Of all our American authors, Earnest Hemingway is the one that probably has more biographies with his name on them than any other. As one reviewer has pointed out, as of this writing there are well over 70 biographies and endless books which I classify under "I knew Hemingway when......." If you want to study or are interested in Hemingway the man, and in this case, Hemingway the writer, then you have plenty of works to choose from. Almost all of these biographies are of one volume with Carlos Baker's, `Earnest Hemingway: A life Story' leading the pack and of course the work by A.E. Hotchner, which is a good work but Hotchner was such a Hemingway worshiper that some of his work can be called in to question and doubt, if one desires to do so.
The work being reviewed here by Michael Reynolds, "The Young Hemingway," is the first book of five volumes and the reader must be aware of this fact. While the book is fine as a stand-alone, it never-the-less tells only a small part of the full story. I feel, and this is strictly a personal opinion, that for a single volume work the one by Carlos Baker is the best. For a multivolume work, Michael Reynolds really has little competition.
This work covers Hemingway's early life, actually a three or four year period from his graduation from high school up until the time he marries Hadley Richardson, his first wife, and they depart for Paris. There are several factors in this work that distinguish it from the many other biographies.
First, this is a more scholarly work than we have been treated to in the past, yet at the same time Reynolds have given us a very readable work which could almost be classified as a page turner. His research is meticulous and when the author speculates he is the first to point this out. This is not what you would call a "popular history," yet in many ways it reads like one.
Second, Michael Reynolds quite likely has a better grasp of Hemingway's writing than any of the other biographers. He has the ability to analyze Hemingway's work, its source, its inspiration and its goals. Each step of the way as Hemingway develops and matures into what he finally became is closely examined and the whys and wherefores are covered better than anything I have read thus far. Now I grant you that I was impressed by this and there is a strong likelihood that I was personally influenced simply because Reynolds validates many of my own thoughts on the subject. Again, this is a personal thing and many may view it differently. That being said, it would be difficult to refute most of what Reynolds has written.
Third, the author has uniquely used, from time to time, Hemingway's own style of writing to tell Hemingway's story. At times the reader will wonder if Hemingway or Reynolds did the actual writing. I personally got a kick out of this. Reynolds has Hemingway's style nailed perfectly.
Forth, the author very seldom falls back on the cheap gossip which abounds around Hemingway's early life while being raised in Oak Park. There were a couple of notable exceptions to this where the author has addressed the gossip and builds a very good case in dispelling the rumors and innuendos, the primary one being related to the possibility that Hemingway's mother had a long term lesbian relationship with a young lady who was her companion, housekeeper and nurse for the children. On the other hand, the author does acknowledge that while this was quite likely far from the truth, it was never-the-less seen through the eyes of a 16 year old Hemingway and it could quite well account for the fact that Hemingway's well know fascination with lesbians he had throughout his life could quite possibly have stemmed from this.
Fifth, and this is one I was quite grateful for, Reynolds has given Hadley full credit for her influence over Hemingway's development as an author via her introducing him to real literature rather than the juvenile and popular literature at the time. Along the same line, he addresses the tremendous influence that Teddy Roosevelt's writing had over him and his development as a man, i.e. his attitudes of what a "real man" should be. This was not out of the ordinary as an entire generation of young boys was under the same influence.
Sixth, even though it is a well known fact that Hemingway had a very bad habit of embellishing stories of himself, to the point of actually lying, a fact that practically ever biographer has pointed out, he, Reynolds, points out the fact that there was a strong underlying theme of "fiction" throughout Hemingway's entire life and had he not had this tendency to embellish, he probably would not have become the great fiction writer he was. All men have a bit of this trait in them; Hemingway just took it to new heights.
Seventh, the author Reynolds has not burdened us with several chapters as most biographers have done, with the Hemingway family tree going back two or three generations. While he covers this, he does it in a way that is quite painless and blends family history skillfully into his overall story.
Eighth, the author has stressed over and over again the impact that Hemingway's relationship with his father and mother and how it affected him for the rest of his life and that aspect of his life cannot be overlooked or made light of.
Overall, so far, this is by far the best biography on the life of Earnest Hemingway I have read, and it must be noted that I have read a bunch of them. We shall see how the next four volumes go.