Ernest Hemingway : “I Drink to Make other People more Interesting.”
A famous writer once said, “I drink to make other people more interesting.” The writer was Ernest Hemingway, and, while his love affair with alcohol is legendary, no one ever accused him of being uninteresting. Big game hunter, deep-sea fisherman, bullfight aficionado, Nazi submarine chaser, war correspondent, Nobel and Pulitzer winner, Ernest Hemingway lived a life most men can only dream about. He was a citizen of the world, traveling the globe in search of adventure, and he took us with him through his remarkable literary creations. During his lifetime, he published five novels, a novella, several collections of short stories, and many works of nonfiction. Because of his impressive body of work; his examination of timeless themes of wilderness, war, personal nobility, and loss; his iconic, groundbreaking prose style; and his influence on the development of twentieth century fiction; Ernest Hemingway is the most widely recognized of all American writers and the literary voice of the twentieth century.
Ernest Miller Hemingway was born on July 21, 1899, in Oak Park, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. He was the second of six children of Clarence Hemingway, a physician, and Grace Hall Hemingway, a music teacher. After graduating from high school in 1917, Hemingway became a junior reporter for the Kansas City Star. After only seven months of his apprenticeship he joined the Red Cross and was sent to work as an ambulance driver on the Italian-Austrian war front. Less than six weeks later he was severely wounded while performing an act of rescue. Viewed as a hero, he was decorated by both the Italian and United States governments for bravery under fire (Burgess 113; Shuman 8).
Returning to Oak Park in 1919, Hemingway married Hadley Richardson and soon embarked with her for Paris as a European correspondent for the Toronto Star. During his time in Paris, his first son, Jack, was born, and he published several stories and poems. More significantly, he published his first novel, The Sun Also Rises (Burgess 114; Shuman 9).
When Hemingway’s marriage to Hadley dissolved in 1928, he married Pauline Pfeiffer and moved to Key West, Florida. During the Key West years, Hemingway’s sons Patrick and Gregory were born. Out of this period came several stories and plays, as well as Death in the Afternoon, Green Hills of Africa, and To Have and Have Not (Burgess 115; Shuman 10).
While in Spain, Hemingway fell in love with Martha Gelhorn, a war correspondent. After deeding the Key West home to Pauline, he married Martha in 1940 and settled with her in Cuba, just outside Havana. That same year, For Whom the Bell Tolls was published. It would be his last novel for ten years. During the years in Cuba, Hemingway spent much time abroad as a foreign correspondent in China and Europe and saw considerable combat, including both at Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge. Hemingway was divorced by Martha in 1945 and married Mary Welsh in 1946, but he remained in Cuba until 1959 when he was forced out of the country by the Fidel Castro regime (Burgess 116; Shuman 11).
After poor response to his novel Across the River and Into the Trees, published in 1950, Hemingway suffered a writing slump. However, he recovered his reputation with the short novel The Old Man and the Sea for which he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1953 and the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954. After leaving Cuba, Hemingway spent the rest of his life with Mary in a home he purchased in Ketchum, Idaho. Following a period of increasing depression and anxiety and two hospitalizations for electric shock therapy, Hemingway committed suicide on July 2, 1961, in the foyer of his home (Burgess 117; Shuman 12).
One of the most persistent themes in Ernest Hemingway’s work is man’s relationship to the natural world, a world with which he must live in harmonious balance (Hutchisson 216). When he was a boy, Hemingway’s family spent summers on Lake Walloon in northern Michigan, lured there by the cool air and the natural beauty of the lakes and forests. Dr. Clarence Hemingway, an avid outdoorsman, trained his son as a fisherman and marksman and taught him to love and respect nature. Hunting and fishing became a lifelong passion for Ernest Hemingway, drawing him later in life to Key West, Florida and then to Cuba (Sindelar 3). Eventually, Hemingway’s love of hunting and fishing permeated his writing, appearing first in the Nick Adams stories and later in his major novels (5). According to critic James Hutchisson, “Hemingway eventually grew to regard nature as possibly the most important force in one’s life, a fount of healing and rejuvenation from the scars of a difficult life” (15). In A Farewell to Arms, Frederic and Catherine seek respite from the war in the snowcapped mountains of Switzerland. Jake Barnes, in The Sun Also Rises, momentarily escapes from the anxiety of postwar Paris fishing the mountain streams of Spain (Hutchisson 15).
