Ernest Miller Hemingway was born at eight o’clock in the morning on July 21, 1899 in Oak Park, Illinois. In the nearly sixty two years of his life that followed he forged a literary reputation unsurpassed in the twentieth century and created a mythological hero in himself that captivated (and at times confounded) not only serious literary critics but the average man as well…in a word, he was a star.
Born in the family home at 439 North Oak Park Avenue, a house built by his widowed grandfather Ernest Hall, Hemingway was the second 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.
Oak Park was a mainly Protestant, upper middle-class suburb of Chicago that Hemingway would later refer to as a town of “wide lawns and narrow minds.” Only ten miles from the big city, Oak Park was really much farther away philosophically. It was basically a conservative town that tried to isolate itself from Chicago’s liberal seediness. Hemingway was raised with the conservative Midwestern values of strong religion, hard work, physical fitness and self determination; if one adhered to these parameters, he was taught, he would be ensured of success in whatever field he chose.
As a boy he was taught by his father to hunt and fish along the shores and in the forests surrounding Lake Michigan. The Hemingways had a summer house called Windemere on Walloon Lake in northern Michigan, and the family would spend the summer months there trying to stay cool. Hemingway would either fish the different streams that ran into the lake, or would take the row boat out to do some fishing there. He would also go squirrel hunting in the woods near the summer house, discovering early in life the serenity to be found while alone in the forest or wading a stream. It was something he could always go back to throughout his life, wherever he was. 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 successful 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.
When he wasn’t hunting or fishing his mother taught him the finer points of music. Grace was an accomplished singer who once had aspirations of a career on stage, but eventually settled down with her husband and occupied her time by giving voice and music lessons to local children, including her own. Hemingway never had a knack for music and suffered through choir practices and cello lessons, however the musical knowledge he acquired from his mother helped him share in his first wife Hadley’s interest in the piano.
Hemingway received his formal schooling in the Oak Park public school system. In high school he was mediocre at sports, playing football, swimming, water basketball and serving as the track team manager. He enjoyed 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 for 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 eighteen he tried to enlist in the army, but was deferred because of poor vision; he had a bad left eye that he probably inherited from his mother, who also had poor vision. When he heard the Red Cross was taking volunteers as ambulance drivers he quickly signed up. He was accepted in December of 1917, left his job at the paper in April of 1918, and sailed for Europe in May. In the short time that Hemingway worked for the Kansas City Star 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 upon reaching Europe, then traveled 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 driving ambulances. 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. At the time, Hemingway was distributing chocolate and cigarettes to Italian soldiers in the trenches near the front lines. The explosion knocked Hemingway unconscious, killed an Italian soldier and blew the legs off another. What happened next has been debated for some time. In a letter to Hemingway’s father, 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 in the legs 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 Valor 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.”
Hemingway’s 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 his great novel A Farewell To Arms.
A Soldier’s Home…
When Hemingway 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 parents 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. For a time though, 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 the war had had 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 seemed 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.
Hemingway took the position, which offered him time to write and a chance to work for the Toronto Star Weekly, the editor of which Ralph Connable promised to introduce Hemingway to. Hemingway wrote for the Star Weekly even after moving to Chicago in the fall of 1920. While 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 to work with the Toronto Daily Star as its European corespondent. Hemingway 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. He would not miss his chance to change it as well.
Hemingway’s First Life In Paris
The Hemingways 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 splendor, but despite the conditions she endured, carried away by her husbands enthusiasm for living the bohemian lifestyle. Ironically, they could have afforded much better; 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 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 Wyndahm 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 better, the Hemingways 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 making a name for himself.
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 younger 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.
An unparalleled creative flurry…
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.
