For the record, I love Ernest Hemingway’s books. I’d read most of them before I graduated high school and, only recently, some twenty years later, revisited Hemingway to finish out his canon. (Islands in the Stream, A Moveable Feast, and The Garden of Eden had been the few works I hadn’t read.) Through the course of my re-introduction to Hemingway, I became disconcerted by the fact that I increasingly felt that he had fallen out of favor in modern times. It seems a popular thing of late to hold Hemingway in an unpopular light. His books have slipped out of fashion in the school districts, whereas in the not-too-distant past they were required reading. They have also been the subject of recent higher criticism in some modern literary circles. Unlike some other classic tomes such as The Catcher In The Rye and To Kill A Mockingbird, they don’t even crack the top 100 annual lists of books sold in the U.S. Does this mean that Hemingway, arguably one of the most influential writers of the 20th century, is passe? That his Lost Generation of disillusionment has nothing left to say to the modern one?
Many people are familiar with some, if not most of, Hemingway’s biography. (God knows there’s been plenty written about him by some very legitimate and authoritative sources over the years.) So, after a little digging, I’ve compiled a brief biography for the uninitiated, in the hopes that a fresh look may shed light on why his popularity has waned in recent years.
Ernest Hemingway was born in Oak Park, Illinois in 1899, the second of six children of Dr. Ed Hemingway. At a young age, he sounded like a gifted child. As a three and a half year old, his mother described him, in part, as follows:
“Ernest Miller is a little man – no longer lazy – dresses himself completely and is a good helper for his father. He counts up to 100, can spell by ear very well. He likes to build cannons and forts with building blocks. He collects cartoons of the Russo-Japanese War. He loves stories about Great Americans – can give you good sketches of all the great men of American History.”
Ernest’s mother taught him music and creativity and took him to concerts, art galleries and operas. His father taught him survival skills, physical courage and endurance, and imparted to him a strong love of nature. By the age of twelve, he was singing in the choir at The Third Congregational Church and was making his first attempts at writing. During high school, he showed a penchant for English, but remained uninterested in other subjects. It was at The Oak Park and River Forest High School where he began writing articles for the school’s paper.
Upon graduating high school, he wanted to join the armed forces but was forbidden, ironically so, by his father. Instead, he applied for a job as a journalist, and in October 1917 began working for the Kansas City Star. At The Star, he learned that professional reporters told the way things are. They didn’t ramble; they declared what was. The idea was to tell the readers what had happened, but first a man had to go out and find what was happening. This experience, no doubt, influenced his later writing.
Still with a yearning to be involved with WWI, in April of 1918 he applied for a job as an ambulance driver in Italy for The Red Cross and was accepted. He quit The Star after serving as a reporter for only six months. Hemingway arrived in Milan in June 1918, and as soon as he disembarked, an entire munitions factory exploded. His initiation into the war was that of picking up dead bodies and carrying them to the mortuary. Two days later he was sent to Schio, in the foothills of the Dolomites, where he was far away from the front. Having a keen desire to be closer to the action, he signed up for canteen duty; provisioning troops on the battlefield. On July 8th 1918, he was struck by Austrian artillery and machine gun fire, six days before his nineteenth birthday. His knee and foot had been injured and he had to return to Milan for hospitalization. Two months and numerous operations later, he was able to walk again with the aid of crutches. He was awarded a silver medal of valor, for saving the life of another man after he was injured. In October, Hemingway reunited with his regiment, but jaundice forced him to return to Milan for hospitalization. By January 1919 he was back in America with 227 scars of war on his leg.
It was while being hospitalized in Milan, that Ernest fell in love with Agnes Von Kurowsky, an American nurse stationed there. The two carried on an unconsummated affair, which ended when Agnes encouraged Ernest to return home. Later, concerned about their age gap–she was seven years his senior–she sent him a “Dear John” letter, informing him she’d found someone else. His war and love experiences would be recounted ten years later, in 1929, in his epic WWI novel, A Farewell To Arms, as well as Three Stories and Ten Poems.