Many of Hemingway’s protagonists are notable for their masculinity, honor, endurance, and ability to exhibit courage under fire. The inspiration for his heroic figures is found in his early youth during those summers in Michigan. As a boy, Hemingway often accompanied his father as he attended to men and women in a variety of life-threatening situations and observed how differently people faced pain and death. From those observations came what would later become the Hemingway Code: “a set of actions and rituals that enable an individual to endure the difficulties life throws in his way, realizing that he ultimately will lose because of his own mortality” (Sindelar 8). Using the Code, Hemingway invented heroes who confront death without the comfort of religion or engaging in self-pity (34). Code Heroes like Pedro Romero in The Sun Also Rises, facing a charging bull (Mandel 232), and Santiago, the fisherman in The Old Man and the Sea, facing a great marlin (Burgess 92), exemplify honor, courage, and endurance and face death with dignity (Sindelar 8). Hemingway would later call these qualities “grace under pressure” (9).
Ernest Hemingway was nearly blown to bits by an exploding Austrian trench mortar shell two weeks before his nineteenth birthday. Ironically, the near-death experience may have been the most important episode in his life as an artist, for “Hemingway’s wounding marked the moment he found himself a would-be writer with a topic, something to write about” (Wagner-Martin 17). Hemingway wrote about warfare, both actual and metaphoric, throughout his career. It was the preoccupation of his writing life. Kurt Vonnegut said of Hemingway that “he was a reporter of war, and truly one of the best the world has ever known” (13). The heroes of Hemingway’s early novels —Jake Barnes in The Sun also Rises and Frederic Henry in A Farewell to Arms— were both injured in World War I, and Nick Adams, the hero of his short stories, left the war psychologically damaged. Most of Hemingway’s great works of the 1920s relied upon his wartime experiences, and the theme of war appeared in some of his later works, including Winner Take Nothing and Across the River and Into the Trees. It even showed up in a posthumous work, A Moveable Feast (Moreira 28).
Hemingway’s injury led directly to the second major event of the war to influence his writing. He spent the summer and fall of 1918 recovering from his wounds at the American Red Cross hospital in Milan. This would be a time of great literary importance to Hemingway, because he fell in love with his nurse, Agnes von Kurowsky, an American seven years his senior. Though she ultimately rejected him, their relationship provided the inspiration for the semi-autobiographical love story in A Farewell to Arms (Trogdon lxiv).
Although World War I had the greatest influence on Hemingway’s writing, other wars significantly impacted his art. He covered the Spanish Civil War in 1937 and 1938 for the North American Newspaper Alliance, and, in 1940, that conflict was the subject of his longest novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls, which critic and biographer Jeffrey Meyers calls “the greatest political novel in American literature” (Moreira 30). Hemingway returned to war in 1944 as a correspondent for Collier’s and observed the Allied landings on the beach at Normandy from offshore in a landing boat. He also participated in the Allied advances on Paris and traveled with the U.S. 22nd Infantry Regiment through the bloody fighting in Germany’s Hurtgen Forest (33). He wrote about World War II only superficially in his mediocre novel Across the River and Into the Trees (31).
Without question, Hemingway’s years abroad in the 1920s, spent mostly in Paris, shaped his life and writing more profoundly than any other period in his life. Hemingway came to Paris in 1921 to learn all he could about writing while making a living as a reporter for the Toronto Star (Wagner-Martin 34). Within weeks of arriving in Paris, Hemingway had endeared himself to two icons of the modernist movement, Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein. Willing mentors, both invited Hemingway into their homes and helped sculpt him into the effective modern writer he wanted to be (Kennedy 156).
