Ernest Hemingway’s birthday was this past week (21st). I wrote about rereading his story, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” recently. Though his writing had a big influence on me as a young writer, I know that many people (especially women) have issues with his work and his life. He was one of the big celebrity authors of his time whose life got as much, maybe more, coverage as his writing.
I have read all seven of his major novels – The Sun Also Rises (1926), A Farewell to Arms (1929), To Have and Have Not (1937), For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940), and The Old Man and the Sea (1951) and also the lesser-known ones and almost all of the stories. The short stories are my favorites.
I’ve also read several biographies of him which are sometimes more interesting than some of the novels. (I like Papa Hemingway and Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story best.) If you studied him in school at all, you were probably told that after high school he worked as a cub reporter for the Kansas City Star where he was taught to “Use short sentences. Use short paragraphs. Use vigorous English. Be positive, not negative.” His journalism experiences formed his spare, sharp prose style. Lots of simple, declarative sentences.
His life story is really made up not only of facts but of half-truths, legends, and self-created myths.
You may also know that he volunteered at 18 years old to go to Italy as an ambulance driver during World War I. His adventures and injuries gave him a lot of writing material.
Hemingway got banged up over the years. In Italy, he was seriously injured by mortar fire and spent half a year in the hospital with shrapnel wounds in his legs. Much later, he survived two serious airplane crashes while on safari in Africa. His hotel room was bombed during the Spanish Civil War. He was in a bad taxi accident during World War II.
He also survived four marriages and too much alcohol. (*see below)
In 1950, he published Across the River and Into the Trees. It sold only about 100,000 copies and got terrible reviews. People started to say that he had lost it as a writer. Even Hemingway started to say he couldn’t write anymore.
But he finished The Old Man and the Sea, which won the Pulitzer Prize for literature in 1952, Hemingway said the book was “the best I can write ever for all of my life.” He won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1954.
His last finished book is The Dangerous Summer, a nonfiction book published posthumously in 1985 but written in 1959 and 1960. I’ve never read this one as the topic – the rivalry between two bullfighters during the “dangerous summer” of 1959 – has no appeal to me.
He worked on several other novels that were unfinished when in July 1961 he committed suicide. He had been very depressed and hospitalized and even given shock treatments. He felt that if he could no longer write, there was no point in living.
I find some of the books published posthumously to be my favorites. He worked on his memoir, A Movable Feast, throughout the 1950s but it was only published posthumously in 1964, three years after his death. It was mostly finished and his original manuscripts and notes were used. A second version revised by his grandson, Seán Hemingway, was published in 2009.
It’s a very good book about when he was first married to Hadley and their time spent with the “Lost Generation” in Interwar France. Lots of writers and cultural figures from that time appear, including John Dos Passos, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Ford Madox Ford, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Sylvia Beach, Gertrude Stein (who have the generation that lost” name), and Alice B. Toklas.
The book came from Hemingway’s 1956 recovery of two small steamer trunks that he had stored in March 1928 in the basement of the Hôtel Ritz Paris. The trunks contained notebooks he had filled during the 1920s. It inspired him to recount those memories recorded almost three decades before as a legitimate memoir rather than as fictionalized biography, as with so many of his other books and stories.
The manuscript for The Sea Book, a trilogy of stories, was found by his wife after his death and was published posthumously as Islands in the Stream in 1970. It was the first of the posthumously published works of Hemingway.
He started work on it in 1950. The three stories were to cover three parts of the life of the protagonist, Thomas Hudson, an artist. The three original titles were “The Sea When Young”, “The Sea When Absent” and “The Sea in Being” but they were changed in the published version to “Bimini”, “Cuba”, and “At Sea.” The stories were adapted for the film, Islands in the Stream, in 1977 which starred George C. Scott as Hudson and Claire Bloom as his estranged wife.
I like the stories and have read them several times. The film has its moments (though terribly faked fishing sequences) and I like David Hemmings as his rummy first mate.
He started writing The Garden of Eden in 1946 and worked on it through 1961 writing 800 pages before giving up on it.
I can see why he might not have wanted it published in his lifetime as it contains some clues (if we assume some autobiography) about Ernest’s own sexuality that perhaps explains some of his overly-macho life. The novel explores male-female relationships, includes androgynous characters, and the reversal of gender roles. That’s not the big-game hunter, marlin fisherman or hard-drinking man’s man who liked to challenge men to boxing matches image that he crafted in his life and writing.
During Hemingway’s 1953–54 East African safari with his fourth wife Mary, they were in two plane crashes in the African bush. In the press, he was reported dead. When they returned to Europe months later, doctors realized the greater extent of his injuries. He spent much of the next two years in Havana, recuperating. While there, he worked on what he was calling “the Africa book.” He had about 200,00 words but it was unfinished at the time of his death.
The published version is titled True at First Light. It was published in 1999, his centennial year. Though the book didn’t get very good reviews, it did get a lot of press. Much of that was about whether or not an author’s work should be reworked and published after death. The same kind of controversy surrounded the 2000 publication of Harper Lee’s novel which many people thought tarnished her reputation and that of To Kill a Mockingbird‘s Atticus Finch.
In his time, he was considered the greatest living American writer. He won the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize. He is still studied in classrooms. The occasional “lost” story of his still emerges once and awhile. I find him an interesting person and also a sad person. I feel that his machismo came from insecurities about his ability, his sexuality, and his desire to be loved. His personal demons undid him in the end. How sad to think that your life’s achievements wouldn’t be enough to keep you going and that if you couldn’t write at the same level that it wasn’t worth continuing in the world. His writing has influenced almost a century of other writers and will probably continue to do so for a long time.
Drinking Note: Want to have Papa’s favorite drink? Check out this