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First, Newt Gingrich took over the country.

Then, in The New York Times, two days later, the daily book review by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, carried the headline:

"Was Hemingway gay?"

What next? Charlotte Bronte was one of Heidi Fleiss' "girls?"

It is very hard to handle this many shocks all at one time. Especially when Republicans are in charge and who knows about next year's baseball and Notre Dame is losing to Mormons. And now Ernest Hemingway is gay?

I recall that one time years ago Max Eastman accused Hem of honing a macho image by wearing false hair on his chest and Hemingway seized Max in the Scribner offices and tore open his shirt to show Eastman the hair was real.

Had Hemingway truly been gay, mightn't he more sensibly have torn open Max Eastman's shirt?

But let's get back to the new book which inspired that startling headline in the Times. Its title is "Hemingway's Genders," with the subtitle "Rereading the Hemingway Text." The authors are a couple of academics, Nancy R. Comley who teaches at Queens College in New York and Robert Scholes of Brown. The work is published by Yale University Press and perhaps Harvard and Princeton can take consolation in that.

Anyway, the authors seem to rely on some fairly arcane stuff in their analysis. As, for example, this from Lehmann-Haupt:

"Taking Hemingway's masculine code name, Papa, as a starting point, Ms. Comley and Mr. Scholes...make the witty if somewhat pedantic point that the repeated morpheme `pa' has other meanings significant to Hemingway's art.

"In ancient Greek, it is an expression of pain, `pi alpha' being the cry of the wounded Philoctetes in Sophocles' play...in Mozart's `Magic Flute' it is a song of boastful fecundity, with `Pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa' being part of a duet sung by Papageno and his mate, Papagena, about their future procreative activities (don't you like the delicacy of that particular phrase?)...and in the comic opera `Der Rosenkavalier'...it is an accusation of false paternity, `Papa! Papa! Papa!', being the words uttered by a group of children falsely accusing Baron Ochs of having fathered them out of wedlock."

They go on with a good deal of genial blather about the "rich bitch" character in both great short stories, "The Snows" and "Short Happy Life" and the apparent sexual confusion of that posthumously (and mistakenly, I think) published novel of little account, "The Garden of Eden."

All this is marvelous stuff for English majors and doctoral theses. But for the rest of us, enjoying the work and honoring the artist in Hemingway, isn't it all a bit precious? I don't know that anyone has yet labeled Dickens a pedophile, but if you set out to do so, there seems to be plenty of raw material on which to draw in young Oliver, in Pip, and certainly in Tiny Tim.

And any serious study of transvestism need go no further than Shakespeare, where every time you turn around someone is dressing up, boy as girl, girl as boy. And as for that rascal, Puck, well, let me tell you...

If Hemingway were indeed gay, don't you think F. Scott Fitzgerald would have been the first to, so to speak, blow the whistle on old Ernie? After all, we all recall that moment in Paris, at the urinal (was it in the Ritz? I seem to remember that it was) where Scott, insecure in his own sexuality, asked Hemingway to cast a brief glance downward and offer an assessment of the Fitzgerald equipment. If this incident occurred, and apparently it did, wouldn't it have provided a marvelous opportunity for Papa to have suggested to Fitz that they explore the matter in greater depth?

As for my own favorite, Evelyn Waugh, while a young school teacher, he once attempted suicide over what he feared were his homosexual tendencies, only to go on to marry and father platoons of children (few of which he even liked or spent much time with, I might note). It is also interesting to observe that unlike the apparently macho Hemingway, Waugh wasn't all that inured to suffering. His suicide attempt consisted of writing a farewell note, undressing, piling note and clothes on a rock by the English Channel, and then wading out to sea to drown himself, a project he soon abandoned when the rocks hurt his feet. "I could face death but not pain," Waugh later explained.

What next? Tolstoy was a Scientologist? Faulkner didn't drink? James Jones wasn't in the pre-war Army on Hawaii? Proust was a closet heterosexual? Emily Dickinson wore combat boots?

Why this determined effort to deconstruct or de-mythologize great writers?

I don't really care what Tennessee Williams did in his spare time down there in Key West. Read the damned plays. I don't care about Hemingway's chest hair or if he confused himself with Brett Ashley.

Read the damned novels; read about Margot and Francis Macomber and Wilson the red-faced white hunter and about the buffs and the rhino and the lions.

Was Fitz a rummy? Yes, but go read "Gatsby" and shut up!

Enjoy the writing and leave the poor writer alone.

Mr. Lehmann-Haupt's review winds up quoting the authors:

"The Hemingway you were taught about in high school is dead. Viva el nuevo Hemingway."

Better to say, the Hemingway we were taught about in high school will never die. "Viva el viejo Hemingway. Viva Papa!"

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