Hemingway vs. Eastman (1937)

In the face of a critical review, most writers are content with grumbling to other writers, or penning a scathing response to the publication. Ernest Hemingway once took matters into his own hands.

His foe was Max Eastman, a highly educated socialist writer. They had met in 1922, at a conference in Genoa. Hemingway was a 23-year-old reporter and World War I veteran; Eastman, 12 years older, already had a reputation as an insightful writer and critic. The socialist magazine he had edited, “The Masses,” had been shut down in 1918 for opposing America’s entry into World War I, and Eastman had been tried and aquitted twice for sedition.

The two took to each other. To Hemingway, Eastman looked like “a big, jolly, middlewestern college professor,” and he convinced Max to take a look at some literary sketches he had been writing. Eastman liked them, and the “modest and princely mannered boy” as well. He even passed the sketches along to others to try and get them published.

That all changed 11 years later. Hemingway’s first novel, “The Sun Also Rises,” caused a great sensation, and he followed it up with “Death in the Afternoon,” a book about bullfighting in Spain. A little over a year later, Eastman reviewed the book in the New Republic. Hemingway didn’t read it, but a friend did and sent a copy to Ernest down in Havana.

Ernest saw red. “Bull in the Afternoon” was full of considered praise for Hemingway, for the “big humor and reckless straight talk of what things are, genuinely heavy ferocity against prattle of what they are not.” But, Eastman wrote, “there is an unconscionable quantity of bull — to put it as decorously as possible — poured and plastered all over what he writes about bullfights.”

There followed a long discussion about Hemingway’s obsession with death, and about how bulls act. All of this probably would have just annoyed Hemingway, but Eastman went further, implying that Hemingway wrote so rough and tough because, inside, he was something of a softy:

It is of course a commonplace that anyone who too much protests his manhood lacks the serene confidence that he is made out of iron. Most of us too delicately organized babies who grow up to be artists suffer at times from that small inward doubt. But some circumstance seems to have laid upon Hemingway a continual sense of the obligation to put forth evidences of red-blooded masculinity.

Eastman tried to put the boot in as gently as possible — note that he includes himself as one of those “delicately organized babies” — and he scored when he concluded that Hemingway’s laconic writing style and tough subject matter “has moreover begotten a veritable school of fiction writers — a literary style, you might say, of wearing false hair on the chest.”

Hemingway seethed. Eastman was “a groper in sex … a traitor in politics”:

And it is a commonplace that I lack confidence that I am a man — what shit. … Whenever and wherever I meet any one of them their mouths will make a funny noise when they ever try to say it again after I get through working over them.

Hemingway was not amused. To him, Eastman was “a groper in sex (with the hands, I mean), [and] a traitor in politics”:

And it is a commonplace that I lack confidence that I am a man — what shit. … Whenever and wherever I meet any one of them their mouths will make a funny noise when they ever try to say it again after I get through working over them.

It was four years before he had his chance, and it happened entirely by accident. In New York, he walked into the office of his editor, Maxwell Perkins, and found him talking to Eastman. Perkins, who knew well Hemingway’s animosity, tried to defuse the situation by saying, “Here’s a friend of yours, Max.”

And it seemed for a moment that the crisis had passed. They shook hands and chatted. Perkins relaxed in his wooden chair behind his desk.

Then, Hemingway ripped open his shirt, exposing his chest, and asked if it was “hairy enough for anybody.” Eastman laughed. Hemingway responded by ripping open Eastman’s shirt and exposing his bare chest. More laughter. Perkins, a man who stood on his dignity but also knew when it was time to drop it, prepared to join them, when Hemingway roared, “What do you mean accusing me of impotence?”

Eastman tried to explain, but when he saw amid the mound of books and papers on Perkins’ desk his book that had the review in it, he thrust it at Hemingway and said, “Here. Read what I really said.”

Hemingway took the book, grumbled, leafed through the pages. “Let Max read it,” Eastman said.

That’s when Hemingway slapped Eastman in the face with the open book. Eastman grabbed Hemingway and they wrestled. Perkins, aghast, worked his way around the desk as the two men cleared it and fell. The noise drew the attention of people in the other offices. Perkins reached the men on the floor and pulled at the shoulder of the man on top. It was Eastman, and as he moved away, Perkins later wrote, “there was Ernest on his back, with a broad smile on his face. — Apparently he regained his temper instantly after striking Eastman, and offered no resistance whatever.”

They parted, but Hemingway never forgot, especially after Eastman told reporters that he had beat Hemingway in a fight. Three years later, in a letter to his publisher, he said he had one ambition:

Not an obsession. Just an ambition to nail that son of a bitch max eastman to the top of a fence post with a twenty penny spike through the base of his you know what and then push him backwards slowly. After that I’d start working on him. No I think I’d rather nail him to Max’s desk and leave him there. Maybe every few hours I’d just come in and rock him a little.

Born: Charlotte Yonge, novelist, Otterbourme, Hampshire, 1823; Hugh MacDiarmid (ps. Christopher Grieve), poet, Langholm, Dumfriesshire, Scotland, 1892; Louise Bogan, poet, essayist, critic, Livermore Falls, Maine, 1897; Enid Blyton, children’s author, London, 1897; Alex Haley, novelist, journalist, Ithaca, N.Y., 1921; Carl Rowan, journalist, author, Ravenscraft, Tenn., 1925; Andre Dubus, novelist, short-story writer, Lake Charles, La., 1936; Jonathan D. Spence, historian, England, 1936; Bapsi Sidhwa, novelist, Karachi, Pakistan, 1938; Joanna Coles, children’s author, Newark, N.J., 1944; David Hwang, playwright, Los Angeles, Calif., 1957.

Died: Eugenio María DeHostos, author, patriot, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, 1903; Edith Wharton, novelist, poet, memoirist, St.-Brice-Sous-Forêt, France, 1937; Alfred A. Knopf, publisher, Purchase, N.Y., 1984.