Ezra Pound was the acknowledged leader of the modernist movement in the Paris expatriate community. Pound’s mantra was “Make it new.” In exchange for boxing lessons, Pound taught Hemingway what to read and how to write. Pound had a great deal to teach Hemingway about creating spare language. He insisted that writers should distrust adjectives, never use superfluous words, and never be descriptive. Hemingway allowed Pound to edit his manuscripts, and, in return, Pound introduced Hemingway to influential figures, touted him as a rising talent, and helped him publish his early writing (Kennedy 157).
Though Hemingway profited much from the tutelage of Ezra Pound, it was Gertrude Stein who helped him refine his declarative expression into a highly personal creative style (Wagner-Martin 34). Hemingway spent countless hours with Stein, who advised him to give up journalism and focus on writing fiction. He was fascinated with the peculiarities of Stein’s writing, which displayed a use of repetition and a focus on the sound and rhythm of words. It was Stein who introduced Hemingway to bullfighting and taught him to appreciate modern art. (Hutchisson 50). Hemingway particularly admired the work of Cezanne, and he later told Stein that, in his work, he “tried to do the country like Cezanne” (Kennedy 156). It was also Stein who nicknamed the postwar circle of Paris expatriate artists the “Lost Generation,” a term Hemingway would appropriate for the epigraph of his first novel (Hutchisson 77).
By 1925, Hemingway, influenced by his journalistic experience and his years of study with Stein, Pound, and other modernist writers like James Joyce (Hutchisson 53) and F. Scott Fitzgerald (55), had developed a unique, minimalist style. The Hemingway style is unemotional; understated; short on similes, metaphors, and unnecessary adjectives and adverbs; and expressed in short sentences and simple words (Evans 35). Philip Gerard humorously penned, “He rewrote the American sentence. For good” (254). Hemingway also developed the practice of using symbolic images to replace explanation—the so-called “iceberg principle” (Cohen 111). He said, “If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows, and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water” (Mandel 234).
Hemingway learned the rudiments of his style very early. Like many American authors—Crane, Twain, Dreiser, Whitman—he began his writing career as a journalist. His writing style owes much to his journalistic training, especially to the Kansas City Star. When Hemingway reported for his first day of work as a cub reporter for the newspaper, only four months after graduating from high school, he was presented with the Star’s guidesheet for writing clear, clean copy: “Use short sentences. Use short first paragraphs. Use vigorous English. Be positive, not negative.” Hemingway later said that these “were the best rules I ever learned for the business of writing. I’ve never forgotten them” (Hutchisson 22).
Western prose simply changed as a result of Hemingway’s style. Remarking on his prose, Martha Gelhorn, Hemingway’s third wife and a successful novelist and journalist herself, wrote, “He was a genius, that uneasy word, not so much in what he wrote as in how he wrote; he liberated our written language. All writers after him owe Hemingway a debt for their freedom whether the debt is acknowledged or not” (Gerard 254). Raymond Chandler candidly acknowledged that influence. Other authors whose style owes something to Hemingway’s prose include John Updike, Philip Roth, John O’Hara, and J.D. Salinger. Hemingway won the Nobel Prize in 1954 for “his mastery of the art of narrative . . . and for the influence that he exerted on contemporary style” (Cohen 116).
Ernest Hemingway led an extraordinarily eventful life, and his literary contribution was shaped by the remarkable contexts in which he lived. Hemingway’s first widely read book was famously titled In Our Time. The title predicted the career of a writer in touch with his cultural milieu, and Hemingway’s work consistently reflected the spirit of his time (Del Gizzo xxii). “In The Sun Also Rises he captured the postwar malaise of the so-called ‘Lost Generation,’ in A Farewell to Arms, the World War I experiences that precipitated that mood of disillusionment and dislocation, in To Have and Have Not, the inequities and anxieties of the Great Depression, in For Whom The Bell Tolls, the complicated tragedy of the Spanish Civil War, and in The Old Man and the Sea, the dignity and grace of a Cuban fisherman battling brute natural forces while dreaming of Joe Dimaggio” (Spanier xiii).
