On great writers who are terrible people, Hemingway edition

So, I guess there’s something happening with Hemingway? Because the news is just full of his smug mug. He’s a terrible, toxic dude. I mean, we’ve always known that, but we now have the language (and, more importantly, the collective will) to speak about it. But where does that leave his writing?

It’s an interesting concept for me as a teacher of writing, if nothing else. I have no problem reading the writing of terrible people. I don’t like to give them my money, so I usually buy their books second hand (like when I wanted to introduce my kids to Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, but didn’t want to give that raging douchebag a dime), but terrible people have talent commensurate with good people and I don’t want to deny myself the experience of reading great stories. That said, I read most of Hemingway before I knew anything about him, and when I learned about him, society was generally still tolerating bad men by saying things like, “Oh, well, he’s a drunk from a different time and there’s no changing him,” or “That’s just ____ being _____,” etc.

As a teacher of writing, though, I have to find a balance between using the best examples I can find for a given lesson, and considering the education and well-being of my class. Thankfully, there’s almost always someone else who IS a good person who has done similar work (ironically often inspired by the shitheads.)

This year, in fact, I removed two Canadian poets from one of my older courses after revelations of their abuses of power, treatment of women, etc.

Are the students losing something with these influential (and, frankly, talented, men gone? I’d argue they can find those fellas themselves on their own time, if they want, and they are in fact gaining knowledge of less-famous writers I’ve substituted in as exemplars.

Do I think these dudes shouldn’t be read? No. But I do think I have the right to choose whose work I use to illustrate my concepts, and I exercise that right often, and liberally (purposeful use of this word).

Anyway, some thoughts on Hemigway being a genius AND a dink.

Don’t you just want to smack him?

Ernest Hemingway was a terrible person.

He was selfish and egomaniacal, a faithless husband and a treacherous friend. He drank too much, he brawled and bragged too much, he was a thankless son and, at times, a negligent father. He was also a great writer.

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