Almost Hemingway

by Chris Camuto

Negley Farson’s fate is partly summarized by the fact he gets second billing in the title of a fine new biography about him. But only partly.

Co-authors Rex Bowman and Carlos Santos conceded to necessity when titling Almost Hemingway: The Adventures of Negley Farson, Foreign Correspondent (University of Virginia Press, hard-bound, 270 pages, $29.95). Two men, both writers, lived adventurous lives and had successful careers, but only one of them became a household name, a role model for generations and a Nobel Prize winner in literature. But as this biography shows, Negley Farson was not an also-ran. He was an American original in his own right.

Farson lived a heroic, hard-drinking, hard-working and unapologetically flawed life of adventure and travel, partly as a foreign correspondent for the Chicago Daily News— back when foreign correspondents were celebrities–and partly as a man driven by an unquenchable restlessness for new experiences. Like Hemingway, Farson was also an author; unlike Hemingway, his books are largely forgotten and out of print. Some were forgettable, many not.

The memorable include Sailing Across Europe; his best-selling 1936 memoir, The Way of a Transgressor; two classic travel books–Journey Across the Caucasus and Behind God’s Back; and Gone Fishing, “a spirited, spiritual accounting of Farson’s victories and defeats in small trout streams and rivers across the globe.” Hemingway owned two copies of that last title.

Bowman and Santos capture the spirit and energy of Farson’s restless life–his unconventional boyhood, his years as a champion college athlete and the false starts of his career as a seller of Mack trucks and as an arms merchant in St. Petersburg in 1917, where he drank with the journalist John Reed and got an education in the ways of revolution. He faked Canadian citizenship to join Britain’s Royal Flying Corps in the First World War, crashed in Egypt and hobbled on. With his wife Eve, he sailed his yawl, Flame, across Europe in the summer of 1925 (as The Sun Also Rises was being published) from Rotterdam up the Rhine, hitching a tow with tugboats in the stiff places. He got to the Danube by dragging the Flame over his shoulder for three weeks along the ancient Ludwig Canal. Then he and his equally resourceful wife sailed the Danube’s broad reaches and ran its whitewater without guides until they reached the Black Sea and Constantinople. His dispatches from that journey offer a wealth of details about the state of Europe between the wars, especially the lives of ordinary people, and helped him start a career as a journalist willing to go anywhere. And he did, taking a broad readership in the States with him.

After his bold sail through the heart of Europe, he became the Chicago Daily News’s “roving foreign correspondent, based in London, but available for dispatch to any corner of the globe at a moment’s notice.” He reported on one smoldering hot spot after another–Russia, Turkey, Italy, Spain,  Russia, India–where he got the international scoop on Ghandi’s arrest by the British–and, of course, Germany where he met Hitler and listened to the mad-man’s roaring addresses. As the authors note: “He had the dubious distinction of having lived in Stalin’s Russia and Mussolini’s Italy and in Germany during Hitler’s rise.”

And through it all he continued his own adventuring. Giving up Europe for a spell, he lived an idyllic rural retreat with Eve on a houseboat in British Columbia, fishing and hunting for their food amid “a tiny colony of misfits, crazies, curmudgeons, and criminals…gathered in the spirit of bohemian weirdness.” He took a turn on a whaling ship out of the Shetland Islands, a trek in the Basque region of Spain where “he watched men perform totem dances as they impersonated bears and horses.” He put his remarkable travel instincts to the test in South America and Africa. He toured the east coast of the United States, meeting F. Scott Fitzgerald along the way, taking notes for a book he never wrote. Wherever he went, Farson was living the life he always wanted: “Beneath the tilted brim of his fedora, he squinted at life through a lazy whirl of cigarette smoke, using his job as a globe-roving reporter to carry out his boyhood wish to travel the world and write.”

Like Hemingway, Farson observed closely but distanced himself from the pretensions of the Paris of the 1930s: “We sat listening to the bogus profundities of the Lost Generation as the saucers piled up, and how they dragged into the conversation,  as their own opinions, the findings of every philosopher they had ever heard of–having a wonderful time cashing in on their mornings of alcoholic melancholia.” Though associated with it, Hemingway never cared for the “lost generation” tag. Both writers were after more than trendy resignation. In life as in politics, each belonged to a party of one.

Bowman and Santos make a strong case for getting Negley Farson out of Ernest Hemingway’s shadow. Despite the concession of the title, Almost Hemingway depicts them as equals in their energy for living life, exploring the world and writing honestly about what they found.

Some  Hemingway  books  add  something to our understanding of his life or work. In this vein, I think of the detective work of Hemingway’s Guns: The Sporting Arms of Ernest Hemingway by Silvio  Calabi, Steve  Helsley and Roger Sanger, published in 2010 and reviewed here in May/June 2011. Or take Craig Boreth’s The Hemingway Cookbook (February/March 2000), a tasteful album that is both a biographical tour through Hemingway’s gastronomic tendencies and a useful cookbook. Friture de Goujon or Swordfish á la Pilar, anyone? Other Hemingway books seem to attach themselves to the author’s by now exhaustively celebrated life, grabbing a little desperately for a fresh angle on it.

For me, Curtis L. DeBerg’s Traveling the World With Hemingway (Wild River Press, hardbound, 223 pages, $75) crosses the line between illuminating the great author’s life and fetishizing it. This garishly-designed, shrine-like book of photographs will take you from a picture of Hemingway’s crib, if you need to see it, to snaps of beery contestants in Key West’s Hemingway Look-Alike contest, if you need to see them. The book’s images and texts do follow the interesting geography of Hemingway’s life, digging in at times in serious ways to his career as a writer when not veering off into literary voyeurism: “Then up to apartment No. 5–the last flat, another 17 steps. A peak in the closet. Voilá. There it was, an old, nonfunctioning squat toilet. It was a Turkish toilet that Hemingway described in A Moveable Feast (1964).” Got it.

The best aspects of this book are the classic black-and-white photographs of Hemingway and his life and times, familiar images of his engagement with the sheer joy of living in many enviable places–Paris, Spain, Italy, Cuba, Africa.Those images speak for themselves as moments in time that do take us back to the world-ranging life that nurtured one of the 20th century’s great literary careers.

Dr. DeBerg is both a member of The Hemingway Society, a group of scholars and group administrator of the “Ernest Hemingway” Facebook group. The latter association may explain the feel of this book as a kind of fan-production, Facebook curiosity come to life. Ernest Hemingway may have escaped living in the world of “social media” (that indigestible phrase), but we have not. Perhaps we have reached the end of the line of worthwhile Hemingway coffee-table books.