Hemingway lived in and traveled to interesting and exotic places all around the world, and those places became the settings for his novels. Both The Sun Also Rises and For Whom the Bell Tolls are set in Spain, A Farewell to Arms and Across the River and Into the Trees in Italy, The Old Man and the Sea in the waters off Cuba, To Have and Have Not in Cuba and the Florida Keys, and Islands in the Stream in Cuba and the Bahamas. His nonfiction books take place in Africa, Spain, and Paris (Gerard 254).
No author mined his personal experiences as deeply and effectively as Hemingway. He was a sportsman and adventurer, and his characters enjoyed the same pursuits. During the Paris years, Hemingway cultivated an interest in boxing, which he used as a physical release from the creative tension of writing. He considered the sport to be a cerebral activity as much as a physical one and would include boxing in such stories as “Fifty Grand,” The Battlers,” and “The Killers” (Hutchisson 60)
For Hemingway, bullfighting was a perfect model of his code of life, grace under pressure, and it became a major theme in his work (Bharadwaj 15). Hemingway became fascinated with bullfighting after making several trips in the 1920s to Pamplona for the Festival of San Fermin. He remained passionate about bullfighting for the rest of his life, stating that it was the only thing that could give him “the feeling of life and death that I was looking for” (Hutchisson 74). In his seminal work on bullfighting, Death in the Afternoon, he applauds the Spanish for their outlook on death, knowing that it is “the inescapable reality, the one thing any man may ever be sure of” (190).
Hemingway’s third visit to Pamplona in the summer of 1925 propelled him to literary history. That summer, Hemingway, his wife, and several of his friends traveled to Spain to witness the famous annual running of the bulls and enjoy the bullfighting. Unlike previous expeditions, this one was a disaster. The festivities soon erupted into a series of petty squabbles, drunken brawls, and sexual rivalries. Though the friendships that had brought the group together were never the same, Hemingway channeled that trip into his groundbreaking novel, The Sun Also Rises. Hemingway’s story about the “lost generation” of postwar expatriates was published in 1926 (Nagel 2). Its critical and commercial success made Hemingway an international celebrity, the spokesman for his generation, and the undisputed voice of modernism (3).
Hemingway’s love of fishing started as a young boy, and fishing became a central theme for some of his most significant works. He was an enthusiastic angler, and some of his early works, like the Nick Adams stories, reflect that enthusiasm (Sindelar 5). However, Hemingway loved deep-sea fishing as well. While in Key West he purchased the beautiful 38-foot boat the Pilar and made the craft the perfect sportfishing machine. In the Pilar, Hemingway fished the Gulf Stream, winning tournaments and setting records (German 151). He is credited with catching the first bluefin tuna unmolested by sharks in Bimini waters. His technique, which required skill and sheer strength, became known as “Hemingwaying” a fish (Hutchisson 175). Interestingly, while living in Cuba, Hemingway used the Pilar in a mostly futile attempt to destroy German submarines (Shuman 11). Deep-sea fishing plays a dominant role in three of his novels, To Have and Have Not; Islands in the Stream; and The Old Man and the Sea, which earned him both the Pulitzer and the Nobel Prize for Literature (Ott 247).
Inspired by the legendary hunts of Theodore Roosevelt, Hemingway set off in 1933 on an African safari that would prove very productive to his literary career (Hutchisson 129). Hunting the plains of the Serengeti, he bagged not only three lions, but about thirty other animals as well (133). Later, in Green Hills of Africa, Hemingway recorded Africa’s raw beauty, rugged landscape, difficult climate, snow-topped mountains, and plentiful game with accuracy and precision (130). Two of Hemingway’s best short stories, “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” and “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” feature men looking for adventure on African safaris (Sindelar 76). Hemingway returned to Africa for a second safari in 1953. However, the trip was ill-fated. Two consecutive plane crashes left him gravely injured, and he never fully recovered (Hutchisson 227).
Upon Hemingway’s death, an admirer remarked, “He lived it up to write it down.” He was right. Extraordinary things happened to Ernest Hemingway, and his experiences and impressions became material to be transformed by his creative genius and his unique style into some of the most enduring works of literature in the English language. Hemingway is, simply, the American writer.