ESSAYS: Ernest Hemingway: The Importance of Middle-Class Masculinity

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Ernest Hemingway is a legendary writer who was born on July 21, 1899 in Oak Park, Illinois. He was the second of Clarence and Grace Hemingway’s six children. He was raised in a strict Protestant community that tried as hard as possible to be separate themselves from the big city of Chicago, though they were very close geographically. While growing up, the young Hemingway spent lots of his time hunting and fishing with his father, and learned about the ways of music with his mother. He attended school in the Oak Park Public School system and in high school, Hemingway played sports and wrote for the school newspaper.

Ernest Hemingway has received several awards for his work such as the Pulitzer Prize in 1953, the Prize for Fiction for his novel The Old Man and the Sea, and The Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954 for his mastery of the art of narrative, most recently demonstrated in The Old Man and the Sea, and for the influence that he has exerted on contemporary style (The Life and Work of Ernest Hemingway in Oak Park). He is acclaimed as being the most influential writer of our time, “the most important author living today, the outstanding author since the death of Shakespeare” according to John O’Hara. Yet recently, his works have come under heavy fire for their blatant use of homophobia, androgyny, and misogyny. Rumors are spewed from critic to critic about his mysterious sexuality. Different sources claim different interpretations of his simple, yet complex stories. While others claim that to believe Hemingway purposefully used androgyny, misogyny, or homophobia is ludicrous, I believe the opposite. Hemingway’s homophobia, which was shaped by his early life experiences and American society, is evident in many of his works such as “Mr. and Mrs. Elliot” and The Sun Also Rises.

There may be two main reasons as to Hemingway’s strong homophobia. One such cause is the American society at the time. Hemingway grew up in the mid-nineteenth century in which the advancements in industrialization opened opportunities for a division of labor in the American work place. As a result, more and more male workers found themselves able to earn a decent amount of money from means other then manual labor. As Gail Bederman notes, “Between 1820 and 1860, as increasing numbers of men had begun to earn comfortable livings as entrepreneurs, professionals, and managers, the middle class had become increasingly conscious of itself as a class, with interests, tastes, and lifestyles different from both the very rich and from those who performed manual labor” (209). By the end of the nineteenth century, the middle class in America had an identity separate from that of the upper and working classes.

Along with this identity came a Victorian ideology. They began giving their society “roles” for males and females. Those that did not fit into those “roles” were considered “abnormal”. In the words of Byrne Fone: By the 1880s in both England and America, the Victorian medical theorists and social commentators had participated with social and sexual activities of men and women, assigning to each very different roles. The “true woman” was to be submissive socially and sexually, the manager of domestic life, pious as well as morally “pure.” Men were socially and sexually assertive, benign rulers of the patriarchal family, and active providers of material goods. Victorian theorists argued that these roles were dictated by nature and biology and that their qualities were “naturally” associated with the biological female or male. (183) According to the Victorian standard that was being upheld by the middle-class medical profession, the dominance of the male was not something designed by society, but a sign of “civilization,” a natural fact of evolution. American middle-class “civilization” depended greatly on the division of the two sexes into different “spheres”. These spheres epitomized their role in society, home life, and the workplace. Without this division they believed they were no different than the “savages” from whom they tried to individuate themselves from. Bederman states, “Savage (that is, nonwhite) men and women were almost identical, but civilized races had evolved the pronounced sexual differences celebrated in the middle-class’s doctrine of separate spheres” (213).

As time went on females were becoming more and more commonplace in the workplace. The middle-class began losing jobs that were once defined as “masculine.” Women were slowly raiding their sphere. While they never had much love for the jobs of their male counterparts, the mere presence of women was unsettling to the concept of middle-class masculinity. Males began to fear that they were not as different from women as they once believed. To further the troubles, men were beginning to link themselves with another group males that didn’t differentiate itself from females: homosexuals. Middle-class men were not disgusted with homosexuals for their sexual preference as they were for their social appearance. Chauncey aptly illustrates the difference: “The determining criterion in labeling a man as `straight’ (their term) or `queer’ was not the extent of his homosexual activity, but the gender role he assumed. The only men who sharply differentiated themselves from other me, labeling themselves as `queer,’ were those who assumed the sexual and other cultural roles ascribed to women (“Brotherhood” 75-76).” At this time the middle-class man dreaded his connection with homosexual males, especially since both groups were increasingly being identified with the “feminine” sphere. “Middle-class men gravitated toward a harsh, often brutal pronouncement against homosexuality in order to recuperate the loss of their masculinity through their identification with gay men: the radical disavowal of homosexuality” (Donnell 10). The middle-class man then began to identify homosexual men as “fairies”. “Only by violently disavowing any relationship to `fairies’, ” Donnell sates, “were middle-class males able to repossess a modicum of the masculinity they felt that they lost by being identified with the “queer” male” (10).

