Ernest Hemingway’s Delusional Adventures in Boxing: “My Writing is Nothing, My Boxing is Everything.”

In a 1954 inter­view in the Paris Review, Ralph Elli­son said of one of his lit­er­ary heroes: “When [Ernest Hem­ing­way] describes some­thing in print, believe him; believe him even when he describes the process of art in terms of base­ball or box­ing; he’s been there.” I read this think­ing that Elli­son might be a bit too cred­u­lous. Hem­ing­way, after all, has pro­voked no end of eye-rolling for his leg­endary machis­mo, brava­do, and maybe sev­er­al dozen oth­er Latin descrip­tors for mas­cu­line fool­har­di­ness and blus­ter. As for his “box­ing,” we would be wise not to believe him. He may have “been there,” but the real box­ers he encoun­tered, and tried to spar with, would nev­er tes­ti­fy he knew what he was doing

Ernest Hem­ing­way wasn’t a box­er so much as he was a “box­er”… a leg­end in his own mind, a roman­tic. Hemingway’s friend and some­time spar­ring part­ner, nov­el­ist Mor­ley Callaghan tells it this way: “we were two ama­teur box­ers. The dif­fer­ence between us was that he had giv­en time and imag­i­na­tion to box­ing; I had actu­al­ly worked out a lot with good fast col­lege box­ers.” Or, as the author of an arti­cle on the Fine Books & Col­lec­tions site has it, “Hem­ing­way was lost in the romance of a sport that has no romance to those seri­ous­ly pur­su­ing it; the romance strict­ly belongs to spec­ta­tors.”

As a spec­ta­tor with pre­ten­tions to great­ness in the sport, Papa was prone to over­es­ti­mat­ing his abil­i­ties, at the expense of his actu­al skill as a writer. As he would tell Josephine Herb­st, with­out a hint of irony, “my writ­ing is noth­ing, my box­ing is every­thing.”


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How did the pros eval­u­ate his self-pro­fessed abil­i­ty? Jack Dempsey, who spent time in Paris in the ‘20s being fet­ed and fawned over, had this to say of Hemingway’s aspi­ra­tions:

There were a lot of Amer­i­cans in Paris and I sparred with a cou­ple, just to be oblig­ing…. But there was one fel­low I would­n’t mix it with. That was Ernest Hem­ing­way. He was about twen­ty-five or so and in good shape, and I was get­ting so I could read peo­ple, or any­way men, pret­ty well. I had this sense that Hem­ing­way, who real­ly thought he could box, would come out of the cor­ner like a mad­man. To stop him, I would have to hurt him bad­ly, I did­n’t want to do that to Hem­ing­way. That’s why I nev­er sparred with him.

Giv­en Hemingway’s pen­chant for self-delu­sion in this mat­ter, he may have inter­pret­ed this as Dempsey’s capit­u­la­tion to his obvi­ous prowess. An even more scathing cri­tique of Hemingway’s bul­ly­ing… I mean box­ing skill … comes to us via Book­tryst’s Stephen J. Gertz, who prof­fers an amus­ing dis­sec­tion of the let­ter above, an unpub­lished cor­re­spon­dence Hem­ing­way sent in 1943 to George Brown, the writer’s “train­er, coach, friend, and fac­to­tum.” Brown, it seems, was kind­ly, or pru­dent, enough to encour­age his employ­er in his delu­sions. How­ev­er, Gertz writes, “the real­i­ty was that any­one who had even the slight­est idea of what they were doing in the ring could take Hem­ing­way, who was noto­ri­ous for fool­ish­ly try­ing to actu­al­ly fight trained box­ers.” He’s lucky, then, that Dempsey prac­ticed such judi­cious restraint. If not, we may nev­er have seen any fic­tion from Hem­ing­way after he tried to go a round or two with the champ.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Ernest Hem­ing­way to F. Scott Fitzger­ald: “Kiss My Ass”

18 (Free) Books Ernest Hem­ing­way Wished He Could Read Again for the First Time

Ernest Hemingway’s Favorite Ham­burg­er Recipe

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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