Maclean’s, December 5, 1994
Ernest Hemingway lived his life strenuously, preferring the diversion of action to obsessive introspection. The task of scrutinizing the inner Hemingway fell to legions of scholars, who pored over every facet of his existence, from his birth and childhood in Oak Park, Ill., to his suicide in Ketchum, Idaho, in 1961. That makes William Burrill’s Hemingway: The Toronto Years surprising. The Toronto journalist covers Hemingway’s four years as a staff reporter for The Toronto Star, investing the period with new significance, depth and fresh insight. While acknowledging the considerable work of dozens of Hemingway scholars who preceded him, Burrill also found a trove of previously uncollected Hemingway journalism — 30 pieces in total.
The author’s affection for Hemingway is apparent throughout the text, but it is unclouded by sentimentality. According to Burrill, Hemingway was a combination of macho bluster, towering insecurities, intense competitiveness and monk-like dedication to his craft. He was also a drunk, a cheat and a tiresome liar. Burrill’s account offers an evenhanded view of both Hemingway’s selfishness and his sensitivity. Nor does Burrill — a former Toronto Star reporter himself — stint on detailing the petty cruelty of some of Hemingway’s editors at the Star’s city desk, as well as the encouragement he got from more sympathetic mentors on the Star Weekly staff. Hemingway’s most bitter battles were fought with Star city editor Harry Hindmarsh. Yet in a strange backhand way, Hindmarsh is responsible for Hemingway’s leap of faith to full-time fiction writing. The book chronicles how Hindmarsh made Hemingway so frustrated and furious that the relative uncertainty of writing novels for a living looked preferable to staying on at the Star.
Hemingway often counseled younger would-be novelists that journalism instilled discipline and honed one’s facility with the language. But he also insisted that any reporter with novelistic aspirations had to quit journalism — with its reliance on the limited techniques of reporting — to succeed as a fiction writer creating imagined worlds. Ironically, it was precisely Hemingway’s journalism that allowed him to develop his distinctive style. One of the more intriguing passages details Hemingway’s experiments with language. (He called the brute rhythms of his prose “cablese,” after the blunt style he’d learned compressing information into terse wire reports.)
The book’s last third comprises previously overlooked Hemingway material, found in university library collections at Harvard and Princeton and at The Toronto Star. There are straightforward accounts of everything from dying oak trees to a new kind of anesthetic perfected by a Toronto surgeon in 1920. Some show Hemingway’s technique in embryonic form. Others offer a view of a reporter cranking out what he obviously considered pointless exercises to satisfy the demands of that day’s assignment docket. And there are some illuminating fragments about his co-workers. Burrill’s book — with material ranging from 250-word duty assignments to unguarded private rumination — offers a fuller portrait than most Hemingway biographies. Although he is identified as a lifelong Hemingway aficionado, Burrill is not a mere acolyte. He retains a distance from — and skepticism about — his subject, which keep his work thoughtful and lively.
The Toronto of the early 1920s is very much a character in the account, too. Its Anglophilia and Protestant repression are strongly evoked. In a letter to poet Ezra Pound, Hemingway complains about the city’s antiquated liquor laws and its narrow-mindedness. [Things] “couldn’t be any worse,” he writes. “You can’t imagine it.” It was that buttoned-down stiffness that finally helped drive Hemingway from the city for good at the beginning of 1924.
Burrill’s book stands as both a crucial addition to the already considerable body of Hemingway scholarship and a vital, elucidating volume in its own right — a tough challenge, delightfully accomplished.