- Historic Sites
Mom And Papa
February/March 1986 | Volume 37, Issue 2
But when he broke away from her and began to act on his own—and especially when he coupled that natural desire for independence with a lively interest in girls and a gift for writing as undeniable as it was all-consuming—her love seems to have been transformed into something very like hatred.
Here she explains to her son on the occasion of his twenty-first birthday just what he must do to win back her love: “The account [of maternal feeling which she says he has overdrawn] needs some deposits. … Interest in Mother’s ideas and affairs. Little comforts provided for the home. A desire to favor any of Mother’s peculiar prejudices, on no account to outrage her ideal. Flowers, fruit, candy or something to wear, brought home to Mother with a kiss and a squeeze. The unfailing desire to make much of her feeble efforts, to praise her cooking, back up her little schemes. A real interest in hearing her sing or play the piano, or tell the stories that she loves to tell—a surreptitious paying of bills, just to get them off Mother’s mind.
“A thoughtful remembrance and celebration of her birthday and Mother’s Day—the sweet letter accompanying the gift of flowers, she treasures it most of all. These are merely a few of the deposits which keep the account in good standing.”
That account would never be reopened. Hemingway’s fame only depleted it further. His mother loathed his writing; it seemed to her “a doubtful honor,” she told him when The Sun Also Rises first appeared, to have written “one of the filthiest books of the year.”
Personal success for Hemingway was tainted, then, from the first. The better he did, the more ungrateful he was made to seem, the more “unworthwhile” he was made to feel. He dutifully supported his mother after his father’s death—an event for which he believed she was mostly to blame—and he even tried to remember to write her on her birthday and to praise her for the mediocre paintings she turned out as an old lady in the vain hope of building an artistic reputation of her own. But he could not stand to visit her. And she never grew less envious of him. “Some critics and professors consider Ernest’s books among the finest of our times,” she told an interviewer in 1951, the last year of her life, “but I think the essays he wrote as a schoolboy were better.” Those essays, of course, had been written under Grace Hemingway’s own fierce and unforgiving guidance.
When Hemingway broke away from his ferociously devoted mother to act on his own, her love seems to have been transformed into something very like hatred.
A little over a year ago, I wrote a column trying to puzzle out why British historical dramas for television are so often better than our own. The brilliant Jewel in the Crown series about the final days of the British Raj provided the pretext. Conscience and patriotism now require me to point out that the British also sometimes muck things up. Lord Mountbatten: The Last Viceroy , just starting its six-part run on PBS, should be good. Again the subject is the end of the British Empire’s rule in India, and there are few more dramatic tales: the overnight division of one-fifth of the world’s people into two new nations—India and Pakistan—accompanied by the slaughter of perhaps half a million and the forced uprooting of some fourteen million more. Then, too, the Indian government was eager to aid the film makers, opening up the splendid viceroyal palace in New Delhi, now the home of the president of India and still so large that servants must use bicyles to move from one end of the cellar to the other.
But nothing about this series works. The script is wooden and didactic; someone is forever lecturing us on what’s about to happen, and several times each episode a howling mob of religious zealots falls upon some peaceful village or tranquil neighborhood, cutting throats and torching huts with such choreographed efficiency that the effect becomes comic rather than tragic. All the crowd scenes seem oddly thin and listless despite the authentic grandeur of the settings, and even the acting, usually the mainstay of British productions, is ordinary. Nicol Williamson, for example, is merely bluff and affable as the glamorous viceroy. (This may be the only time in television history that a TV actor is less handsome and magnetic than the historic personage he plays.)
Worse still, from the point of view of accurate history, is the series’ romantic view of Britain’s role in granting freedom. The Indians portrayed are, by turns, deceitful, infuriating, hopelessly inept; even Mahatma Gandhi is initially played for laughs. If the British did not create the religious hatreds that ravaged the subcontinent as they fled from it, they had done little to dull them during their long rule. In this version they emerge as spotless as the blinding uniforms Lord Louis so loved to wear.