Allan Massie: The Boy At The Door
The boy who presented himself at the door of the house in Key West was tall and gangling. He had hitched and ridden on the roofs of freight cars from Minneapolis where he had worked sometimes as a labourer on construction sites, and sometimes on a local paper. He was at his desk there when a message came over the wire service, reporting the murder of a Minneapolis girl in California. The girl was his sister and she had been chopped to pieces. It was a murder such as tabloids have always loved; she was the victim in a Lesbian love triangle. The boy, whose name was Arnold, had ambitions to be a writer, but he would never be able to bring himself to write that story.
The man who answered Arnold’s knock on the door was Ernest Hemingway, The boy had come there because he figured that if he was going to learn to write well, he should go to school with the best. It was 1934 and the best was Hemingway. They had exchanged letters and Hemingway had told him to come by. Hemingway treated a lot of people badly, often those who had helped him, but here was a boy seeking help, and Hemingway was good to him. He gave him a job on his boat, Pilar, and he talked to him about writing and schooled him in the craft. Arnold was with him for the most part of a year, and later he would say it was the best year of his life.
Hemingway wrote about him in an article published in Esquire. It was entitled Monologue to the Maestro – ‘Maestro’, sometimes shortened to ‘Mice’ – was the name he gave the boy, and if that sounds mocking, it was, I think, friendly-mocking. (But I don’t remember the article well; I read it in a collection of Hemingway’s journalism, published by Penguin, with the title By-Line, but the book is sunk in the valley of lost things.)
Hemingway took the boy’s ambitions seriously. He got him reading widely and writing regularly. He gave him advice, mostly good. For instance, he told him that when he was working on a story he should stop for the day when it was going well and when he knew what should happen next, and not when he was stuck and at a loss. It is so much easier to start again if you know where you are going than if you are at a loss. He told him that two things were necessary for a writer: he must be serious about his work and he must have talent.
The boy was certainly serious, but his talent was more doubtful. Hemingway helped him to write articles that could be sold to good publications – there was, not surprisingly, an echo of his own voice in them – but the fiction the boy wanted to write was a different matter. At the end of the year, when the boy decided it was time to go off and be on his own, – that is to say, to grow up – Hemingway told him his stories were where his journalism had been when he arrived. But he also encouraged him to keep writing and to keep in touch. He treated the boy well.
Arnold never got these good stories written. Maybe he did lack the talent. Maybe – I have no evidence for this but it is what I suspect – he found that all the fiction he tried to write was ersatz-Hemingway. There were lots of men who wrote ersatz-Hemingway in America in the Thirties, Forties and still into the Fifties, and some of them made a good career by doing so, selling their work to the pulp magazines and sometimes more ambitiously. Others developed the habit of speaking Hemingway-style. Raymond Chandler has Philip Marlowe address a cop as ‘Hemingway’ because he speaks that way; this riles the cop who speaks Hemingway without knowing who Hemingway is. If Arnold found he could write only ersatz-Hemingway and despaired, he was more honest and scrupulous than many other writers. He may after all have had the talent to recognize why his fiction wasn’t working; which is a talent many lack.
He did write a book about his year with Hemingway, which he revised obsessively over the decades, never getting it done to his satisfaction. His daughter discovered it after his death, and had a hard job editing it, because there were so many crossings-out and amendments. She got it published and it sank almost without trace.
The boy grew into a man and his life got worse. He worked on construction sites and as a carpenter, and moved to a little town called Robert Lee in Coke County, Texas. He played the violin, quarrelled with his neighbours, and often looked like a hobo. He had a few articles published in the local press. “Esquire” accepted one, about fishing, but never used it. He drank heavily and was sometimes violent when drunk. His wife left him and his children had little to do with him. He died alone.
In his book ‘With Hemingway’ he quotes Hemingway telling him: “The best stuff you’ve got is from your farm life in North Dakota and your sister’s murder. That’s something nobody else can write and nobody can ever take it away from you, but you don’t want to use it for a long time, Save your best stuff until you’ve learned how to handle it.”
Well, it would seem he never did learn that. Maybe Hemingway, though he treated him well and gave him good advice, was too much for him. Maybe Hemingway was like the upas tree under which nothing else can grow. I don’t know. I know only that it’s a sad story.
You can read it at length in a new book, ‘Hemingway’s Boat’ by Paul Hendrickson, which Knopf will publish in New York in September. I’m not yet half-way through, but it’s one of the best things on Hemingway I’ve read. If the rest of the book is as good as the first part, it may even be the best thing written about him. Hendrickson is acute and sympathetic. He tells the story of Arnold – Maestro, Mice – so well that I wanted to share it.
Incidentally, Hendrickson writes that ‘With Hemingway’ “wasn’t just good; it was fine….. But its author couldn’t see that”.
I don’t know if this makes for a sadder story, but I couldn’t call it one with a happy ending. But then, happy endings weren’t Hemingway’s style either, in art or life.
Allan Massie was born on 19 October 1938 in Singapore, and was educated at Trinity College, Glenalmond and Trinity College, Cambridge. His first novel, Change and Decay in All Around I See was published in 1978, followed by The Last Peacock (1980), which won the Frederick Niven Literary Award, and The Death of Men (1981), winner of a Scottish Arts Council Book Award. His fiction also includes the acclaimed Imperial sequence, a series of historical novels set in the Roman Empire, including Augustus: The Memoirs of the Emperor (1986), Tiberius: The Memoirs of the Emperor (1991) and Caesar (1993). Caligula (2004) tells the story of the infamous ‘mad’ Roman emperor. Gore Vidal referred to Massie as the “master of the long-ago historical novel”. He is also the author of a trilogy of novels about four brothers set during the Second World War: A Question of Loyalties (1989), The Sins of the Father (1991) and Shadows of Empire (1997). He is currently writing a series of detective novels, the most recent of which was Death In Bordeaux (2010). He lives in the Scottish Borders with his wife.