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Two Kinds Of People

by Terry Teachout

Ernest Hemingway: A Biography, by Mary V. Dearborn (Knopf, 752 pp., $35); Paradise Lost: A Life of F. Scott Fitzgerald, by David S. Brown (Belknap, 424 pp., $29.95)

Of the writing of biographies of Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, there is, it seems, no end. Two more have just come down the pipeline, and the prospect of reading them tempted me to cap the quote and add that “much study is a weariness of the flesh.” Nor was it encouraging that both are biographies à thèse: David S. Brown’s Paradise Lost, written by a professor of history, purports to show that Fitzgerald was a “cultural historian” first and foremost, while Mary V. Dearborn’s Ernest Hemingway proudly bills itself as the first Hemingway biography to be written by a woman. As everyone who reviews books knows all too well, most of them can be judged quite easily by their covers, so I expected a double-barreled dose of pulpit-punching obviousness. What I ended up getting was something gratifyingly different.

While neither book glitters with high literary style—always a deficiency when mere mortals dare to write about the lives of major novelists—both are written soberly and well, and their authors manage to steer clear of the rigid thesis-mongering to which Earl Long alluded when he said that Henry Luce, the single-minded founder of Time and Life, was “like a man that owns a shoe store and buys all the shoes to fit himself. Then he expects other people to buy them.” To be sure, neither book is “definitive” in the way that, say, W. Jackson Bate’s Samuel Johnson is the book to read about Dr. Johnson if you’re only reading two, but the fact that so many biographies of Hemingway and Fitzgerald have been written suggests that there is something about them that will forever elude easy definition.

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