The first version of in our time (characterized by the lowercase letters in the title) was published by William Birds Three Mountain Press in 1924 and illustrated Hemingways new theories on literature. It contained only the vignettes that would later appear as interchapters in the American version published by Boni & Liveright in 1925. This small 32 page book, of which only 170 copies were printed, contained the essence of Hemingways aesthetic theory which stated that omitting the right thing from a story could actually strengthen it. Hemingway equated this theory with the structure of an iceberg where only 1/8 of the iceberg could be seen above water while the remaining 7/8 under the surface provided the icebergs dignity of motion and contributed to its momentum. Hemingway felt a story could be constructed the same way and this theory shows up even in these early vignettes. A year after the small printing of in our time came out, Boni & Liveright published the American version, which contains ten short stories along with the vignettes. The collection of stories is amazing, including the much anthologized “Soldiers Home,” as well as “Indian Camp,” “A Very Short Story,” “My Old Man” and the classic “Big Two-Hearted River” parts one and two. “Big Two Hearted River” was a eureka story for Hemingway, who realized that his theory of omission really could work in the story form.
Next came The Torrents of Spring, a short comic novel that satired Hemingways early mentor Sherwood Anderson and allowed him to break his relationship with Boni & Liveright to move to Scribners. Scribners published Torrents (which Scott Fitzgerald called the finest comic novel ever written by an American) in 1925, then a year later published Hemingways second novel The Sun Also Rises, which the publisher had bought sight unseen.
The Sun Also Rises introduced the world to the “lost generation” and was a critical and commercial success. Set in Paris and Spain, the book was a story of unrequitable love against a backdrop of bars and bullfighting. In 1927 came Men Without Women and soon after he began working on A Farewell To Arms.
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 fathers 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 traveled to Oak Park to arrange for his funeral.
The new Hemingways heard of Key West from Ernests friend John Dos Passos, and the two stopped at the tiny Florida island on their way back from Paris. They soon discovered that life in remote Key West was like living in a foreign country while still perched on the southernmost tip of America. Hemingway loved it. “Its the best place Ive ever been anytime, anywhere, flowers, tamarind trees, guava trees, coconut palms…Got tight last night on absinthe and did knife tricks.” After renting an apartment and a house for a couple of years the Hemingways bought a large house at 907 Whitehead Street with $12,500 of help from Paulines wealthy Uncle Gus.
Pauline was pregnant at the time and on June 28, 1928 gave birth to Patrick by cesarean section. It was in December of that year that Hemingway received the cable reporting his fathers suicide. Despite the personal turmoil and change Hemingway continued to work on A Farewell to Arms, finishing it in January of 1929. The novel was published on September 27, 1929 to a level of critical acclaim that Hemingway wouldnt see again until 1940 with the publication of his Spanish war novel For Whom the Bell Tolls. In between Hemingway entered his experimental phase which confounded critics but still, to some extent, satisfied his audience.
In 1931 Pauline gave birth to Gregory, their second son together, and the last of Hemingways children.
After A Farewell to Arms Hemingway published his 1932 Spanish bullfighting dissertation, Death in the Afternoon. While writing an encyclopedic book on bullfighting he still managed to make it readable even by those who had no real interest in the corrida. He inserts observations on Spanish culture, writers, food, people, politics, history, etc. Hemingway wrote about the purpose of his Spanish book, “It is intended as an introduction to the modern Spanish bullfight and attempts to explain that spectacle both emotionally and practically. It was written because there was no book which did this in Spanish or in English.”
Though a non-fiction book, Death in the Afternoon does codify one of Hemingways literary concepts of the stoical hero facing deadly opposition while still performing his duties with professionalism and skill, or “grace under pressure,” as Hemingway described it. Many critics took issue with an apparent change in Hemingway from detracted artist to actual character in one of his own works. They disliked a blustery tone Hemingway drifted into , particularly when discussing writers, writing and art in general. It was the genesis of the public “Papa” image that would grow over the remaining 30 years of his life, at times almost obscuring the serious artist within.
