by Leslie Weddell
Ernest Miller Hemingway - 1899-1961
Hemingway was born on July 21, 1899 in Oak Park, Illinois. In the sixty two years of his life that followed, he became a literary giant in the twentieth century. He captivated (and at times confounded) not only serious literary critics but the average man as well. In today’s World he would be ranked as a superstar author.
Ernest was the second Son of Dr. Clarence and Grace Hall Hemingway's six children; he had four sisters and one brother. He was named after his maternal grandfather Ernest Hall, and his great uncle Miller Hall.
As a boy he was taught by his father to hunt and fish along the shores and in the forests surrounding Lake Michigan. The Hemingway family had a summer house called ‘Windermere’ on Walloon Lake in Northern Michigan, and they would spend the summer months there trying to stay cool. Ernest would either stand on the bank or in the water and fish the different streams that ran into the lake, or once in awhile from a row boat, where he could relax and contemplate the natural beauty around him.
Nature would be the touchstone of Hemingway's life and work, and though he often found himself living in major cities like Chicago, Toronto and Paris early in his career, once he became a successful writer he chose somewhat isolated places to live, like Key West or San Francisco de Paula, Cuba, or Ketchum, Idaho. All were convenient locales for hunting and fishing.
He received his formal schooling in the Oak Park public school system and found most subjects boring, but did enjoy working on the high school newspaper called the Trapeze, where he wrote his first articles, usually humorous pieces in the style of Ring Lardner, a popular satirist of the time. Hemingway graduated in the spring of 1917 and instead of going to college the following fall like his parents expected, he took a job as a cub reporter for the Kansas City Star; the job was arranged by his Uncle Tyler, who was a close friend of the chief editorial writer of the paper.
At the time of Hemingway's graduation from High School, World War I was raging in Europe, and despite Woodrow Wilson's attempts to keep America out of the war the United States joined the Allies in the fight against Germany and Austria in April, 1917.
When Hemingway turned 18 he tried to enlist in the army, but was deferred because of poor eyesight. Then he heard the Red Cross was taking volunteers as ambulance drivers, and he quickly signed up. Quitting his job at the paper on the paper, he sailed for Europe.
Hemingway worked for the Kansas City Star for only a short period, but he learned some stylistic lessons that would later influence his fiction. The newspaper advocated short sentences, short paragraphs, active verbs, authenticity, compression, clarity and immediacy. Hemingway later said: "Those were the best rules I ever learned for the business of writing. I've never forgotten them."
Hemingway first went to Paris and then travelled on to Milan in early June after receiving his orders. The day he arrived, a munitions factory exploded and he had to carry mutilated bodies and body parts to a makeshift morgue; it was an immediate and powerful initiation into the horrors of war. Two days later he was sent to an ambulance unit in the town of Schio where he worked as an ambulance driver. On July 8, 1918, only a few weeks after arriving, Hemingway was seriously wounded by fragments from an Austrian mortar shell which had landed just a few feet away.
Hemingway had been distributing chocolate and cigarettes to Italian soldiers in the trenches near the front lines when the explosion knocked him unconscious, killing an Italian soldier and seriously injuring another soldier nearby.
Ted Brumback, one of Ernest's fellow ambulance drivers, wrote that despite over 200 pieces of shrapnel being lodged in Hemingway's legs he still managed to carry another wounded soldier back to the first aid station; along the way he was hit again in the legs, this time by several machine gun bullets.
Whether he carried the wounded soldier or not, doesn't diminish Hemingway's sacrifice. He was awarded the Italian Silver Medal for Valour with the official Italian citation reading: "Gravely wounded by numerous pieces of shrapnel from an enemy shell, with an admirable spirit of brotherhood, before taking care of himself, he rendered generous assistance to the Italian soldiers more seriously wounded by the same explosion and did not allow himself to be carried elsewhere until after they had been evacuated."
