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Novelist and short story writer Ernest Hemingway was known as much for his masculine behaviors—hunting, fishing, his obsession with the bullfight, his numerous marriages—as for his finely honed prose style, whose spare directness seemed to speak the truth with an unmistakable intensity. Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, Hemingway did not just mingle with the literary lights of his generation; his work and his style influenced generations of writers to come.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Early Formative Experience
Hemingway was born in Oak Park, Illinois, an affluent and conservative suburb of Chicago, on July 21, 1899. He was the second of six children and the first son of Clarence Edmunds Hemingway, a physician, and Grace Hall Hemingway. In childhood and adolescence Hemingway spent summers with his family at Windemere, their house at Lake Walloon in northern Michigan. His hunting and fishing adventures and his contact with the Ojibway Indians, as well as his observations of the troubled relationship between his parents, became the material for many of his stories, including ”Indian Camp” (1925), ”The Doctor and the Doctor’s Wife” (1924), and ”Fathers and Sons” (1933), all featuring Nick Adams, a recurrent autobiographical protagonist.
The village of Oak Park had a good library and a high school that provided Hemingway with a sound education, especially in composition, language, literature, and history. There he read the great English writers and made his first forays into writing, contributing to the school newspaper and its literary magazine. Hemingway’s competitive spirit also drove him to box, play football, and run track, though he was never an outstanding athlete.
Lessons in Journalism
As a student reporter Hemingway was prolific but unexceptional. His experience working for the school paper helped prepare him for his first job, however, as a cub reporter with the Kansas City Star, then considered one of the best newspapers in America. In addition to having the advice of first-rate journalistic professionals, Hemingway had to make his writing comply with the one hundred and ten rules of the Kansas City Star style sheet, requiring him to avoid adjectives and to use short sentences, brief paragraphs, vigorous English, and fresh phrases. Later, Hemingway remarked that these rules, which influenced his style as a fiction writer, were the best he had ever learned.
World War I had been raging in Europe since 1914, but the United States, which had tried to maintain its neutrality, did not get involved until 1917. Determined to go to Europe and participate in the war effort, Hemingway left the Kansas City Star at the end of April 1918 and joined an American Red Cross ambulance unit that assisted the Italian Army, one of America’s allies. That July, at Fossalta, he was hit by shrapnel and suffered severe leg wounds; he was sent to an American Red Cross hospital in Milan to recover. His experiences in Italy would later form the basis for his novel A Earewell to Arms (1929).
When Hemingway arrived home in January 1919, he attempted a career as a fiction writer, but his work was widely rejected by mass-market magazines. In 1920 he left again, this time for Toronto, to reestablish himself as a journalist by freelancing for the Toronto Star. He returned to Chicago in May of that year and worked for The Cooperative Commonwealth, a monthly magazine. He met and became engaged to twenty-eight-year-old Hadley Richardson, whom he married in September of 1921. In Chicago he also met Sherwood Anderson, whose Winesburg, Ohio (1919) had gained wide acclaim. Anderson befriended Hemingway, encouraged his writing efforts, and convinced him that Paris was the place for a serious writer.
Supported by Hadley Hemingway’s trust fund, Hemingway and his wife left for Paris at the end of the year. He carried letters of introduction from Anderson to Sylvia Beach (publisher and owner of the bookstore Shakespeare and Company) and the Modernist writers Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound. Hemingway met Pound in February of 1922, and the friendship proved to be an invaluable one for Hemingway’s development as a writer. Pound helped him hone his style, get his early work published, and also oversaw his literary education, exposing him to the work of poet T. S. Eliot and novelist James Joyce, whose groundbreaking Ulysses (1922) had just been published by Beach. In March of 1922, Hemingway met Gertrude Stein, whose experimental poetry and prose was inspired by the work of the painters with whom she socialized, including Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. At her Paris apartment Hemingway studied these artists and especially admired the work of Paul Cezanne; in the original ending to the short story ”Big Two-Hearted River” (1925), Hemingway’s alter-ego Nick Adams says that he wants to write the way Cezanne painted.
Continuing to work as a stringer for the Toronto Star, Hemingway went to Lausanne, Switzerland, in November 1922 to cover a peace conference on a territorial dispute between Greece and Turkey. On the way his wife’s suitcase was stolen, and with it Hemingway lost almost all of his unpublished work. The papers were never recovered. In June 1923 Hemingway made his first trip to Spain, where he immersed himself in the culture of bullfighting, which became a perennial favorite subject. He returned again a month later for his first Fiesta of San Fermln in Pamplona, known for its famous running of the bulls.
