Ernest Hemingway in Theodore Roosevelt’s Africa

by zunguzungu

I re-read Hemingway’s two “African” short stories last night — both because I’m in the midst of revising my chapter on Roosevelt’s African Game Trails and because I was energized by the hilarious “Hemingway” in Midnight in Paris — and while I was struck again by how deeply responsive Hemingway is to Roosevelt, I became much more aware of how hard he’s pushing against the Roosevelt thing.

First, the former: that Hemingway was deeply “influenced” by Roosevelt is only a starting point, but it’s the important one. Every boy of Hemingway’s generation trying to become a man was beaten over the head with Roosevelt’s stick, and Hemingway was particularly invested in the mythology, to such an extent that when he would eventually do his own big game hunting safari, he tried to replicate Roosevelt’s paradigm setting performance in many different particulars, even hiring Roosevelt’s own guide, Philip Percival. But in so many ways, the “Kenya” that Hemingway visited in 1932 was a different place than the “East African Protectorate” that Roosevelt had toured through in 1910. The first world war and the great depression had not only changed the world — destroying, among other things, the condition of possibility for the kind of synthesis of Victorian gentry and modernist progressive of which TR was a great example — but those two decades had also transformed the political and economic landscape of East Africa from top to bottom, and thus, the way that an American could play safari in Africa.

In 1910, the protectorate had been technically foreign to the British empire, and was largely still an open frontier of the kind that Roosevelt had almost missed finding in the American West: its indigenous peoples had been conquered, and open land had been created by their dispossessions, removals, and famines, but it not yet been filled in by the kind of civilization which the white settlers hoped to bring. Much was still unseen by white eyes, and certainly most was uncontrolled by white government. And it was a place that was, from Roosevelt’s perspective, all potential, the potential to follow in the footsteps of the American frontier as, what he calls, a “white man‘s country.”

By 1932, however, the white settlement project in east Africa was well into the process of failing; as Elspeth Huxley would put it a few years later, the white settlers were covered wagon pioneers in the age of the model-T. There simply weren’t enough of them to make Kenya into a white man’s country in the way they wanted to, and while they would hang on for quite a long time, the forces that would eventually lead to decolonization in the 1960’s had already made their dream of an apartheid state in the white highlands a fast receding mirage. For Roosevelt, East Africa’s white future was nothing but unbounded potential; for Hemingway during the depression, it was clear that imperial hegemony, racial hierarchy, and economic solvency were all under a kind of siege that Roosevelt never dreamed of. He doesn’t talk about it much, but it’s there.

More directly, while Roosevelt had been roaming through (man-made) wilderness, Hemingway was essentially hunting on government regulated game-parks, and he understood that perfectly well. Kenya was now a colony within the empire, and as a state, it was mostly one in which the kind of wilderness adventure that Roosevelt could imagine himself to be having — his daydream of being on a trip back to the Pleistocene — was no longer plausible. In 1910, “punitive expeditions” against “unpacified” African tribes were still ongoing; in 1932, African populations were safely penned into native reserves, educated and Christianized, or were laboring as official squatters on white plantations, and so the fantasy that Roosevelt was meeting wild Africans in their primeval state — which he really enjoyed — was no longer tenable. And while Roosevelt really had been the kind of outdoorsman who could survive, to a great extent, under his own power in the wilderness, not Hemingway wasn’t, and neither was Kenya that kind of wilderness anyway. Finally, while Roosevelt had employed South African guides to help him, the “White Hunter” was, by 1932, a well established institution that made it totally unnecessary for a man like Hemingway to actually have the kinds of skills and initiative that Roosevelt had (and thus to make it impossible to use them if he did have them). Roosevelt institutionalized and popularized the white safari, and that institution would frustrate Hemingway’s efforts at emulation.

This frustration is obvious; all of Hemingway’s Africa writing is about failure and frustration, one way or another. And on the surface, it’s women who are the frustrating force: both “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” and “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” are, fundamentally, struggles with women, and as always, “women” in this case really means the emasculating force of civilization or something. Hemingway’s misogyny is on full display in these stories, for not only is authentic manhood the only desirable way to be in the world — Francis Macomber’s life is short, because he’s only really alive in that brief period when he’s a real man — but women, these terrible creatures who aren’t men at all, hate and mistrust any true masculinity and seek to destroy it. A struggle for masculinity is a struggle against the woman who seeks to frustrate it.

And in this respect, the contrast with Roosevelt is strikingly easy: the absence of women from Roosevelt’s text is more or less its constitutive element. You go to Africa, if you are Roosevelt, to penetrate its jungles, to bond and become one with the other men, to roam over the virgin land, to put your bullets in the bodies of your prey and so forth, in a very long list of crypto-sexual exploits, but it’s very important that the feminine be present without any actual females around. In this way, while Hemingway is antagonistic to women who represent his frustrations — and brings them along for that reason — Roosevelt’s unfrustrated manhood not only has no need for a feminine antagonist, but his mono-gendered world view requires only the aura of the feminine in the landscape as backdrop for his performance of manhood. In response to his manhood, the landscape takes on certain feminine characteristics, but an actual woman would only get in the way, so they are excluded. Hemingway includes them, for precisely this reason, to register why the landscape is not responding to his non-manhood in the way it should

I certainly don’t think Roosevelt was anything close to self-aware enough to consciously register any of this. He was a deeply intelligent man, and historians so often fall into the trap of underestimating his perceptiveness (as a way of inflating their own), but it still seems to me that it was organic to Roosevelt’s personality to have closed his mind to anything like what we would now call “psychology.” Hemingway was a little bit different. At a certain level, I think, he got it; he still enjoyed being a stud and a brute and a pig, far too much to ever want to stop, but his Africa writing is filled with conscious acknowledgments that cruelty to women is not nearly as earned as they’d like to think. In Green Hills of Africa this is really clear (especially since it’s a first person, non-fictional account), but even in “Macomber” you can find traces of Wilson’s doubt as he rationalizes his small hypocrisy — sleeping with his employer’s wife and then despising her for it — and in “Snows,” the protagonist directly acknowledges that his cruelty to his wife is a way of staving off fear. These are grace notes, but they are there.

More than that, I suspect that Hemingway could understood the façade that was his own performance of manhood because he had Roosevelt to measure himself against, and to find himself wanting. Roosevelt had managed to get to the Dakota territory before it was a state, and to the East African Protectorate before it was a policed colony. Hemingway had no such frontiers available to him. More than that, his whiteness was as beset as his manhood: his antipathy to women might be a means of registering a different frustration — and he at least partially coded it as projection — but his antipathy to racial others stems from the much more direct and consciously understood challenge  that was being mounted, in the 1930’s, against white imperial authority in ways Roosevelt never saw. Roosevelt would never have written a passage like this, because he never needed to openly register his frustration in this kind of misogyny and race hate. His authority was always real, and so that was the public face he created. Whereas, perhaps, that’s a way of understanding where the particularly Hemingway-an fetish of the real in fiction comes from: the authentic real that he could never find in life could, perhaps, be acquired by writing about that condition of impossibility?

Anyway, believe it or not, all of this is really just to say that this poem I found this morning now makes a lot of sense to me. It’s Hemingway in 1922, directly expressing the extent to which “Roosevelt” could never exist in the world left to him by the Great War, and how angry he is with Teddy that this is the case:



Workingmen believed
He busted trusts,
And put his picture in their windows.
“What he’d have done in France!”
They said.
Perhaps he would-
He could have died
Though generals rarely die except in bed,
As he did finally.
And all the legends that he started in his life
Live on and prosper,
Unhampered now by his existence.