Hemingway described his injuries to a friend of his: "There was one of those big noises you sometimes hear at the front. I died then. I felt my soul or something coming right out of my body, like you'd pull a silk handkerchief out of a pocket by one corner. It flew all around and then came back and went in again and I wasn't dead any more." His wounding along the Piave River in Italy and his subsequent recovery at a hospital in Milan, including the relationship with his nurse Agnes von Kurowsky, all inspired him to write his great novel A Farewell To Arms.
When he returned home from Italy in January of 1919 he found Oak Park dull compared to the adventures of war, the beauty of foreign lands and the romance of an older woman, Agnes von Kurowsky. He was nineteen years old and only a year and a half removed from high school, but the war had matured him beyond his years. Living with his parents, who never quite appreciated what their son had been through, was difficult. Soon after his homecoming they began to question his future, began to pressure him to find work or to further his education, but Hemingway couldn't seem to muster interest in anything.
He had received some $1,000 dollars in insurance payments for his war wounds, which allowed him to avoid work for nearly a year. He lived at his parent’s house and spent his time at the library or at home, reading. He spoke to small civic organizations about his war exploits and was often seen in his Red Cross uniform walking about town.
Hemingway questioned his role as a war hero, and when asked to tell of his experiences he often exaggerated to satisfy his audience. Hemingway's story "Soldier's Home" conveys his feelings of frustration and shame upon returning home to a town and to parents who still had a romantic notion of war and who didn't understand the psychological impact it had made on their son.
The last speaking engagement the young Hemingway took was at the Petoskey (Michigan) Public Library, and it would be important to Hemingway not for what he said, but for who heard it. In the audience was Harriett Connable, the wife of an executive for the Woolworth's company in Toronto. As Hemingway spun his war tales Harriett couldn't help but notice the differences between Hemingway and her own son.
Hemingway appeared confident, strong, intelligent and athletic, while her son was slight, somewhat handicapped by a weak right arm and spent most of his time indoors. Harriett Connable thought her son needed someone to show him the joys of physical activity, and Hemingway looked to be the perfect candidate to tutor and watch over him while she and her husband Ralph vacationed in Florida. So, she asked Hemingway if he would do it.
Young Ernest took the position; which offered him time to write and a chance to work for the Toronto Star Weekly. And so Hemingway wrote for the Star Weekly even after moving to Chicago in the fall of 1920.
Whilst living at a friend's house he met Hadley Richardson, and they quickly fell in love. The two married in September 1921 and by November of the same year Hemingway accepted an offer from the Toronto Daily Star to work as its European correspondent. He and his new bride would go to Paris, France where the whole of literature was being changed by the likes of Ezra Pound, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein and Ford Maddox Ford.
The newlyweds arrived in Paris on December 22, 1921 and a few weeks later moved into their first apartment at 74 rue Cardinal Lemoine. It was a miserable apartment with no running water and a bathroom that was basically a closet with a slop bucket inside. Hemingway tried to minimize the primitiveness of the living quarters for his wife Hadley who had grown up in relative splendour, but despite the conditions she had to endure, she was carried away by her husband’s enthusiasm for living the bohemian lifestyle.
Ironically, they could have afforded much better. For with Hemingway's job and Hadley's trust fund their annual income was $3,000, a decent sum in the inflated economies of Europe at the time. Hemingway then rented a room at 39 rue Descartes where he could do his writing in peace.
With a letter of introduction from Sherwood Anderson, Hemingway met some of Paris’ prominent writers and artists and forged quick friendships with them during his first few years. Counted among those friends were Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, Sylvia Beach, James Joyce, Max Eastman, Lincoln Steffens and Wyndham Lewis, and he was acquainted with the painters Miro and Picasso. These friendships would be instrumental in Hemingway's development as a writer and artist.
Hemingway's reporting during his first two years in Paris was extensive; covering the Geneva Conference in April of 1922, The Greco-Turkish War in October, the Luasanne Conference in November and the post war convention in the Ruhr Valley in early 1923. Along with the political pieces, he wrote lifestyle pieces as well covering fishing, bullfighting, social life in Europe, skiing, bobsledding and more.
