Ernest Hemingway


The Life of Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Miller Hemingway was born in Oak Park, Illinois (just outside of Chicago) on July 21, 1899. His father, Clarence, was a medical doctor and his mother, Grace, was a voice and piano teacher. As a young boy, his father taught him how to hunt and fish the untouched wilderness of Northern Michigan. Right away in Horton’s Bay, the young boy learned a delicate appreciation for the beauty and intricacy of nature, as he could often be found along the many streams of the area. Although his writing carried him to many large cities like Paris, Chicago, and Toronto, the undying peace and serenity Ernest found in Mother Nature continued throughout his life and is certainly evident in his many works.

Hemingway graduated the Oak Park public school system in 1917 and followed his interest in writing to the Kansas City Star, where he served as a young reporter. In just his short time at the paper, he learned some aspects of style that would follow him as an accomplished writer for all his days, as the Star emphasized short sentences, short paragraphs, active verbs, authenticity, compression, and clarity. Hemingway later said: "Those were the best rules I ever learned for the business of writing. I've never forgotten them."

At this same time, World War I was raging over the grounds of Europe, and Woodrow Wilson was now unable to stop the United States from entering. Our young masculine man wanted very badly to enlist in the army and serve in WWI, but his poor eyesight prevented him from doing so. Instead, he became an ambulance driver for the Red Cross in Italy. Only one month after his arrival, Hemingway was badly wounded in both legs by an Austrian mortar shell and immediately afterwards by machine-gun fire while carrying a wounded Italian soldier to safety. This injury disputably gave him the title of “the first American casualty of the war.” Hemingway was coined a hero for his actions on the battlefront and was awarded the Italian Silver Medal for Valor. The surgery to repair the 200 shards of shrapnel in his leg was successful and while he was in the hospital, the nineteen-year old fell in love with a nurse named Agnes von Kurowsky. He wrote her almost daily, but was eventually crushed when she told him that she was simply too old for him.

Finally returning home from Milan, Hemingway eventually took a job with the Toronto Star Weekly and married his first of four wives, Hadley Richardson, in September 1921. The happy (at the time) couple then moved to Paris, where the books of literature were being rewritten by expatriate writers like James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. First introduced by Sherwood Anderson (an author also studied in this course,) he became acquainted with many of these fine artisans of the era. His reporting in this time was extensive, as he covered subjects like the Geneva Conference, bullfighting, and fishing, all of which interested him greatly later in life. Then, with a recommendation from Ezra Pound, Ford Maddox Ford let Hemingway edit the Transatlantic Review. In this time, some of Hemingway’s earliest stories were published, including "Indian Camp" and "Cross Country Snow."

From 1925 to 1929 Hemingway wrote some of the most prominent landmarks of the 20th century, including In Our Time (1925) which contained “The Big Two-Hearted River,” The Sun Also Rises, (1926) and then Men Without Women (1927) which collected “The Killers,” and “In Another Country.” A Farewell to Arms was published in 1929 as the most genuine (and first) account of World War I and established him as one of the monumental writers of his time. From there on, Hemingway traveled to such places as Key West for fishing, Africa for hunting, and Spain for bullfighting. Drawing from his unique personal experiences, he continued his flurry of inspiration by writing such works as For Whom the Bell Tolls, Death in the Afternoon, and The Green Hills of Africa.

Late in his life, Hemingway struggled with deteriorating health, four different marriages, and a deep depression which eventually caused him to commit suicide in his home in Katchum, Idaho on July 2, 1961 at the age of 61.

Hemingway and War

Using his unique experience in World War I as an outline, Hemingway drew some of the most vivid portraits of the wartime experience that the world has ever known. With the publication of A Farewell to Arms in 1929, the 20th Century had its first true representation of the war and how it affected those involved, as well as those outside of the battlegrounds. Using the text studied in our English 217 course, The Sun Also Rises, it is evident that Hemingway was able to speak about the war like none before him; he was able to express the effect it had on the post-war generation.

