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Picture of Edith Wharton, author of The Old Maid, Ethan Frome, and A Backward Glance

August 11, 1937
Edith Wharton, Ernest Hemingway
Wharton vrs. Hemingway vrs. Eastman
by Steve King

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On this day in 1937, expatriate Edith Wharton died in France, and ex-expatriate Ernest Hemingway didn't in New York. Wharton spent her last years in two palatial homes, one just north of Paris, the other just north of the Mediterranean. Her days had long since become those of a literary grande dame: tea, talk and motor tours in fin de siecle style, accompanied by Kenneth Clark and Bernard Berenson and the memory of Henry James. Not that she was forgotten: the novels continued to sell briskly, and recent dramatizations of The Old Maid (Pulitzer, 1935) and Ethan Frome had added yet more fame. And her writing continued almost to the very end, her last piece being the memoir of "A Little Girl's Old New York," intended as a postscript to A Backward Glance, and to a lifetime spent exploring New World vrs. Old Europe manners.

On the same day, Hemingway put on a demonstration of this last theme, in a dust-up with Max Eastman in the office of Scribner's editor, Max Perkins. Eastman's 1933 review of Death in the Afternoon, Hemingway's bullfighting book, had been titled "Bull in the Afternoon." In it he had attributed Hemingway's "juvenile romanticism" of bullfighting and all things Spanish to the author's insecurities over not being "a full-sized man," and "wearing false hair on the chest." Hemingway interpreted this as penis-talk, and extended an invitation to the older Eastman to spell out his "nostalgic speculations on my sexual incapacity." To Perkins, editor to both authors, Hemingway railed against all critics, offering to "beat the shit out of any of them" if given the chance.

This came four years later, when Hemingway dropped in on Perkins and found Eastman visiting. The initial handshakes gave way to Hemingway baring his hairy chest, then baring Eastman's unhairy one -- trying to keep it light, Perkins here began to bare his own chest -- then demanding, "What do you mean accusing me of impotence?" and then smacking Eastman in the face with his own book. The two of them tumbled to the floor, Hemingway on the bottom, though staring up with a smile when Perkins got there.

Hemingway was sailing for Paris -- not to Wharton's funeral -- when the story broke in the papers three days later. "He didn't throw anybody anywhere," Hemingway had told the New York Times. "He jumped at me like a woman, clawing.... I just held him off. I didn't want to hurt him." His last comment before striding up the gangplank was an offer to go into any room Eastman wanted, "and he can read his book to me.... The best man will unlock the door." This reading did not take place; if it had, Eastman might have chosen this passage from his most recent book, The Enjoyment of Laughter: "Dogs laugh, but they laugh with their tails. What puts man in a higher state of evolution is that he has got his laugh on the right end."

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Related authors:  Henry James, A. P. Herbert, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Janet Flanner, John Dos Passos, Michael Palin, Morley Callaghan, Raymond Carver, Sherwood Anderson, Sinclair Lewis, Sylvia Beach, Thornton Wilder, Wyndham Lewis
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