Just as Hemingway was beginning to make a name for himself as a reporter and a fledgling fiction writer, and just as he and his wife were hitting their stride socially in Europe, the couple found out that Hadley was pregnant with their first child. Wanting the baby born in North America where the doctors and hospitals were more modern, they left Paris in 1923 and moved to Toronto where he wrote for the Toronto Daily Star and waited for their child to arrive.
John Hadley Nicanor Hemingway was born on October 10, 1923 and by January of 1924 the young family boarded a ship and headed back to Paris where Hemingway would finish building his reputation as a writer.
With a recommendation from Ezra Pound, Ford Maddox Ford let Hemingway edit his fledgling literary magazine the Transatlantic Review. In recommending Hemingway to Ford, Pound said "...He's an experienced journalist. He writes very good verse and he's the finest prose stylist in the World."
Ford published some of Hemingway's early stories; including "Indian Camp" and "Cross Country Snow" and generally praised the young writer. The magazine lasted only a year and a half (until 1925), but allowed Hemingway to work out his own artistic theories and to see them in print in a respectable journal.
In the spring of 1944 Hemingway finally decided to go back to Europe to report the war, heading first to London where he wrote articles about the RAF and about the war’s effects on England. While there he was injured in a car crash, suffering a serious concussion and a gash to his head which required over 50 stitches.
Martha visited him in the hospital and minimized his injuries, castigating him for being involved in a drunken auto wreck. Hemingway really was seriously hurt and Martha’s cavalier reaction triggered the beginning of the end of their marriage. Whilst in London, Hemingway met Mary Welsh, the antithesis of Martha. Mary was caring, adoring, and complimentary, whilst Martha couldn’t care less and had lost any admiration for her man, and was often insulting to him.
For Hemingway, it was an easy choice, and divorcing Martha he moved in with Mary Walsh.
They openly conducted their courtship in London and then in France after the allied invasion of Normandy and the subsequent liberation of Paris. For all intents and purposes Hemingway’s third marriage was over and his fourth and final marriage to Mary had begun. He wrote, "Funny how it should take one war to start a woman in your damn heart and another to finish her. Bad luck."
After the war Hemingway returned to America in March of 1946 with plans to write a great novel about the war, but it never materialized.
The only book of any length he would produce about the war was Across the River and into the Trees.
Banking on Hemingway’s reputation, Scribners ran an initial printing of 75,000 copies of Across the River and into the Trees in September of 1950 after it had already appeared in Cosmopolitan magazine in the February-June issues of the same year.
Generally slammed by the critics as sentimental, boorish and a thin disguise of Hemingway’s own relationship with a young Italian woman named Adriana Ivancich, the novel actually contains some of Hemingway’s finest writing - especially in the opening chapters. The critics were expecting something on the scale of For Whom The Bell Tolls and were disappointed by the short novel and its narrow scope.
The Productive Years
From 1925 to 1929 Hemingway produced some of the most important works of 20th century fiction, including the landmark short story collection In Our Time (1925) which contained "The Big Two-Hearted River." In 1926 he came out with his first true novel, The Sun Also Rises (after publishing Torrents of Spring, a comic novel parodying Sherwood Anderson in 1925). He followed that book with Men Without Women in 1927; it was another book of stories which collected "The Killers," and "In Another Country." In 1929 he published A Farewell to Arms, arguably the finest novel to emerge from World War I. In four short years he went from being an unknown writer to being the most important writer of his generation, and perhaps the 20th century.
While he could do no wrong with his writing career, his personal life had began to show signs of wear. He divorced his first wife Hadley in 1927 and married Pauline Pfeiffer, an occasional fashion reporter for the likes of Vanity Fair and Vogue, later that year.
In 1928 Hemingway and Pauline left Paris for Key West, Florida in search of new surroundings to go with their new life together. They would live there for nearly twelve years, and Hemingway found it a wonderful place to work and to play, discovering the sport of big game fishing which would become a life-long passion and a source for much of his later writing. That same year Hemingway received word of his father’s death by suicide.
Clarence Hemingway had begun to suffer from a number of physical ailments that would exacerbate an already fragile mental state. He had developed diabetes, endured painful angina and extreme headaches. On top of these physical problems he also suffered from a dismal financial situation after speculative real estate purchases in Florida never panned out. His problems seemingly insurmountable, Clarence Hemingway shot himself in the head. Ernest immediately travelled to Oak Park to arrange for his funeral.