Hemingway’s first book, Three Stories & Ten Poems, was published in 1923. Although the poems in the volume merited little acclaim, the stories were praised. The Hemingways then left Paris for Toronto, where Hemingway was put on salary as a full-time reporter with the Toronto Star. After the birth of their first son, John Hadley Nicanor (Bumby) Hemingway, in October, Hemingway resigned his post and returned to Paris to work on a new journal devoted to experimental fiction, the Transatlantic Review.
By April 1924 Hemingway’s In Our Time, a thirty-two-page volume consisting of eighteen vignettes, was on sale in Paris at Shakespeare and Company. It was limited to one hundred and seventy copies and covered themes that would appear repeatedly in Hemingway’s later work, including bullfighting and war scenes. Hemingway also began publishing his stories in literary journals (known as ”little magazines”). The next year, he signed a contract with Boni and Liveright, a major publisher, to bring out an expanded version of In Our Time; reviewers praised it, but the volume did not sell well. Around the same time, Hemingway met the novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald; their friendship would become one of the most important in Hemingway’s life.
In July 1925 Hemingway returned to Pamplona for his second Fiesta of San Fermfn with his wife and a diverse group of friends. The excitement of the Fiesta and the tensions among the group formed the basis of Hemingway’s first novel, The Sun Also Rises (1926), which Hemingway began writing immediately after the adventure ended.
In 1926 Hemingway and Hadley separated, after it became clear he was involved with Pauline Pfeiffer, a wealthy American who worked for French Vogue. They divorced in 1927. Soon afterward, Hemingway and Pfeiffer were married. Hemingway had wanted to return to the United States for several years, and he and Pauline, who was pregnant, sailed for Key West from France in the spring of 1928. (Their son Patrick was born in June.) In December Hemingway learned, via telegram, that his father had shot himself, having suffered depression for many years. After the funeral, Hemingway finished A Farewell to Arms and in the spring brought his family back to France.
A Farewell to Arms, published in September 1929, was praised from the outset, and the first printing sold out so quickly as to require three more printings before the end of the year. By February 1930 Hemingway had earned more than $30,000 in royalties. In The Sun Also Rises Hemingway had shown the effects of World War I upon the generation whose lives it touched, the so-called ”Lost Generation.” In his second novel he focused upon the war itself, tracing the events that took a toll on the young people who participated in it.
In November of 1931 Pauline Hemingway gave birth to their son Gregory, and the following month Hemingway finished Death in the Afternoon (1932), the novel about bullfighting he had long wanted to write. Although the book revealed Hemingway s considerable research and knowledge about bullfighting, as well as his most extensive public presentation of his writing philosophy, Death in the Afternoon was not embraced by Americans.
Hemingway’s writing life involved more than just novel writing during this period. He was at work on the story collection that would contain perhaps his most famous story, ”A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” (1933), and began contributing articles on hunting and fishing to the brand-new magazine Esquire. In 1933 the Hemingways embarked on a two-month African safari, which inspired his next book, Green Hills of Africa (1935).
World Events Again Intervene
While work was underway on his next novel, To Have and Have Not, Hemingway again heard the call of Spain. The year 1936 saw the beginning of the Spanish Civil War, in which a military uprising led to a three-year-long war between a fascistic military and the left-leaning democratic government of Spain. The efforts of writers like Hemingway and George Orwell, who not only traveled to Spain to fight the Fascists but sent home reports on the war, brought international attention to the crisis.
Martha Gellhorn, a young writer whom Hemingway knew in Key West, also went to Spain to report on the war; she and Hemingway soon began an affair. When in 1939 Hemingway moved to Cuba to write his novel about the Spanish Civil War, For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940), Gellhorn followed him there, and Pauline filed for divorce. For Whom the Bell Tolls, dedicated to Gellhorn, received positive reviews in major American newspapers and in leading magazines. The novel sold 491,000 copies within six months of its publication, and Hemingway s critical reputation, which had declined throughout the 1930s, was once again restored, and his fame and fortune had never been greater. As soon as his divorce from Pauline was final, he and Gellhorn were married at Sun Valley, Idaho, in November of 1940.
After the publication of For Whom the Bell Tolls, Hemingway’s literary productivity waned. At the end of 1940, at the onset of World War II, he bought the Finca Vigia, his home near Havana, and he and Gellhorn left at the beginning of the new year to cover the war in China—Gellhorn for Collier’s and Hemingway for PM, a liberal New York tabloid. In his dispatches for PM he often appeared prophetic, predicting correctly that the United States would be forced into war when Japan attacked American bases in the Pacific. He produced just eight articles during his Far East assignment, ”only enough,” he said, ”to keep from being sent home.”
