The Toronto Years

by William Burrill,
392 pages,
ISBN: 038525489X

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Earnest Beginnings
by Joel Yanofsky

FOR ALL HIS BRAVADO AND worldliness, Ernest Hemingway could be remarkably naive. Late in life, he told F. Scott Fitzgerald's biographer that "the writing published in books is what I stand on. ... I figure to have all my papers and uncompleted manuscripts burned when I'm buried. I don't want that sort of shit to go on."

Well, it does go on -- for better and worse. In addition to his posthumous novels Islands in the Stream and The Garden of Eden, there have been several collections of journalism and correspondence. The fact is: Hemingway has been nearly as prolific dead as he was alive. And that's not even counting alI the memoirs and biographies that have been appearing ever since Hemingway committed suicide in 1961. Which is why the first question that needs to be asked when a new biography comes out is, do we really need another one?

In the case of William Burrill's Hemingway: The Toronto Years, the answer is yes and no.

Although this is "the first critical biography to focus on Ernest Hemingway's four year association with the city of Toronto and the Toronto Star Newspaper," as Burrill points out in his introduction, most of the ground has been covered before. Of course, the real raison d' etre for this book is the 30 previously unpublished news stories and features included here that, for one reason or another, didn't make it into William White's 1985 collection Ernest Hemingway, Dateline: Toronto, The Complete Toronto Star Dispatches, 1920- 1924.

1 confess I have a hard time getting as excited as Burrill and other scholars about these "lost" stories. By now, everyone knows that Hemingway's early years as a journalist were instrumental in shaping his distinctive literary style. In Paris, filing reports on everything from diplomatic conferences to running with the bulls in Pamplona, Hemingway invented a new way of writing he called "cablese" and came up with his "iceberg theory," the notion that the omitted part of a story would "make people feel something more than they understood." Nevertheless, the pieces included in the appendices at the conclusion of Hemingway: The Toronto Years are not especially compelling by themselves and, by themselves, they don't justify another book about Hemingway. What does justify this book is Burrill's straightforward, personable tone.

This may not sound like much, but at a time when the first rule of literary biography seems to be if you don't have anything nice to say about somebody, write the story of their life, Burrill manages to admire his subject without fawning over him. What's more, Burrill, himself a former reporter, columnist, and editor at the Toronto Star, brings an informed perspective to Hemingway's daily life as a reporter as well as his relationship with his newspaper colleagues.

Some of those colleagues, like the assistant managing editor Harry Comfort Hindmarsh, made Hemingway's life miserable. (Hindmarsh, the son-in-law of Joseph Atkinson, the Star's publisher, later became president of the paper.) Others, like the reporter Greg Clark, who was initially suspicious of the "tall young squirt" who showed up in his office in 1920, later came to admire Hemingway.

Still, no one -- with the exception of a cub reporter named Morley Callaghan -- had much faith in Hemingway's dreams of writing fiction. Clark urged him to "concentrate his efforts" on journalism "where his true talent -- and his brilliant future -- lay."

Hemingway was proud of his newspaper work, as Burrill makes clear, but he never intended to make it his life's work. In 1924, he quit the Star and newspapers for good. Two years later, The Sun Also Rises was published and Hemingway had not only changed his own life irrevocably, he'd also changed the course of 20th century literature.


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