The Cuba Years
After returning from Spain and divorcing Pauline, Hemingway and Martha moved to a large house outside Havana, Cuba. They named it Finca Vigia ("Lookout Farm"), and Hemingway decorated it with hunting trophies from his African safari. He had begun work on For Whom The Bell Tolls in 1939 in Cuba and worked on it on the road as he traveled back to Key West or to Wyoming or to Sun Valley, finishing it in July of 1940. The book was a huge success, both critically and commercially, prompting Sinclair Lewis to write that it was "the American book published during the three years past which was most likely to survive, to be known fifty years from now, or possibly a hundred...it might just possibly be a masterpiece, a classic..." Oddly, the book was unanimously voted the best novel of the year by the Pulitzer Prize committee, but was vetoed for political reason by the conservative president of Columbia University; no prize was awarded that year. The book sold over 500,000 copies in just six months, and continues to sell well today.
The next ten years would be a creatively fallow period for Hemingway, (it would be 1950 before he would publish another novel) but while he looked more interested in bolstering his public image at the expense of his work, he was actually immersed in several large writing projects which he could never seem to complete.
The Last Days
Stung by the critical reception of Across the River and Into the Trees , Hemingway was determined to regain his former stature as the world’s pre-eminent novelist. Still under the muse of Adriana Ivancich, Hemingway began work on a story of an old man and a great fish. The words poured forth and hit the page in almost perfect form, requiring little editing after he’d completed the first draft. It had been a story simmering in Hemingway’s subconscious for some time...in fact he had written about just such a story in one of his Esquire magazine dispatches as early as 1936. Max Perkins periodically tried to persuade Hemingway to write the story, but Hemingway felt he wasn’t yet ready to write what his wife Mary would later call "poetry in prose."
Hemingway often described competition among writers in boxing terms. He felt he’d been ‘sucker-punched’ and knocked to the canvas by the critics on Across the River and Into the Trees, but as if he’d been saving it for just such an occasion, he believed the fish story would allow him to regain his position as "champion."
In September of 1952 The Old Man and the Sea appeared in Life magazine, selling over 5 million copies in a flash. The next week Scribners rolled out the first hardcover edition of 50,000 copies and they too sold out quickly. The book was a huge success both critically and commercially and for the first time since For Whom The Bell Tolls in 1940 Hemingway was atop the literary heap...and making a fortune. Though Hemingway had known great success before, he never had the privilege of receiving any major literary prizes. The Old Man and the Sea changed that, winning the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1953.
Flush with money from the Old Man and the Sea, Hemingway decided to exercise his wanderlust, returning to Europe to catch some bullfights in Spain and then to Africa later in the summer for another safari with his wife Mary. In January of 1954 Hemingway and Mary boarded a small Cessna airplane to take a tour of some of east Africa’s beautiful lakes and waterfalls.
The pilot, Roy marsh, dove to avoid a flock of birds and hit a telegraph wire. The plane was badly damaged and they had to make a crash landing. The group’s injuries were minor, though several of Mary’s ribs were fractured. After a boat ride across Lake Victoria they took another flight in a De Havilland Rapide, this time piloted by Reginald Cartwright.
Heading toward Uganda, the plane barely got off the ground before crashing and catching fire. Cartwright, Mary and Roy Marsh made it through an exit at the front of the plane. Hemingway, using his head as a battering ram, broke through the main door. The crash had injured Hemingway more than most would know. In his biography of Hemingway Jeffrey Meyer lists the various injuries to the writer. "His skull was fractured, two discs of his spine were cracked, his right arm and shoulder were dislocated, his liver, right kidney and spleen were ruptured, his sphincter muscle was paralyzed by compressed vertebrae on the iliac nerve, his arms, face and head were burned by the flames of the plane, his vision and hearing were impaired..." Though he survived the crashes and lived to read his own premature obituaries, his injuries cut short his life in a slow and painful way.
