Old Man Hemingway

Henry “Mike” Strater and Ernest Hemingway with an “apple-cored” marlin. Bimini, Cat Cay, 1935. Photograph in the Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Public Domain

In September 1952, Ernest Hemingway’s last novel, The Old Man and the Sea, was published. It was the last novel published during his lifetime and it was cited when he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954.

I read that book in eighth grade. I had an overly ambitious or optimistic English teacher who had bought copies of that novel and Steinbeck’s The Pearl and The Red Pony and Of Mice and Men, Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, Orwell’s Animal Farm and other “short books (novellas) by great authors.” She wanted to introduce us to literature and famous writers before we went to high school. I read all of them that year. I didn’t understand all of what I read, but it was influential. And she loved me for reading them.

It worked with me. I went on to read several other books by those two writers on my own that year and many others in the years that followed. I recall liking The Red Pony as I was going through a horseback riding phase and the other two books seemed a bit preachy to me. I went back to all three books eventually and Hemingway’s novel now is the one that is the strongest.

Ernest Hemingway had been working on a very long novel that he called The Sea Book. It was inspired by that WWII period when he was on his Pilar fishing boat looking for submarines in his attempt to be part of the war. That original manuscript was in three sections: “The Sea When Young,” “The Sea When Absent,” and “The Sea in Being.” It had an epilogue about an old fisherman.

Some aspects of it did appear in the posthumously published Islands in the Stream (1970). Hemingway also mentions the real-life experience of an old fisherman that seems almost identical to that of Santiago and his marlin in “On the Blue Water: A Gulf Stream Letter” published in Esquire magazine in April 1936.

He wrote more than 800 pages of The Sea Book and rewrote them more than a hundred times, but the book still didn’t seem finished. Finally, he decided to publish just the epilogue on its own which he called The Old Man and the Sea.

The novella begins, “He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.” It tells the story of Santiago who catches the biggest fish of his life, only to have it eaten by sharks before he can get back to shore.

The Old Man and the Sea was written while Hemingway was living in Cayo Blanco, Cuba, and Santiago is an aging Cuban fisherman who struggles with a giant marlin far out in the Gulf Stream off the coast of Cuba.

I have always thought that this old man’s struggles had to be connected to Hemingway’s own struggles as a writer and with the deep depression at the end of his life. Without getting all literary symbols about it, I think the marlin is his writing career as he tries to bring in one more “big book” and goes a long time without doing so. The little book he does publish is good but, like the remains of the marlin that makes it back to Cuba, it is just a part of a much larger work.

The novella is not my favorite Hemingway writing, but it is a good first read for someone who has not read him and wonders why he is considered such an important American writer.

Hemingway’s Last Decade and Last Day

In 1950, Ernest Hemingway had been working on a long novel tentatively titled The Sea Book. The writing was difficult and he felt his abilities were diminished. He only published a section of the manuscript during his life as The Old Man and the Sea (1952). Despite the fact that the book was well-reviewed and won the Pulitzer Prize, he was disappointed with himself for only being able to finish that short novella.

In 1953, while in Africa, a plane he was in collided with a flock of birds and crash-landed on the shore of the Nile River. Hemingway sprained his shoulder but boarded another plane which also crashed, this time fracturing his skull and cracking two discs in his spine, and causing internal bleeding.

The crashed plane wasn’t immediately located and Hemingway was reported dead by the press. He later said that he strangely enjoyed reading the obituaries in a Tom Sawyer-ish way and he saved newspaper clippings in scrapbooks.

The injuries never fully healed and he increased his alcohol consumption as a way to self-medicate. He wrote a lot but published none of it.

A trunk of old manuscripts and notebooks from his days in Paris gave him the rough materials to write his memoir A Movable Feast which was published posthumously in 1964. It is often considered his best book of non-fiction. Still, he was disappointed in it when he finished the manuscript because he was not writing fiction and the book was the result of reworking old material. He was a harsher critic of his writing than some who did for their livelihood.

He battled insomnia, pain, depression, and failing eyesight in his last decade. He was losing his hair and was very vain about that and about getting old in general.

He became very paranoid and was convinced that he was under FBI surveillance. His wife thought he was losing his mind. Ironically, it was revealed much later that he actually was under FBI surveillance.

He entered the Mayo Clinic and was given electroshock therapy which did not help and probably made things worse.  The treatment affected his memory and made writing even more difficult. He believed that he was only alive in order to write and that if he could not write, there was no point in living. He talked frequently about suicide.

