Who wouldn’t want to read some never-before-told story about Ernest Hemingway’s love life? When I opened this month’s Smithsonian Magazine and saw the handsome passport photo of a young Hemingway staring out at me, next to the come-hither caption: “After a long silence, a close friend of Hemingway reveals what the famed writer confided about the affair that changed his life,” I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough to get to the big reveal. What big reveal? I’d already read The Paris Wife, the 2011 best-selling novel by Paula McLain. A respected magazine scooped by a work of fiction?
My point here isn’t to knock the magazine. (Or writer A.E. Hotchner. As far as I can tell, he deserves a standing ovation for the 95 years he’s lived so far: biographer, playwright and the businessman-philanthropist who co-founded Newman’s Own with his pal Paul Newman. His piece about his friend Hemingway offers some details you won’t find in the novel.) Today I’m here to give a big shout-out to the current crop of novelists who are raising the dead, putting words in their mouths and making them strut the stage. A larger-than-life character like Hemingway is well-suited for the role of protagonist. So are figures like Frank Lloyd Wright, Beryl Markham, Robert Louis Stevenson, Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII.* Author Hilary Mantel (Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies) is like a new age Dr. Frankenstein: in her hands, Cromwell and King Henry are shocked back to life and electrify. Mantel is so good she’s twice won the Booker Prize and Queen Elizabeth anointed her a “Dame”. Oh, and Wolf Hall inspired the hit BBC miniseries and stage plays on Broadway and in England.
I see dead people. Most critics don’t have a problem with seeing them at a distance, but some worry that conjured scenes and dialogue are steps in the wrong direction. I think we need to give readers more credit for an ability to sort fact from fiction. Besides, there’s great precedent. Shakespeare put words into the mouths of many famous dead people: Julius Caesar, Anthony & Cleopatra, Joan of Arc, a few kings with the first names Richard and Henry. Where did he do his research? Think back to that long-ago era: no internet, no public libraries. Scholars surmise Will’s go-to sources were a history book or two available at the time and the poems and plays of writers who came before him.
For those of you who haven’t read The Paris Wife, it’s told mostly in the first person by Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson. She and Hem fall madly in love before he’s famous, and she uses a small inheritance to help bankroll their move to Paris. About six years later, Hem’s first novel The Sun Also Rises is finished and Scribner wants to publish it. Slight problem on the home front. Hem’s in love with two women. Athletic Hadley (supportive, fun and mother of their infant son) and chic Pauline (a one-time friend to Hadley and unabashedly set on becoming Wife #2). Choose, Hadley says finally and gives him 100 days to decide. Hem goes off by himself to think. About day 70, Hadley writes to him. They divorce. Hem marries Pauline. Most everyone knows the rest of the story: Hem divorces again and remarries twice more (wife count: 4) and, at 61, blows his brains out. But according to both sources (Hotchner, McLain), Hem loved Hadley until the day he died. Love ain’t always grand, but a well-crafted story sure is. “Bravo!” I say. “Encore, please.”
*For a list of some books in this genre, see the page Novels of Interest.