Back in America, while working as a reporter for The Cooperative Commonwealth, Hemingway met Elizabeth Hadley Richardson, whom he later married in September 1920. She was twenty-eight. By living frugally and saving their meager resources, shortly after their wedding they moved to Paris. By January of 1922, they were living in a squalid apartment on the rue du Cardinal Lemoine, where Hemingway set to work writing on a novel. He visited Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein, both of whom greatly influenced his writing. He and Hadley traveled to Italy, where, as part of the press, he met with Mussolini. Upon returning to Paris, Hemingway left for Constantinople for three weeks to cover the war between Greece and Turkey. Hadley, furious, stayed behind. When he returned he was covered in bug bites and his hair was so filled with lice that his head had to be shaved.
Soon Hadley became pregnant and it was during this time that she and Ernest made several trips to Pamplona, in northern Spain. These jaunts became the foundation for Fiesta, which became The Sun Also Rises. They traveled to Canada so that their son, John Hadley Nicanor could be born on American soil. By this time, Three Stories and Ten Poems was completed. In January 1924, Hemingway resigned from professional journalism to concentrate solely on writing novels and returned with his family to Paris. The Hemingways traveled throughout Europe, Spain, and Switzerland during their five-year marriage. During this period Hemingway also produced The Torrents of Spring. Hadley eventually separated from Ernest after learning of his affair with then Vogue editor, Pauline Pfeiffer. All royalties from The Sun Also Rises went to Hadley. In January 1927 they were divorced, and Ernest married Pauline in May of that year. During this turbulent time in his personal life, he produced Another Country and Men Without Women.
While honeymooning for three weeks on the coast of France, Ernest cut his foot, which became infected with anthrax. Falling into depression and desiring to complete a novel about the war, he desperately wanted to return to America. The two landed in Key West, Florida, where Hemingway fell into a comfortable routine of fishing, writing, and drinking. Key West became his base, with occasional trips to Europe. In 1928, Hemingway’s father, suffering from diabetes and angina pectoris, shot himself in the head.
A Farewell To Arms, his novel about the war, was completed and topped the bestseller lists, which enabled Ernest to send money home to his widowed mother to help her with caring for her two youngest sons. Interestingly, a dramatization of the novel opened in New York and failed after a three-week stint. The movie rights, though, garnered Ernest $24,000. Pauline had become pregnant and gave birth to their first son, Patrick.
Hemingway’s health, evidently, was a continual thorn in his side. He had regular sore throats, kidney pro
blems, hemorrhoids, and failing eyesight. In 1930, he suffered serious injuries in a car accident: a broken right arm, a cut right eyeball, and a gash in the forehead among others. In 1931, Death in the Afternoon was finished, and Pauline gave birth to their second boy, Gregory Hancock.
During one 65-day marlin-fishing trip to Cuba, Hemingway again took ill and returned to Key West to recuperate from bronchial pneumonia. Winner Takes Nothing was completed, and then came his first safari to Africa where he again took ill with dysentery and a prolapse of the lower intestine. After being away from his family for seven months, he returned to Key West to write Green Hills of Africa. More detachment from his family came with the purchase of a fishing boat, which he named The Pilar, and subsequent fishing excursions with his friends. In 1935 he won a fishing competition off the island of Bimini.
In 1936 he met Martha Gelhorn, a journalist, with whom he had an affair and traveled to Spain with to cover the Spanish Civil War. In 1937 and 1938, while in Spain he wrote To Have and Have Not and his play, The Fifth Column, which was written in a Madrid hotel while under gunfire.
In 1939, Ernest and Pauline had separated, and again, while suffering from guilt and depression, Hemingway penned For Whom the Bell Tolls, which sold a staggering 500,000 copies in the first five months. The movie rights were sold to Paramount for $150,000 three days after publication. After obtaining a divorce from Pauline, he married Martha in November of 1940. Their relationship strained over Ernest’s jealousy of Martha’s career, and he found himself living in Finca Vigia, Cuba, while his wife was a war correspondent in England.
In 1942, Hemingway created the Crook Factory, a private undertaking whose mission was to investigate pro-Nazi factions in Cuba. In 1943, the organization was disbanded and Hemingway concentrated his efforts on hunting German U-boats by trolling on his boat day and night, returning to land only to stock up on food and fuel. In March of 1944, at Martha’s beckoning, he traveled to England and was involved in another car accident, with several newspapers incorrectly reporting his demise. In May of ’44 he met Mary Welsh in London and fell in love. From June to December of ’44 he was attached to the Third Army, but also went on bombing raids and reconnaissance missions with the RAF. He was tried for court-martial for violating the Geneva Convention, but once his name was cleared he returned to the front and experienced heavy fighting in Hurtgenwald in November-December of ’44. By January 1945, he returned to Paris with Mary, his marriage to Martha finished.