Returning to fiction in 1933, Hemingway published Winner Take Nothing, a volume of short stories. The book contained 14 stories, including “A Clean Well Lighted Place,” “Fathers and Sons,” and “A Way Youll Never Be.” The book sold well despite a mediocre critical reception and despite the terrible economic depression the world was then mired in. James Joyce, one of Hemingways friends from his early Paris days, wrote glowingly of “A Clean, Well Lighted Place” as follows: “He has reduced the veil between literature and life, which is what every writer strives to do. Have you read A Clean, Well Lighted Place?…It is masterly. Indeed, it is one of the best stories ever written…”
In the summer of 1933 the Hemingways and their Key West friend Charles Thompson journeyed to Africa for a big game safari. Ever since reading of Teddy Roosevelts African hunting exploits as a boy, Hemingway wanted to test his hunting skills against the biggest and most dangerous animals on earth. With a $25,000 loan form Paulines uncle Gus (the same uncle who helped them buy their Key West home) Hemingway spent three months hunting on the dark continent, all the while gathering material for his future writing. In 1935 he published Green Hills of Africa, a pseudo non-fiction account of his safari. Unfortunately, he picked up where he left off in Death in the Afternoon. While the book contained some decent writing about Africa and its animals it was overshadowed by Hemingways again digression into the blustery tone of his alter ego. In the book Hemingway harshly criticizes his supposed friends, making the reader cringe at his insensitivity. He portrays himself as courageous, skillful and cool while depicting others, including his friend Charles Thompson, as mean-spirited and selfish. In a telling review the prominent literary critic Edmund Wilson poked at Hemingway, saying “he has produced what must be the only book ever written which makes Africa and its animals seem dull.”
Oddly though, from the same safari Hemingway gathered the material for two of his finest short stories, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” and “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.” In both stories the protagonist shows a weakness that is contrary to what the typical Hemingway hero exhibits. Harry, the dying writer in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” laments his wasted talent, a talent diminished by drink, women, wealth and laziness. Macomber in “The Short Happy Life…” shows cowardice under pressure and just as he redeems himself his wife shoots him.
As in other Hemingway stories, a curious effect can be seen in these African tales. Often in Hemingways non-fiction work the truth is obscured by Hemingways need to promote his public personality, his need to portray himself as above fear, above pettiness, above any negative quality that would tarnish that image. In his fiction though, certain negative qualities, whatever they might be, are in the characters as flaws that often lead to their destruction. Beyond that, in a biographical context, the actual events of Hemingways life end up in his fiction rather than in his non-fiction. For example: Hemingways World War I injuries more closely resemble those of Frederic Henry in A Farewell To Arms than the accounts you see repeated in old biographical blurbs which tell of how he fought with the elite Italian forces, how after being hit by a mortar he carried a wounded soldier through machine gun fire to the field hospital, and how he refused medical treatment until others were treated before him.
When you want to find the truth about Hemingways life, look first to his fiction.
In March 1937 Hemingway traveled to Spain to cover the Spanish Civil War for the North American Newspaper Alliance. The civil war caused a marital war in the Hemingway household as well. Hemingway had met a young writer named Martha Gellhorn in Key West and the two would go on to conduct a secret affair for almost four years before Hemingway divorced Pauline and married Martha. Pauline sided with the Facist Franco Regime in Spain because of is pro-catholic stance, while Hemingway supported the communist loyalists who in turn supported the democratically elected government. Often travelling with Gellhorn, the two fell in love as they competed for quality stories. They would eventually marry in November of 1940, nearly four years after meeting at Sloppy Joes bar in Key West in December 1936. Eventually the loyalist movement failed and the Franco led rebels won the war and installed a dictatorial government in the spring of 1939. Though his side lost the war Hemingway used his experiences there to write the novel For Whom the Bell Tolls, a play titled “The Fifth Column” and several short stories.