With an influx of Nazi agents into Cuba and U-boats steadily sinking ships in the Caribbean, Hemingway proposed to officials at the American Embassy and to the U.S. ambassador to Cuba that he set up a private counterintelligence agency. The Cuban prime minister granted him permission, and Hemingway organized a group he called the Crook Factory, outfitting his fishing boat for U-boat surveillance. During this time Hemingway’s drinking increased, and his marriage deteriorated as Gellhorn spent more time away from Cuba on journalistic assignments.
Into the Theater of War
At the end of October 1943 Gellhorn left Cuba again to cover the war in Europe for Collier’s. Early in 1944 Hemingway usurped her position with the magazine, agreeing to go to Europe for Collier’s as their front-line correspondent, a role women were not permitted to fill. In this capacity he took part in some of the more iconic moments of the war, the first being the landing of Allied soldiers on Omaha Beach, Normandy, on June 6,1944, otherwise known as D-Day. Hemingway was posted on a landing craft taking soldiers ashore. He chose to reboard the soldiers main transport ship rather than try to land with the soldiers, perhaps missing an opportunity but perhaps saving his life: ten other landing craft were destroyed attempting to land. Reporting on the confusion, fear, death, and destruction, Hemingway observed, ”Real war is never like paper war, nor do accounts of it read much the way it looks.
Hemingway was also stationed briefly with General George Patton s Third Army and then participated in the liberation of Paris on August 25, 1944. Recalling his feelings about Paris as he looked down on the city with American forces of liberation, he wrote,
I couldn’t say anything more then, because I had a funny choke in my throat and I had to clean my glasses because there now, below us, gray and always beautiful, was spread the city I love best in all the world.
While in Europe Hemingway had begun an affair with Mary Welsh, an American journalist working in London. After the war ended, Hemingway returned to Cuba; Welsh followed him, and after their respective divorces were finalized, they were married, in Havana, in March 1946.
The Last, Erratic Decade
Having published no fiction at all in the 1940s, Hemingway returned to novel-writing, tentatively; the work he produced in the mid-1940s was not published until many years after his death. After a 1948 trip to Italy, Hemingway was finally able to bring a novel to completion; the result was Across the
River and Into the Trees (1950), which received poor— and at times even hostile—reviews. The Old Man and the Sea (1952), which Hemingway turned to next, proved to be something of a parable of his life in recent years: an old fisherman, having gone eighty-four days without catching a fish, takes his boat far out to sea, spends three days wrestling with an enormous marlin, and then has to battle the sharks to keep his catch. Like the old man, Hemingway suffered a dispiriting dry stretch, but caught his giant marlin with The Old Man and the Sea. The story ran in its entirety in five million copies of Life, and the 50,000 copies printed in book form sold out in ten days.
The rest of the 1950s brought Hemingway a series of extreme highs and lows. At the end of their 1953-1954 African safari, the Hemingways survived a near-fatal plane crash, only to have their rescue plane crash the very next day. Though they survived the second crash as well, newspapers around the world carried obituaries, many of them riddled with other inaccuracies. Later that year Hemingway was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, something which for years he had watched go to writers he believed were undeserving. But, by the end of 1955 Hemingway was laid low again, this time by illness. He bounced back by the end of 1956, well enough to make another trip to Europe and returned to renewed productivity. Back in Cuba, despite his poor health and constant interruptions, Hemingway returned to his work: True at First Light (1999), The Garden of Eden (1986), and A Moveable Feast (1964), a memoir about Paris in the 1920s.
As revolutionary activity increased in Cuba, Hemingway feared he would be a target during the overthrow of the Batista government, and he and his wife left Cuba for Ketchum, Idaho. Their move proved to be in the nick of time: Fidel Castro overthrew the government and took control of Cuba on January 1, 1959. The Hemingways departed for Spain in 1959 after Hemingway agreed to write about the bullfight season for Life magazine.
During the 1959 Spanish trip—and another in 1960, to gather more material—Hemingway displayed highly erratic behavior. His depression and insomnia growing, his paranoia more obvious, and his nerves uncontrollable, he checked into the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, at the end of November and underwent a series of electroshock therapy treatments. He was released in January of 1961. By March, Hemingway’s depression had returned, and he had to be restrained because of suicide attempts. He returned to the Mayo Clinic for additional electroshock therapy in April and was released in June, his psychiatrist confident of Hemingway’s improvement. But, back in Idaho, in the early morning of July 2, 1961, Hemingway at last succeeded in killing himself.
