Book Blitz

For Whom the Shill Toils

Hemingway’s lost work for Ringling Bros. and Ballantine Ale.

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What’s wrong with literary self-promotion? Is it crass to energetically promote a novel or collection of poems or short stories that you have worked long and hard upon, and from which you hope to make a few dollars? Is there something immoral about an author renting out his image to build up his brand? Why should only rappers and athletes have their names on sneakers? If Ernest Hemingway were alive, he’d have his name on everything. Certainly there would be a Hemingway-edition SUV of some sort.

A new book of Hemingway arcana, Hemingway and the Mechanism of Fame: Statements, Public Letters, Introductions, Forewords, Prefaces, Blurbs, Reviews, and Endorsements (2006), demonstrates that when self-promotion is done by a marketing master, it can approximate art. Unlike, say, his retiring contemporary and chief competitor William Faulkner, Hemingway had many of his exciting exploits recorded by press photographers. He got in on everything, even the D-Day invasion. He was always showing up in some high-circulation magazine like Life with a big fish on the hook or hunting rifle in hand. His visage was (and is) immediately recognizable. And he had no problem letting that familiar visage appear in ads, for which he also wrote the copy. In one he promotes Ballantine Ale (while sitting in a deck chair with a book open) writing, “You have to work hard to deserve to drink it. When something has been taken out of you by strenuous exercise, Ballantine puts it back in.” There’s one for Pan American Airlines (“We started flying commercially about the same time. They did the flying. I was the passenger.”), and another for Parker 51, “The World’s Most Wanted Pen,” to whose ad Hemingway lent his face and a paragraph (presumably in his handwriting) on the horrors of war.

This slim but dense volume, edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli, one of the chief curators of American Modernism, and Judith Baughman, reproduces these ads in black and white. It also includes, among many other things (such as generous blurbs Hemingway gave to quite a few known and unknown writers), no-surprise items—such as a substantial introduction to the sports guide Atlantic Big Game Fishing (1937)—and big-surprise items, such as a rather brilliant essay on modern circuses that appeared in the 1953 souvenir program of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. There are also letters and statements pertaining to the Spanish Civil War, responses to questionnaires (from the New York Times Book Review for instance) asking about what he had been reading (“books Sartre sends me”), and Hemingway paper dolls from a 1934 issue of Vanity Fair (featuring him as matador, caveman, bon vivant, fisherman, and soldier “hard drinking, hard fighting, hard loving—all for art’s sake”).

Oddly enough, the volume’s editors do not seem to take much pleasure from these exploits—“His claims are sometimes embarrassing,” they note—and in fact regard them as symptomatic of Hemingway’s mental illness. They write in the last paragraph of the introduction:

For most of his professional life Ernest Hemingway was an undiagnosed manic-depressive … Hemingway was nineteen when he was injured in World War I, but he was already an ardent self-fabulist. The progress of Hemingway’s manic-depressions can be traced through the evidence assembled here. After a certain point in the Thirties he may not have known when he was improving on the Ernest Hemingway saga.

Who knew psychiatry was so easy. The exact connection between manic-depression and self-fabulizing is never made explicit by the editors. Are they arguing that some self-publicizing is reasonable, but Hemingway’s was crazy? There is no appeal to any medical authority. In fact, the editors, who have done a remarkable job in putting this well-researched and handsomely illustrated volume together, can barely contain their hostility toward Hemingway in their commentary. In introducing a tribute to the actress Marlene Dietrich that Hemingway wrote for Life, the editors write, “By 1952, the Hemingway act had overtaken the genius.” This does not seem fair. From an imagined moral high ground, they look down upon what they call “the self-legendizing process.”

Though the editors clearly feel a duty to the historical record, what they do not acknowledge is that literary self-promotion has had a long and rich history in the United States. Unlike their European counterparts, who could rely on the patronage of kings, nobles, or government-funded churches, American writers have long had to keep an eye on money, marketing, and “self-legendizing.” Benjamin Franklin did it and so did Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Zora Neale Hurston, Truman Capote, and George Plimpton, for whose book Out of My League Hemingway provided a blurb: “Beautifully observed and incredibly conceived … the dark side of the moon of Walter Mitty.” Plimpton had no problem appearing in a 1980s magazine ad for the early video-game system Intellivision.

Whitman understood the importance of blurbs so well that he reviewed his own books, packing the reviews with blurbable quotes. He also quoted—in an ad (which he paid for himself) for Leaves of Grass (which he paid to have printed)—a kind letter from Ralph Waldo Emerson, without Emerson’s permission and to his chagrin. Mark Twain cultivated his own image even more rigorously than Hemingway did; speaking in his colorful country style, wearing those trademark white suits, shocking the prim Henry James by calling Bret Harte a “son of a bitch,” Twain was able to attract the notice of the New York establishment. To appeal to different audiences, Frederick Douglass flip-flopped in his autobiographies on the topic of his father’s race. In his first memoir, written before abolition, he claims that his father was a white man, which may have appealed to his perceived audience: book-reading, middle-class, New England housewives. In his final autobiography, written after abolition, Douglass claims that he does not know whether his father was white or not. Times had changed. (As it happens, one of Douglass’ most enthralling speeches, delivered many times toward the end of his life, is an inspired piece of oratory called “Self-Made Men.”)

In the intervening years, our culture has become increasingly preoccupied with “authenticity,” and the reclusive genius seems more romantic to us than the swaggering boaster does. Also, the methods by which writers accrue income have drastically changed. Today, literary writers are more likely to try making a living through grants and teaching jobs than through book sales, speaking engagements, or ad revenue. If any promotion is done, it happens largely within two months of a book’s publication, before bookstores send all their copies back, and primarily at stilted in-store readings. Perhaps, if a writer is among the very lucky, the reading will be taped by C-SPAN and aired months later. But the fact that many writers make a living from teaching rather than selling books is no reason to chide authors who were hungry for fame and financial gain.

Whatever Bruccoli and Baughman may argue, Hemingway never saw his publicity stunts as degrading. In an angry 1948 letter scolding his publisher Charles Scribner for letting a book of his that sold “340,000 copies in Denmark” go out of print, he writes, “I have turned down all sorts of propositions, deals, etc. and have kept the product pure. Whatever it is it is as good as I can make it and I have not corrupted it by working for the coast nor doing things I thought were shitty and would hurt me as a writer no matter how much money they brought in.”

Is such marketing shrewdness and good sense really symptomatic of manic-depression? Perhaps. (It certainly takes a lot of devoted energy.) But let’s not be so hasty here. As Hemingway wrote in his piece in the Ringling Bros. circus program, “In your dreams you watch Unus standing on one finger and you think, ‘Look at such a fine, intelligent and excellent man making his living standing on one finger when most of us can’t even stand on our feet.’ ” Indeed, let’s not belittle a writer who was able to (and could probably still) sell beer, when many cannot even sell books.