Gertrude Stein coined them as “the Lost Generation” because it seemed that they were able to experience their lives without actually living them. With the publication of this first big novel, Hemingway was able to imprint this idea in the reader’s mind. The character in the novel such as Jake Barnes, Lady Brett Ashley, and Robert Cohen all show signs of moral loss and aimlessness through their daily lives of drinking, socializing, and running away from the past (and the future.) After the war, these soldiers and citizens returned to life with a feeling of great moral loss and a lack of faith. Love and opportunity disappeared every day before their eyes, along with the money in their pockets. For the first time, readers were able to feel this “Lost Generation” through the lives these aimless souls led and the actual substance that every day seemed to lack.

In addition, the wartime experience of Hemingway’s novels is enhanced for the reader through his vivid portrayal of death. Although he does not speak about it directly (part of Hemingway’s “Iceberg”,) death is always in the characters’ minds. In A Farewell to Arms, the characters are constantly running. War is the ultimate embodiment of senseless brutality and violent chaos, as it has only the power to destroy and bring death. Thus, with the abundance of death and the thousands of fallen comrades on the Italian front, the soldiers begin to crumble and they begin to lose their nerves, minds, and their capacity for rational thought. For example, he writes, “If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.” Hemingway explains that man is ultimately defeated by death and it is this that makes the character of man that much stronger. About his own near-death experience, Hemingway stated, "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." There is no doubt that his own experience enhanced and enabled him to write more deeply about the subject than any other author of the time.

One could even say that Hemingway was obsessed with the idea of death, even in his own life. He held strong passions for deep-sea fishing, big-game hunting, boxing, bullfighting, and war, all of which embody the struggle of death in his mind.

Hemingway and Masculinity

The main characters in arguably all of Hemingway’s novels all embody the same spirit: the very masculine man. Paralleled in his own life, characters such as Nick Adams and Jake Barnes enjoy the same manly passions like fishing, hunting, and bullfighting. Generally, the “Hemingway heroes” of the stories are independent, strong-willed, and self-directed. Then, they are faced with a challenge, where they are required to persevere and overcome, ultimately making them stronger. Additionally, we can also see in the character of Nick Adams that masculine men typically do not show emotion directly, but rather with Hemingway, their emotion is concealed for the reader in the character’s actions (the “Iceberg” once again.) For example, in the story “Summer People,” Nick Adams is a domineering male that is able to take any womanly object like Kate for his liking, and show no emotion to get what he wants. Moreover, in A Farewell to Arms, when Lieutenant Frederic Henry fires his gun at the fleeing engineers, Bonello, faced with a challenge in his masculine role, takes charge of the situation by violently shooting the fallen engineer in the head. These are all superb examples of how Hemingway’s characters triumph in their masculinity, much like the author himself.


Hemingway and Writing

Hemingway redefined 20th century literature from the time his pen touched the paper, and his influence is nearly the standard today. From his work at the Kansas City Star, he learned to “Use Short Sentences. Use short paragraphs,” thus putting an emphasis on compression, simplicity, and clarity. Certainly, he used these ideas from that day forth, as he was later quoted in saying, “Those were the best rules I ever learned for the business of writing. I've never forgotten them." As illustrated in all of his works, Hemingway tossed aside the 19th century Victorian prose and reshaped it into a clear, clean, and straight-to-the-point prose which focuses on action rather than emotion.

The term “hard-boiled” is often used to describe Hemingway’s writing style, as it means “to be unfeeling, callous, coldhearted, cynical, rough, obdurate, unemotional, without sentiment.” To much of the reader’s amazement however, Hemingway is able to pack an indescribable amount of power, originality, excitement, and even emotion into the concise, action-driven prose. Thus, as only Hemingway himself can tell, it is quite accurate to say that only one-eighth of the iceberg is above the surface. He believes that eliminating the content that is apparent and the meaning that is obvious only strengthens your iceberg. As a result, each reader is able to comprehend Hemingway’s prose as they see fit; for each reader, there can be a completely different meaning altogether. It is this principle which has guided literature in an “ideal fashion” that earned Ernest Hemingway the Nobel Prize in Literature "for his mastery of the art of narrative, most recently demonstrated in The Old Man and the Sea, and for the influence that he has exerted on contemporary style."

More Hemingway

Additional Hemingway materials including the Nobel presentation speech, Hemingway's acceptance speech, and a complete list of his life works can be found here.

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