy," "The Tin Drum" and Richard Ellmann's magisterial biography of James Joyce -- until now. There has never been such an encyclopedic and quirky (in the most positive sense) study of Hemingway that brings to mind such works as Robert Byron's "Road to Oxiana" and James Agee and Walker Evans' "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men" -- until now.

In "Hemingway's Boat," Paul Hendrickson has composed a different mode of biographical studies. Deeply and rigorously researched over a seven-year period, he has written a combination of straightforward narrative and wide-ranging but vitally relevant digressions that take the reader into new Hemingway territory. Given the academic and journalistic attention paid to this author, it is a great accomplishment to have added some things new to the understanding of the man's life and work. Although not a critical study of the work, Hendrickson cannot avoid making occasional judgments about the writings and their critic-interpreters and these evaluations are always well-grounded and stand as the essence of clarity.

He declares that the book "isn't meant to be a Hemingway biography, not in the conventional sense, and much less is it meant to be the nautical history of a piece of floating wood." And it isn't, but it is a deeply sensitive portrait of a man and his boat over a period of 27 years and three months, presenting the reader with a plethora of detail about various aspects of both the boat and the man and their relationship. With regard to the style of the narrative, Hendrickson tells it best: "So there are more than a few purposeful zigzags and loop-arounds and time-bends and flashbacks and flash-forwards and other sorts of departures from the main frame here, but generally the story is on a trajectory from early spring 1934 to early summer 1961." This makes the book a different and fascinating read, although some might carp that it also makes for confusion. I am not among them because I did not find the book confusing at all. Indeed, it carries the reader forward at an almost dizzying pace. It is eminently readable due, no doubt, to Hendrickson's years as a staff writer for The Washington Post before he joined the English Department at the University of Pennsylvania.

Norman Mailer would have wanted to write this book. Many have tried to reconcile the deep contradictions in the Hemingway character. Hendrickson comes close but perhaps none can resolve those paradoxes of one man's mind and behavior. Hendrickson's great contribution is to limn such matters more clearly than anyone else in a readable, non-jargon-choked prose.

However, this is not meant to be a review of the book; it is meant to be an introduction to the man himself. (A review of "Hemingway's Boat" by Snow Philips has already appeared in Solares Hill.) I should perhaps note here that Hendrickson is a friend of mine and in his book he is lavish in his praise of my own work on Hemingway's life and times. I state in all honesty that this has not clouded my appreciation of his masterful and moving study.

Paul has lived a daunting life, especially when one considers that he spent seven years in a Roman Catholic seminary studying for the priesthood before realizing that such a life was not for him. He writes movingly about this in his first book, "Seminary: A Search" (1983). At the beginning of the first chapter he notes about his departure from the seminary, "When I came out I was 21 years old, a virgin, scared stiff. I had never met a Jew; I had never been on a date; most of my cultural heroes had 'Saint' affixed to their names."

He did attend college, after which he entered the world of journalism as a newspaper writer, eventually becoming a staff writer for The Washington Post and, coincidentally, lived with his family down the street from my wife and me on Capitol Hill, although we didn't know each other then. His other major works followed, as if logically and expectedly, a biography of the American photographer Marion Post Walcott (1992); "The Living and the Dead: Robert McNamara and Five Lives of a Lost War" (1996), a sad and wrenching examination of the results of a radically misguided American policy and its effects; "Sons of Mississippi: A Story of Race and Its Legacy" (2004) examines the children and grandchildren of the seven white men, one with a billy club, who met James Meredith when he attempted to register at the University of Mississippi in 1962: a bitter, twisted legacy.

He is now a senior lecturer on the faculty in the creative writing program at the University of Pennsylvania and working on a new book about Frank Lloyd Wright.

To return briefly to the theme of his new work: In 1922, Hemingway wrote to Sherwood Anderson praising Joyce's "Ulysses" as "a most goddamn wonderful book." Now, in 2013, I say the same thing about Hendrickson's Hemingway book.