hawkins pens book
by Mike Overall
Capturing the mercurial, ego-ridden and depressive exploits of American literary giant Ernest Hemingway into a book is no small task, and to do so in combination with his sometimes tumultuous marriage to Piggott’s Pauline Pfeiffer makes the task even more daunting. Yet Dr. Ruth A. Hawkins of Arkansas State University has done just that, brilliantly and with a breadth of thoughtfulness and penetrating analyses, in her now published book, “Unbelievable Happiness and Final Sorrow: The Hemingway-Pfeiffer Marriage,” published by The University of Arkansas Press.
Her prose moves with an impressive flow; both Hemingway laymen and scholars will find that Hawkins’ prodigious research and attention to detail give the world-famous writer and Pfeiffer a new lease on their literary and domestic life.
“I started researching the book after ASU acquired the Pfeiffer home and grounds in Piggott,” said Hawkins. “It took me 15 years to complete the book because I was so pressed for time with other projects.”
Hawkins has been at ASU for 34 years and currently serves as the Director of Arkansas Heritage Sites. The fact that she found time to research and write a 300-plus page book on one of the nation’s premiere writers and his marriage to Pfeiffer is a tribute to her remarkable work ethic and love for history.
In addition to detailing the writer’s second marriage to Pfeiffer, whose father moved south and became a wealthy landowner, farmer, savvy businessman and visionary in Piggott, Hawkins covers the novelist’s other marriages – there were four – as well as the tense relationship Pfeiffer and Hemingway navigated after their divorce.
Although Hawkins does not deny that Pfeiffer fell head-over-heels in love with Hemingway, whose stylish looks and legendary dedication to his writing engendered the couple’s happiness, Hawkins said Hemingway’s free-wheeling lifestyle and ironbound determination to become a great writer “probably precluded any possibility that their marriage would not falter at some point.”
After they met in Paris in 1927, which was followed by the dissolution of Hemingway’s first marriage, the two experienced a rocky relationship before their love blossomed. The next 13 years were filled with travel, children and Hemingway’s skyrocketing reputation as one of the greater writers in American history.
“Pauline was her husband’s best editor and critic,” said Hawkins.
Pfeiffer’s wealthy family provided the couple with financial, familial and moral support, including the conversion of a dilapidated barn into a dedicated writing studio at the family home in Piggott. Hawkins said that the old barn is where “Papa” wrote portions of his celebrated novel, A Farewell to Arms, as well as various short stories.
Pfeiffer graduated from the University of Missouri School of Journalism in 1918 and worked for the Cleveland Press and Vanity Fair in New York before relocating to Paris for her job with Vogue. In the glittering intellectual world of the City of Lights in the 1920s, Hemingway and Pfeiffer had a circle of friends that included Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Thurber, John Dos Passos, Picasso and Dorothy Parker. Pfeiffer even developed a friendship with Hemingway’s then-wife, Hadley.
Although Pfeiffer and Hemingway stayed in Paris for a time following their marriage, they later settled in Key West, Fla. Hawkins said that during their long marriage, the two were frequent visitors to Piggott. In addition to renovating the old barn into a studio for Hemingway’s writing, Pfeiffer’s uncle took the writer on an African safari, which generated several of the most memorable short stories ever written by an American.
Before Hawkins’ book was published, Pfeiffer was the least understood of the writer’s four wives, as she maintained her silence in the wake of their divorce. But, with Hawkins’ “marvelous new book,” as one reviewer called it, “Unbelievable Happiness and Final Sorrow” breaks new ground and reveals the importance of Hemingway’s relationship to the entire Pfeiffer family. Scholars believe that the couple never stopped loving each other.
Near the end of the couple’s marriage, Pfeiffer’s mother wrote a letter to Hemingway that read, in part: “All this trouble and misunderstanding between you and Pauline is beyond our comprehension. ... As a member of the family for so many years I had come to regard you as one of my very own. ... I shall always remember you in my prayers and hope that we shall meet again in a fairer clime upon a farther shore.”
The former Paul and Mary Pfeiffer home was placed on the National Register in 1982. After its acquisition by ASU, the site is now known as The Hemingway-Pfeiffer Museum and Educational Center. The beautifully preserved home, grounds and barn have become a magnet for tourists from across the world, along with aspiring writers who attend an annual retreats and workshop sponsored by the center.
Although Hawkins pulls no punches in her literary dissection of Hemingway and his massive ego, prodigious affinity for alcohol and womanizing, she also notes that he had a soft and generous side to his personality. Scholars and others have long contended that the writer was plagued by what Winston Churchill called the “black monster” of depression, an inherited Hemingway illness so severe and debilitating that it ended with his shotgun suicide in 1960.
Hawkins has also overseen mammoth restoration projects such as the Southern Tenant Farmers Museum in Tyronza, the ongoing restoration of country singing legend Johnny Cash’s boyhood home in Dyess and many other ASU-sponsored Arkansas Heritage Sites.
Hawkins is currently traveling the country on a lengthy book-signing tour. While in Arkansas, she will be make appearances at the Butler Center in downtown Little Rock on July 11, the Cooper Alumni Center Lobby at ASU on Aug. 28 and That Bookstore in Blytheville on Sept. 9.