Despite his ailments, Hemingway and Mary travelled on to Venice one last time and then headed back to Cuba. On October 28, 1954 Hemingway won the Nobel Prize for Literature, but due to his injuries was unable to attend the ceremonies in Sweden. Instead, he sent a written acceptance, read to the Nobel Committee by John Cabot, the US Ambassador to Sweden.
After 1954 Hemingway battled deteriorating health which often kept him from working, and when he was working he felt it wasn’t very good. He had written 200,000 words of an account of his doomed safari tentatively titled "African Journal" (a heavily edited version was published in July of 1999 as True At First Light), but didn’t feel it publishable and didn’t have the energy to work it into shape.
There were no short stories forthcoming either and those he had written he put aside as well, disappointed with his effort. He was struggling creatively as much as he was physically, and as a way to satisfy his writing "compulsion" he returned to those subjects he knew well and felt he could write about with little struggle.
In 1959 Life magazine contracted with Hemingway to write a short article about the series of mano y mano bullfights between Antonio Ordonez and Louis Miguel Dominguin, two of Spain’s finest matadors. Hemingway spent the summer of 1959 travelling with the bullfighters to gather material for the article. When he began writing the story however, it quickly grew to some 120,000 words, words that Hemingway couldn’t edit into short form.
He asked his friend A. E. Hotchner to help (something he would have never considered in his prime) and together they succeeded in cutting it down to 65,000 words. Despite reservations about the article’s length the magazine published the article as "The Dangerous Summer" in three installments in 1960. This was the last work that Hemingway would see published in his lifetime.
Besides highlighting Hemingway’s increasing problem with writing the clear, effective prose which made him famous, his physical deterioration had become obvious as well during that summer of his 60th year. Pictures show Hemingway looking like a man closer to eighty than one of sixty. At times despondent, at others the life of the party, the swings in his moods, exacerbated by his heavy drinking of up to a quart of liquor a day, were taking a toll on those close to him.
During this time Hemingway was also working on his memoirs which would be in 1964 as A Moveable Feast. Hemingway wouldn’t live to see the success of this book which critics praised for its tenderness and beauty and for its rare look at the expatriate lifestyle of Paris in the 1920’s. There was a control in his writing that hadn’t been evident in a long time.
By this time Hemingway had left Cuba, departing in July of 1960, and had taken up residence in Ketchum, Idaho where he and Mary had already purchased a home in April of 1959. Idaho reminded Hemingway of Spain and Ketchum was small and remote enough to buffer him from the negative trappings of his celebrity. He had first visited the area in 1939 as a guest of Averill Harrimen who had just developed Sun Valley resort and wanted a celebrity like Hemingway to promote it. He had always liked the cool summers there and the abundance of wild land for hunting and fishing.
But even the beautiful landscapes of Idaho couldn’t hide the fact that something was seriously wrong with Hemingway. In the fall of 1960 Hemingway flew to Rochester, Minnesota and was admitted to the Mayo Clinic, ostensibly for treatment of high blood pressure but really for help with the severe depression his wife Mary could no longer handle alone.
After Hemingway began talking of suicide, his Ketchum doctor agreed with Mary that they should seek expert help. He registered under the name of his personal doctor George Saviers and they began a medical program to try and repair his mental state. The Mayo Clinic’s treatment would ultimately lead to electro shock therapy. According to Jefferey Meyers, Hemingway received "between 11 to 15 shock treatments that instead of helping him most certainly hastened his demise." One of the sad side effects of shock therapy is the loss of memory, and for Hemingway it was a catastrophic loss. Without his memory he could no longer write, could no longer recall the facts and images he required to create his art. Writing, which had already become difficult, was now nearly impossible.
Hemingway spent the first half of 1961 fighting his depression and paranoia, seeing enemies at every turn and threatening suicide on several more occasions.
On the morning of July 2, 1961 Hemingway rose early, as he had his entire adult life, selected a shotgun from a closet in the basement, went upstairs to a spot near the entrance-way of the house and shot himself in the head.
It was little more than two weeks until his 62nd birthday.
Compiled by Leslie J. Weddell
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