Works in Literary Context
One of Hemingway’s greatest contributions to literature was his distinctive prose style, one that seems stripped down of all superfluous words but nevertheless seems to pulse with emotion. He did not develop this style in a vacuum, however; some of it came from his no-frills journalistic training, and some of it came from the influence of his Modernist peers, particularly his friends Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein. Malcolm Cowley, assessing the importance of Stein and Pound to his literary development, wrote,
One thing he took partly from [Stein] was a colloquial—in appearance—American style, full of repeated words, prepositional phrases, and present participles, the style in which he wrote his early published stories. One thing he took from Pound—in return for trying vainly to teach him to box—was the doctrine of the accurate image…; but Hemingway also learned from him to blue pencil most of his adjectives. Hemingway was one of a new generation of writers to break away from the wordy, lengthy prose that characterized much of popular literature leading up to World War I.
The Literature of War
From Homer’s Iliad (c. 8th century BCE) to Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1869), war, particularly men’s heroic actions in battle, was a fertile subject for literature. But, the mass death in World War I, occasioned by new types of warfare, called for a new literary response to war, one which recognized how very inglorious violence, suffering, and loss can be. Thanks to Hemingway’s experience with war, he joined the ranks of those men, dubbed the ”Lost Generation” by Gertrude Stein, who were so deeply affected by World War I that it affected their worldview and, in turn, their contributions to literature.
Works in Critical Context
The Sun Also Rises
With The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway made something of a critical splash. The reviewer for The New York Times thought The Sun Also Rises fulfilled the promise of Hemingway’s earlier work and that the novel was ”unquestionably one of the events of an unusually rich year in literature.” Conrad Aiken states in the New York Herald Tribune Books that ”in many respects” Hemingway was ”the most exciting of contemporary writers of fiction.” The novel’s influence extended to real life, as well: in his Exile’s Return (1951) Malcolm Cowley observed Hemingway’s influence upon young men and women who were acting out roles suggested by the novel’s characters Jake Barnes and Brett Ashley. Looking back at The Sun Also Rises in 1953, biographer/ critic Carlos Baker underscored qualities noted by contemporary reviewers of the novel that caused it to endure and contribute to Hemingway’s literary reputation. Baker cited the purity of Hemingway’s language and denotative power of dialogue; his devotion to fact and personal knowledge; his skill in evoking and controlling emotional states; and his use of symbolic landscape.
A Farewell to Arms
A Farewell to Arms was widely reviewed, and critical response was predominantly favorable, affirming that Hemingway had become a major writer who exerted strong influence upon American literature. Henry
Hazlitt of The New York Sun thought the novel Hemingway’s ”finest,” calling him ”the young master,” and observing that it was Hemingway whom young and older writers were imitating. There was evolving not only a ”Hemingway school” but also a ”Hemingway cult,” strengthened by convincing dialogue and a distinctive style. In The Nation Clifton Fadiman acknowledges Hemingway as ”one of the best craftsmen alive” and concludes, ”There seems no reason why A Farewell to Arms should not secure the Pulitzer Prize.” Although the book did not win a Pulitzer, the high regard for Hemingway’s work was so commonplace that Henry Seidel Canby states in The Saturday Review of Literature that among things ”not permitted in contemporary criticism” was ”to attack Ernest Hemingway.”
- Baker, Carlos. Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story. New York: Scribners, 1969.
- Bruccoli, Matthew J., ed. Conversations with Ernest Hemingway. Jackson, Miss.: University Press of Mississippi, 1986.
- Cowley, Malcolm. Exile’s Return: A Literary Odyssey of the 1920s. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin, 1979.
- Mellow, James R. Hemingway: A Life without Consequences. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1992.
- Wagner, Linda Welshimer. Ernest Hemingway: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1977.
- Aiken, Conrad. Review of The Sun Also Rises. The New York Herald Tribune Books (October 31, 1926).
- Canby, Henry Seidel. Review of A Farewell to Arms. The Saturday Review of Literature (October 12, 1929).
- Fadiman, Clifton. Review of A Farewell to Arms. The Nation (October 30, 1929).
- Hazlitt, Henry. Review of A Farewell to Arms. The New York Sun (September 28, 1929).
- ”Marital Tragedy: The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway.” The New York Times (October 31,1926).
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