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 know 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. During the 1940s he worked on what would become the heavily edited and posthumously published novels Islands In The Stream and The Garden Of Eden. In between he would also cover (and some say participate in) World War II, and he would divorce his third wife Martha to marry his fourth, Mary Welsh. In an insightful essay on Hemingway, E. L. Doctorow writes of Hemingways work during the 40s, discussing The Garden of Eden in particular. “That is exciting because it gives evidence, despite his celebrity, despite his Nobel, despite the torments of his own physical self punishment, of a writer still developing. Those same writing strategies Hemingway formulated to such triumph in his early work came to entrap him in the later…I would like to think that as he began “The Garden of Eden,” his very next novel after that war work (For Whom the Bell Tolls), he realized this and wanted to retool, to remake himself. That he would fail is almost not the point–but that he would have tried, which is the true bravery of a writer…”
After his work covering the Spanish Civil War and the subsequent work on his novel For Whom the Bell Tolls, Hemingway took on another assignment, covering the Chinese-Japanese war in 1941. He traveled with his wife Martha and wrote dispatches about the war for PM Magazine. It was a tedious trip and Hemingway was glad to return to Cuba for some well deserved rest. He didnt stay still long. By 1942 Hemingway had undertaken an undercover operation to hunt down German submarines in the Atlantic ocean off the coast of Cuba. Hemingway gathered some of his friends, as well as a few professional operatives, then outfitted his boat Pilar with radio equipment, extra fuel tanks and a nice quantity of ordnance, hoping that if he ever located a German sub he could get close enough to drop a bomb down the hatch. He called the gang the “Crook Factory.” Nothing ever came of their sub hunts except a good time fishing and drinking together, in the process irritating Martha who thought Hemingway was avoiding the responsibilities as a great writer to report the real war then raging in Europe.
In the spring of 1944 Hemingway finally decided to got to Europe to report the war, heading first to London where he wrote articles about the RAF and about the wars 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 Marthas cavalier reaction triggered the beginning of the end of their marriage. While in London Hemingway met Mary Welsh, the antithesis of Martha. Mary was caring, adoring, and complimentary while Martha couldnt care less, had lost any admiration for her man and was often insulting to him. For Hemingway it was an easy choice between the two and like in other wars, Hemingway fell in love with a new woman.
Hemingway and Mary openly conducted their courtship in London and then in France after the allied invasion at Normandy and the subsequent liberation of Paris. For all intents and purposes Hemingways third marriage was over and his fourth and final marriage to Mary had begun. Hemingway wrote, “Funny how it should take one war to start a woman in your damn heart and another to finish her. Bad luck.”
In late August of 1944 Hemingway and his band of irregular soldiers entered Paris. Hemingway was always fond of saying he was the first to enter Paris en route to its liberation, but the story is a stretch. He did liberate his favorite bar and hotel though. He set up camp in The Ritz Hotel and spent the next week or so drinking, carousing and celebrating his return to the city that meant so much to him as a young man.
Next, Hemingway traveled to the north of France to join his friend General Buck Lanham as the allied forces (the 22nd Infantry Regiment in particular) pushed toward Germany. Hemingway spent a month with Lanham, long enough to watch American forces cross over into Germany. The fighting was some of the bloodiest of the war and was obliquely recorded by Hemingway in Across the River and into the Trees.
Hemingway returned to America in March of 1946 with plans to write a great novel of the war, but it never materialized. The only book length work he would produce about the war was Across the River and Into the Trees. It tells the bitter-sweet story of Richard Cantwell, a former brigadier general who has been demoted to colonel after a disastrous battle which had been blamed on him. The aging Cantwell, with his heart problem that threatened to kill him at any moment, falls in love with the young Italian countess Renata. They carry out a love affair and through their conversations and monologues we learn the source of Cantwells bitterness…an inept military that fails to appreciate his talents and in fact sends him orders that are impossible to fulfill, in effect guaranteeing his failure and disgrace, an ex-wife (based on Martha Gellhorn) that uses her relationship with Cantwell to gain access to the military brass for information important to her journalism career and a general distaste for the modern world.
Banking on Hemingways 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 Hemingways own relationship with a young Italian woman named Adriana Ivancich, the novel actually contains some of Hemingways 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.
Stung by the critical reception of Across the River and Into the Trees , Hemingway was determined to regain his former stature as the worlds preeminent 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 hed completed the first draft. It had been a story simmering in Hemingways 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 wasnt 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 hed been suckerpunched and knocked to the canvas by the critics on Across the River and Into the Trees, but as if hed 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 Africas 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 groups injuries were minor, though several of Marys ribs were fractured. After a boat ride across Lake Victoria they took another flight in a de Haviland 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 traveled 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 wasnt 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 didnt feel it publishable and didnt 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 Spains 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 couldnt 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 articles 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 Hemingways 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 wouldnt 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 1920s. There was a control in his writing that hadnt 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 couldnt 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 Clinics 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.