Feeling that their identities were threatened from all sides by women, other classes of heterosexual men, and by gay men, “turn-of-the-century middle-class men began to formulate elaborate defense mechanism[s] to protect their fragile sense of masculinity” (Donnell 6). According to Bederman: [M] iddle-class men, uncomfortably confused about the nature and sources of male power, began to cast about for new ways to fortify their shaky constructions of manliness. They adopted a variety of strategies . . . [like] growing crazes for bodybuilding and college football. . . . A new rhetoric about maleness appeared. Contemporaries . . . began to speak approvingly about something they called “masculinity.” (211)

However, the middle-class male did not recover fully. While he recovered some of his lost masculinity, he did so only at the expense of homosexuals. At this time World War I had initiated. It seemed to be an “excellent forum for the middle-class male’s revitalization of his masculine ideology” (Donnell 13). However, it turned out to be something completely different. World War I gave the middle-class American soldier with a masculine world vastly different from the one constructed in the United States. Generally, Europeans were far more tolerant of alternative expressions of sexuality than were Americans. According to Chauncey:

The war not only took many Americans from their small towns, it sent them to Europe, where they were likely to encounter a cultural and political climate for homosexuals that was almost unimaginable at home. By the time of World War I, there existed in Paris and Berlin a highly developed gay commercial subculture that easily surpassed the scope of the gay world in New York. (New York 144) So what does this struggle for the importance of middle-class masculinity have to do with Hemingway? Growing up in Oak Park Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, Hemingway was the epitome of the middle-class male.

Hemingway’s possession of the middle-class preoccupation with proving how masculine he was is incredibly evident in his life as well as his art. Critics and scholars have found there are two Hemingways emerging in his writing. One was the brilliant writer while the other was “Papa” Hemingway. “Papa” signified Hemingway’s more masculine public alias. Josh Silverstein notes: Whether it was “Papa” hunting in Africa, or “Papa” in Spain watching the bullfights, or “Papa” at a caf�in Paris chatting with acquaintances over a bottle of cognac, this was the public image Hemingway projected to others, rough and tough, a real “man’s man.” (1)

Denis Brian describes Hemingway’s quick motions to violence whenever anyone challenged his manhood: “Writer Max Eastman questioned Hemingway’s manliness, not to his face but in print. Soon after, the two met by chance in their editor’s office where Hemingway first used Eastman as a duster to clear the editor’s desk, then wrestled him to the floor” (5). In another incident Hemingway used more violence to prove his manliness. According to Brian, “Publisher Robert McAlmon called [Hemingway] `a fairy’ who had beaten his first wife, and deserted her to marry a lesbian. . . . Hemingway had responded to McAlmon’s slurs by punching him in the face and calling him a half-assed, fairy ass-licking, fake husband” (Brian 194). This underscores his tireless efforts to prove his masculinity.

Just as it did for the middle-class American, World War I changed Hemingway’s views of homosexuals also. After serving in the Red Cross in Italy during World War I, Hemingway started to show signs of an increasing tolerance of different types of sexuality. According to Warren Bennett, “Hemingway’s interest in variant sexual behavior as a subject that could be exploited in fiction was kindled . . . in 1920 when Hemingway began reading Havelock Ellis’s Erotic Symbolism” (226). Notice that Hemingway’s interest in Ellis and alternate sexualities began only after his visit to Europe during World War I.

Hemingway was a part of the middle-class lust for masculinity just as much as any other middle-class male in his personal and public life. Donnell states: The author’s many physical attacks upon friends who question his masculinity; the threats leveled at innocent passerby whom Hemingway perceived as “fairies”; his practically manic desire to hunt and kill as many animals as possible; his incessant need to experiment sexually-all of these indicate a symptomatology of angst that Hemingway shared with his fellow middle-class men. (13) This was Hemingway’s public life. These were the strange mannerisms that he developed from the American society. However, the American society was only half of the cause. His troubling early life experiences didn’t help matters. As Debra A. Moddelmog notes:

Among the disclosures that have drawn the greatest scrutiny are Grace Hemingway’s Treating her son as the female twin of his older sister and dressing him in girls’ clothes, apparently for longer than was conventional for the time; Hemingway’s attraction, both sexual and non-sexual, for lesbians; his fascination with the m�age �trios; and his engagement in role playing in bed, the man becoming the woman to the woman’s man. (187) Hemingway was tainted, and his public antics showed its effects. However, to get the broad spectrum of his childhood and the society’s effects you must look at his works. There you see how his unique sexuality comes into play.