ERnest with shotgun

Back in 1928, Ernest had received a cable telling him that his father had committed suicide by shooting himself. He was devastated, particularly because he had earlier sent a letter to his father telling him not to worry about his financial difficulties. That letter arrived minutes after the suicide. He commented at the time that “I’ll probably go the same way.”[*]

Ernest Hemingway’s behavior during his last decade was similar to his father’s final years and it has been suggested that his father may have had the genetic disease hemochromatosis, in which the inability to metabolize iron culminates in mental and physical deterioration. Medical records made available in 1991 confirm that Ernest’s own hemochromatosis had been diagnosed in early 1961.[*] His sister Ursula and his brother Leicester also committed suicide.

On July 2, 1961, Ernest Hemingway got up early, loaded his favorite shotgun, and shot himself.

Updated Post – originally posted 2013

Writing Like Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway

A friend who does a lot of writing told me that he downloaded a “Hemingway Editor” app that is supposed to help you make your writing bold and clear as if Ernest Hemingway was editing your writing.

It is not unlike other editing and proofing apps. I use Grammarly and online it installs into the Chrome browser and reminds me about things as I type. Many of my mistakes are typos as I am a terrible hunt-and-peck typist. There is a free version and a premium version.

The Hemingway Editor app highlights wordy sentences, adverbs, passive voice, fancy vocabulary, and other things as you type. Ernest was not a fan of those four things. The app lets you publish blog posts directly to Medium and WordPress. You can also import and export text from Word documents. (It is a paid app.)

Hemingway is well known for his objective and terse prose style. You probably had some writing class in high school or college that used Hemingway as an example of a clean writing style. Even Hemingway’s dialogue is very simple. My Grammarly app actually gives me reports and praises me for my extensive vocabulary. Of course, when I write on this blog and in other places, I am often using scientific or technical words. When I am writing poetry, I think I tend to be more Hemingway-ish in my writing. I like using new words but I don’t want readers to need a dictionary to understand the poem.

The Old Man and the Sea is a good example of Hemingway’s writing style. The language is simple and natural on the surface, but it is also very deliberate and there is more going on under that surface. His concise, straightforward, and realistic, style is a departure from other writers of his time.

Sometimes his style is referred to as the “iceberg theory.” This simple style of writing has minimal detail on the surface, with deeper meaning hiding below.

In poetry, I might compare it to the poetry of Billy Collins. Before he became the U.S. Poet Laureate, some people criticized his poems as being too easy to read, and too often amusing. I think his poems are very accessible but there is more to them and they benefit from multiple readings.

My friend let me use his app and I put in an old post I wrote here about Hemingway. It seemed like a meta thing to do. It had suggestions and I took the advice and revised that post from 2013 and reposted it today.

Here is one paragraph that the app thought was wordy. You can see the revised version in my repost.

He entered the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota and was given electroshock therapy which did not help and probably made things worse as it affected his memory and made writing even more difficult. He believed that he was only alive in order to write and that if he could not write, there was no point in living. He talked frequently about suicide.

No app will make you write like Hemingway, but it’s a good thing to have some artificial intelligence looking over your shoulder as you type.

Late Hemingway


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 novelsThe 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.

Sylvia Beach’s bookstore that was a meeting place for the “Lost Generation” in Paris.      Photo: Shadowgate from Novara, ITALY – Pantheon, Wikimedia CC BY 2.0

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

Ernest Hemingway 1923 Passport Photograph, 1923
Ernest Hemingway 1923 Passport Photograph, 1923 – National Archives

Hemingway writing
Hemingway writing at a campsite in Kenya 1926

Almost a Mojito

Ernest Hemingway at the Floridita, par Franck Vervial
Sidle up to the bar with Ernest Hemingway at the Floridita. Don’t get into a fight. Don’t order a frozen strawberry daiquiri. (Photo: Franck Vervial, Flickr)

As the story goes, Ernest Hemingway liked to drink mojitos. I haven’t been to Cuba but I have been to Hemingway’s home in Key West and several bars here feature a Hemingway mojito. But according to Philip Greene, the mojito wasn’t Hemingway’s beverage of choice.

Phil has done the research, including in Cuba, and probably has had his share of mojitos as part of the research.  It seems that Ernest never wrote about mojitos but he did write about daiquiris.  It seems that a daiquiri was his drink of choice at El Floridita in Cuba.

I’ll count the daiquiri as his “formal” drink to order at the bar. But another drink that comes up in Greene’s research is less formal. It goes by the name “Gregorio’s Rx” and is supposed to be what Hemingway’s boat skipper, Gregorio Fuentes, would make on board when Papa was feeling unwell at sea.

Let’s compare the three drinks. (Yes, you can find variations on the recipes but these are the classic versions.)

muddle 10 fresh mint leaves and half lime, cut into 4 wedges
2 tablespoons white sugar
1 cup ice cubes
1 ½ fluid ounces white rum
½ cup club soda

That seems a bit too soda-bubbly, minty and sweet for Papa.

daiquiriThe poor daiquiri has been revised into all kinds of silly frozen and colored monstrosities which you might order poolside but I don’t see Hemingway ordering one in Havana or making one on his boat, the Pilar. I would say he’d want the plain, classic version. It’s simple.

