The Importance of Being Ernest by Vincent McCaffrey
I sell books for a living today, as I have for most all of my adult life. This has often seemed to me to be destined. A sort of cosmic joke. A perfect example of ‘Be careful of what you wish for.’
As a boy, I wanted to be a writer. Selling the books of the writers I loved seemed quite natural.
Having suddenly begun to read at the age of nine, I became a ‘bookworm,’ in my mother’s phrase, and ruined my eyes by the time I was twelve. Reports of other and possibly better means for doing this reached my ears belatedly.
I admit that my opinions of literature were formed alone and without proper guidance. Given the sheer quantities I read, I might even have been some sort of scholar, had I followed the advice so often offered by others who clearly knew better. But by then I wasn’t listening to anyone who couldn’t write.
I read Talbot Mundy and John Buchan instead of Thomas Hardy and William Faulkner. I read Rudyard Kipling instead of Henry James. Certainly I came to those ‘literary’ authors later, but too late to correct my course. I thought books were fun. Should be fun. And when I later learned to adore Hemingway, it was for the wrong qualities—at least by the lights of my professors. F. Scott Fitzgerald eluded me until adulthood. I endured but never rejoiced in Joyce. I persisted in my struggles in the jungles with Conrad until I reached the safety of home.
Importantly to me, at least, I had found the joy in words. And I learned to speak to authors who seemed happy for the conversation. Dead authors, all.
Writers were my heroes.
For some years I had on the wall of my small third floor bedroom a black and white photograph cut from Life magazine. It was a picture of Ernest Hemingway kicking a can on a road in Ketchum, Idaho. It appeared, I believe, in the same issue with the announcement of his suicide. I was about 14 at the time. It was just before my birthday and I was heartbroken.
He had been alive. I had, with a boy’s crush, imagined actually meeting him. Speaking with him.
I had not yet read a single Hemingway novel. But I had known before who Hemingway was, as anyone of that time knew. He was ‘The Writer.’ He had the kind of celebrity that few movie stars achieved. When I tried to read The Sun Also Rises I became bored, and I assumed it was my fault. Thankfully, I tried other things.
This was the age of the mass market paperback. Almost any work could be had for less than a fifty-cents. And I was already shoveling snow by then, and cutting lawns, and pocket money was not a problem. Thankfully I discovered the ‘Nick Adams’ stories—‘Indian Camp,’ ‘The Big Two-Hearted River’ and ‘The Three-Day Blow,’ and all the rest then available on the cheap—and I was hooked.
Hemingway had been a newspaper reporter when such a job could still be honorable. His early work for the Kansas City Star and the Toronto Star shaped him. His account of the fighting between the Turks and the Greeks at Smyrna was devastating even to my young mind. I quickly understood that style, having already read a fair share of Jack London. And it was my understanding, even then, that when I grew up, I might appreciate the novels too.
By then, of course, Hemingway was dead as well.
Shortly after his death I read A Movable Feast. This was, to a boy’s mind, what a writer’s life should be.
The importance of Hemingway to a boy who wanted to be a writer was that his work was so deceptively simple. You could try to imitate it. And by the time you realized that you couldn’t, it was too late. You have got the habit of trying.
That my heroes were writers influenced all that I did and all that wanted to do. Unable to sell my own work, I have sold the work of others. Happily.
Cosmic Jokes are funny too.