The novel we shall consider is The Sun Also Rises. In this novel Hemingway deals with impotence, androgyny, and homosexuals. The story speaks on a man named Jake how epitomizes the “Lost Generation” in the words of Gertrude Stein. Jake has come back from the war completely different. He is less of a man, with an injury that has left him impotent, much like Hemingway’s injury in France in 1944 that left him experiencing bouts of impotence. Jake is in love with a woman named Brett, whom he cannot have. Brett (whose name even resembles that of a male) is very “mannish”, lacking the curves of a woman and has with the dominance of a male. Jake, who is threatened by the homosexuals that dance with Brett outside of a club because, though they are gay, have more “manhood” than Jake, lacks manhood or masculinity, and has the characteristics of a female. Perhaps Hemingway was exhibiting his interest of androgyny as Jake and Brett, both lacking something from their respective sex but possessing something from the other, struggle for love.

A story from In Our Time called “Mr. And Mrs. Elliot” deals greatly with homosexuality. In the story, the protagonist, Hubert Elliot, is a self-styled puritan. Hubert was a twenty-five year old virgin until he married Mrs. Elliot. As Donnell states:

. . . Hubert learns about ostensibly heterosexual practices (male-female kissing) solely from the lips of another man – even if it is only in form of a story (162). Thus, the knowledge of a heterosexual practice can only be passed through a male-male interaction – and example of heterosexuality being transmitted through a homosexual dynamic.

Hubert’s wife, Cornelia, fifteen years older than he, similarly shows a sexual problem. The narrator states, they both try “very hard to have a baby . . . as often as Mr. Elliot can stand it” (161). Cornelia has an intense dislike for sex (with males at least) and it is apparent through her “falling asleep” on her wedding night.

Cornelia shows other sexual problems through the fact that she owns a business. This is an obvious intrusion of the female into the male “sphere”. She also has a “girl friend” (162). Although many women have friends who are “girls”, Cornelia’s friend is more than simply a friend. Soon after they get married, Cornelia makes Hubert send for her “girl friend”; soon after that the two women sleep in the same bed and have “many a good cry together” (164). “Crying”, as the narrator puts it, does not have to do with emotional or physical pain but with sexual pleasure. The fact that they have “many a good cry” shows that Cornelia’s girl friend is better at pleasing her then Hubert is. To top it all Hubert’s acceptance of the situation not only shows his wife’s lesbianism, but his own homosexuality. Hemingway described Hubert as an experienced virgin to make him out to be the middle-class’ typical homosexual. By giving Cornelia a “girl friend” and making her intrude into the male “sphere”, Hemingway created the ideal middle-class representation of a lesbian.

Hemingway may have been a homosexual in denial. His determination to keep up his manhood’s “good name” may have been a decoy to hide his true homosexuality. As a Rolling Stone article notes, his son was in fact gay. Perhaps he got it genetically from his father, Ernest Hemingway. Many things were repeated in that family. Hemingway, the depressed drunk, committed suicide just like his father. However, they were different reasons. After Hemingway’s depression he was sent to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. There he received electroshock therapy that impaired his memory and stripped from him the concentration to write. Hemingway also lost the ability to do other things he so loved like fish and hunt. So perhaps he killed himself because Ernest Hemingway could no longer “be” Ernest Hemingway.

Works Cited

Hemingway, Ernest. “In Our Time.” Scribner Paperback Fiction 1996; 83-89
Moddelmog, Debra A. “Reconstructing Hemingway’s Identity: Sexual Politics, the Author, and the Multicultural Classroom.” Narrative. 1.3 (1993) 187-206.
Bederman, Gail. “Civilization, The Decline of Middle-Class Manliness, and Ida B. Wells’s Anti-Lynching Campaign (1892-94).” Gender and American History Since 1890. New York: Routledge, 1993
Bennett, Warren. “Sexual Identity in `The Sea Change.'” Hemingway’s Neglected Short Fiction: New Perspectives. Ed. Susan F. Beegel. Ann Arbor: UMI Research P, 1989.
Brian, Denis. The True Gen: An Intimate Portrait of Hemingway by Those Who Knew Him. New York: Grove Press, 1988.
Chauncey, George Jr. “Christian Brotherhood or Sexual Perversion?: Homosexual Identities and the Construction of Sexual Boundaries in the World War I Era.” Gender and American History Since 1890. New York: Routledge, 1993
Fone, Byrne R. S. A Road to Stonewall: Male Homosexuality and Homophobia in English and American Literature, 1750-1969. New York: Twayne, 1995 The Ernest Hemingway Foundation of Oak Park. “Literature Awards”. 2/99
Donnell, Sean M. “Hemingway’s Short Fiction and the Crisis of Middle-Class Masculinity”. 2002.’s_masculinity.htm Silverstein, Josh. The A Room 05/03
Wayne, Derek. ClassicNotes: The Sun Also Rises Main Themes. 7 April 2002. GradeSaver. 10 May 2003
Martin, Beth. “A Collection of Classics”
Hemingway, Ernest. “The Sun Also Rises.” Scribner Paperback Fiction; Reissue Edition (March 1995)

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