Hemingway returned to Finca Vigia in March 1945. Once again suffering from guilt and depression over his third failed marriage, he fell into a routine of alcohol and indulgence. He again was involved in another serious car accident. In March 1946 he married Mary Welsh. At this time he began working on The Garden of Eden and Islands in the Stream, both eventually would be published posthumously.
With the death of many of his close friends, including his second wife Pauline, his mother, and his editor, Max Perkins, Hemingway’s drinking increased, his health deteriorated, and his writing came to a standstill. Ernest and Mary traveled to northern Italy to relive his early WWI days. It was here that he met and fell in love with Adriana Ivancich, which inspired Across the River and Into the Trees, a novel panned by the critics. He bounced back a few years later with The Old Man and the Sea which garnered him the Pulitzer Prize in May 1953, along with critical acclaim once again.
In June of ’53 he traveled to Europe and Mombassa, where he conducted a ritual courtship with a young Wakambu girl. He was involved in two plane accidents, the second of which was so serious that news of his demise was once again reported in the papers. (I swear this guy had nine lives!) He returned from Cuba only partially recovered from his injuries. On October 28th, 1954, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He was too ill to travel to Stockholm to receive the award, but held a party at his home in Finca Vigia. He was in Europe from September ’56 to January ’57 and set sail for Spain in May of ’59, one month after Fidel Castro entered Havana with his troops. He returned to Havana in November of that year and declared his support for the revolutionaries. In spring of 1960 he completed A Moveable Feast, his memoir of life in Paris in the twenties.
In July 1960 he left Cuba for the last time. Already showing signs of mental illness, his health collapsed and he was forced more and more to rely on alcohol. In August he traveled to Spain, but cut his trip short to return to Idaho. He was admitted to the Mayo Clinic for the first time in November and stayed one month. Three months later he was admitted again, this time for two months. With his memory failing, he found he could no longer write.
In fashion with his father before him, on Sunday, July 2nd 1961, in a log cabin in Ketchum, Idaho, Hemingway pulled the trigger of his double-barreled shotgun, killing himself instantly.
In the end, I think the modern perception of Hemingway is one of male chauvinism, bravado, and machismo, which perhaps has led to his current downturn in popularity. But in reality, this only portrays a partial truth of the individual. Though he was a man of “airs” and exuded brash confidence and authority, he also was very shy and embittered from his lack of good health and his perceived failing of living up to his father’s ideals of succeeding at everything. No doubt, his failed marriages caused him much anguish as well. He was also a romantic at heart, a fact that simply cannot be ignored when reading his work. Touching portrayals of his three sons and various wives are plainly evident, especially in his later works, much of it expressing regret over lost loves and lost time. Dig beneath the surface of Hemingway’s somewhat pompous celebrity and overconfidence, and you’ll discover a multi-faceted personality.
Despite the fact that it is popular these days not to like Hemingway, nothing can take away from the fact that he was an originator, a master of his craft. Though much of his success as a writer in the first half of his career can be duly credited to Max Perkins, Hemingway’s words and style have spawned numerous imitations, and his work has stood the test of time, influencing generations long after his death; truly the hallmarks of a great writer.
It seems that every generation has its own disillusionment with society in one way or another, and I think that today’s generation, with its share of war, terrorism, and cynicism, would benefit greatly from examining Hemingway’s body of work. The underlying current of romanticism in his writing serves as an ideal to strive for, a ray of hope that, despite the turmoil around us, something good can happen in the end. And, if nothing else, it serves as a glimpse into a life that was meant to be lived to the full. Hemingway not only had the guts to write about it, but he had the guts to live it as well.
On a personal level, Hemingway filled a void during my youth that no other author did. He accomplished things that I wished I could’ve accomplished and took me to places where I wished I could go; whether it was fishing in the Pyrenees, hunting wild game in the shadow of Kilimanjaro, trolling for marlin in the Gulf Stream, or running with the bulls in Pamplona. His sometimes glaring shortcomings aside, Hemingway was an individual who wrote larger than life because he lived larger than life. And for that reason, this writer will always be down with Hemingway.