2 ounces white rum
1 ½ ounces fresh lime juice
1/2 ounce simple syrup
all mixed in a shaker

What Greene discovered as Gregorio’s Rx is similar to both but modified.

1 1/2 ounces of Papa’s Pilar Blonde Rum
1 ounce honey syrup (made from a ratio of 1:1 water to honey)
1 ounce lime juice
4 mint leaves

I don’t know that you actually need Papa’s Pilar Blonde Rum to make this drink. The honey syrup is easier to make than simple syrup, and lime juice (rather than fresh limes) and fewer mint leaves is easier to bring on a boat. Do the shaker thing with all of that, strain and pour, add a mint garnish if you’re feeling fancy.

Then pick up a copy of Islands in the Stream (or even the movie version if you’re feeling lazy) and pour.

The Snow on Kilamanjaro

Tonight on Mount Kilamanjaro, Tanzania, it is mostly cloudy and about 22 degrees F. (-6 C). Though there is less of it now, but there is still ice and snow year-round on the mountain’s upper reaches. There are massive glaciers, ice fields, and towering walls of ice that blaze in the equatorial sun and beckon.

This past week I reread Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilamanjaro.” It’s a long story about Harry, a writer, who is dying of gangrene from a wound, and Helen, who is with him on safari in Africa.

You can read it online at the Esquire magazine site where it was originally published in 1936.

The story begins with the epigraph: “Kilimanjaro is a snow covered mountain 19,710 feet high, and is said to be the highest mountain in Africa. Its western summit is called by the Masai “Ngàje Ngài,” the House of God. Close to the western summit there is the dried and frozen carcass of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude.”

Hemingway used symbols but didn’t like people interpreting symbolism in his writing. The leopard is sometimes seen as just foreshadowing of the ending.  At the end of the story, Harry falls asleep and dreams he is on the plane that was supposed to come and fly him out for medical treatment.

“…looking down he saw a pink sifting cloud, moving over the ground, and in the air, like the first snow in a blizzard, that comes from nowhere, and he knew the locusts were coming up from the South. Then they began to climb and they were going to the East it seemed, and then it darkened and they were in a storm, the rain so thick it seemed like flying through a waterfall, and then they were out and Compie turned his head and grinned and pointed and there, ahead, all he could see, as wide as all the world, great, high, and unbelievably white in the sun, was the square top of Kilimanjaro. And then he knew that there was where he was going.”

Kilamanjaroo from a plane
Kilimanjaro from a plane   – by MAS pilotOwn work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

The western summit of the mountain is called by the Masai people “Ngaje Ngai,” the House of God and that is where Harry knows he is going.

The leopard also seems to have been on a quest to reach the top. I doubt that the leopard was seeking God. Perhaps, as with human mountain climbers, it climbed because it was there and is a challenge. One idea is that Harry is like the leopard. In college, I wrote a paper on this story and argued that Harry is not the leopard, but the hyena. The hyena is not noble or a true hunter. It is a scavenger.  He didn’t climb the mountain to the top. There’s no mention that of him ever seeking God. If he thinks that he is headed for Heaven, he’s dreaming.

Harry talks about how he has wasted much of his life and his talent by taking the easy path and marrying and being with rich women.

“The rich were dull and they drank too much, or they played too much backgammon. They were dull and they were repetitious. He remembered poor Scott Fitzgerald and his romantic awe of them and how he had started a story once that began, ‘The very rich are different from you and me.’ And how someone had said to Scott, Yes they have more money. But that was not humorous to Scott. He thought they were a special glamorous race and when he found they weren’t it wrecked him just as much as any other thing that wrecked him.”

They made a film adaptation of the story in 1952 starring Gregory Peck and Susan Hayward. But that’s Hollywood, so they threw in Ava Gardner as a character not in the story at all and changed the story almost completely. It’s not a spoiler 84 years later to say that in Hemingway’s story Harry dies in that tent in Africa with the hyenas sniffing outside. The film added a lot of “back story” about Harry’s life before the safari. For the film’s conclusion, Helen is able to clear the infection by following instructions in a first aid manual and the calvary medical party arrives by airplane in time. The vultures and hyena who have been awaiting Harry’s death leave. Ah, Hollywood. Of course, the film version was a critical and commercial success and was nominated for two Oscars. Maybe more people have seen it than have read the story. The film is in the public domain, so if you want to give it a viewing go to archive.org/details/Kilimanjaro.  I recommend you read the story,