Ernest Hemingway’s father committed suicide, and ultimately three of his sons, including Ernest, did as well. It’s normal to fear death, but there must be a special anxiety that something like depression or other mental illnesses will inexorably lead one to suicide if one’s father did it and if you fear the illness runs in the family. There were factors behind the Ernest’s father taking this action, including financial troubles and a troubled marriage. Hemingway finally attributed his father’s suicide to cowardice, but along the way he turned totally against his mother, blaming her and proclaiming her in a letter as a great American bitch. He wasn’t nice about it. It’s not pretty stuff, but the suicide of a parent is a devastating business on the children left behind because of the emotional havoc it can wreak. It didn’t help that Hemingway was an addicted alcoholic, either. I like The Sun also Rises a lot, but it’s surprising, when you look at it from this angle, how much attention is paid to drinks and drinking in that slender novel. The ‘70s came up with sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. The ‘20s were about sex, booze and jazz. Still a pretty potent threesome. When Hemingway took his own life with a shotgun, he was done with life. He was getting elderly and tired, couldn’t do most of the things that had brought him so much pleasure in his life, but a life of heavy drinking, not age, had most to do with that. His wife and friends knew what he had in mind, and had him almost constantly under guard. He got away, though, and he did it. For B., who claims the news brought him to tears, it must have been a scary thought. I think because he knew why Hemingway did it and that he was developing similar circumstances in his own life.
B. would have us believe that his father’s suicide was the thing that made his life resonate with Hemingway’s. I believe it was the drinking. B.’s biographers are pretty clear that Berryman’s father was murdered, his death almost certainly not a suicide, and Berryman knew it at some level. To come clean with admitting that threatened two foundational things in his life: A decent relationship with his mother, and the use he made of a father’s suicide in his work. So, he may well have struck a pose that he eventually depended on maintaining, and in The Dream Songs there has only been one subtle reference so far, that I can recall catching, where one might detect even a hint of his knowing that his father’s death could have been something other than the official suicide. So the corresponding emotional state that he might have with Hemingway regarding their fathers may well be forced or even false. But there’s no reason to doubt B.’s tears in that Indiana dining room. Why the tears? When someone dies, and we grieve over it, we’re often grieving for ourselves. B. didn’t have quite Hemingway’s drive for adventure—war and combat, big game hunting, marlin fishing, bullfighting—but he did share Hemingway’s driving appetite for sex, and his driving need for drink, and like Hemingway, he channeled much of this drive into his work and crafted an impressive string of successes with that. But he could also see where it led for Hemingway and where it was leading for him, and fathers didn’t have as much to do with his suicidal anxiety as he claimed. It wasn’t directed as much outward onto a lost father, it was more inward, directed against the alcoholic self.
I don’t mean to seem unsympathetic or harsh: suicide or murder, either would be disastrous for a kid to have to incorporate into his emotional fabric, and clearly, B. struggled with deep-seated emotional disturbances all his life. But as for what he claims, and what seems to have been, they don’t quite jive. That in itself is interesting enough. But it throws onto this poem a harsher light than the simple pathos the author probably intended and was asking for. Maybe “harsher light” isn’t the right term. I think “a more complex sadness” would be better. That there was sadness in his life is not at issue.