"You can destroy me, but can never defeat" – said Santiago, hero of The Old Man And The Sea. Ernest Hemingway, the Pulitzer and a Nobel Prize winner had the courage of despair. He wrote with simplicity and hostility. He had a general and a lasting influence on the generation which grew up between the world wars like himself. His influence is not confined to literature and art, nor to the intellectual elite, nor even to any single country. He is one of the most popular authors among all classes of the reading public, irrespective of age, transcending the geographical boundaries, both in the west and in the communist countries.
He sought his heroes, not among the champions and victims of the social revolutions, but among professional boxers, lion-hunters and bullfighters. They survived the tests of physical exertion.
Archibald MacLeish described Hemingway’s meteoric rise to fame in one of his poems, "A veteran of the war before he was twenty; famous twenty-five; at thirty a master."
A Perfect Upbringing
Ernest Miller Hemingway was born on July 21, 1899 in Oak Park, Illinois, to Dr Clarence and Grace Hall Hemingway. The second of six children (he had four sisters and a brother), he was named after his maternal grandfather Ernest Hall and his great uncle Miller Hall. Hemingways appeared to be a model family for their friends at Oak Park. Dr Hemingway, his father, was a sober man; a devoted father, a responsible husband, and a competent physician.
When he was seven weeks old, he was taken to Bear Lake to the shorefront property, which his father had newly purchased to live with his grandfather. When his grandfather died and the family left his grandfather’s house and moved to a corner lot at 600 North Kenilworth Avenue and Iowa street.
In mid–August 1906 Hemingway family moved to their new three storeyed house. "A town of wide lawns and narrow minds" is how Hemingway referred to Oak Park, the upper middle class suburb of Chicago, where he grew up. His upbringing was grounded in solid Mid-western conservative values. He was brought up to be religious and hardworking, to have a strong self-determination and be physically fit. Young Ernest was taught to fish and to hunt by the shores of the Lake Michigan and the forests around. The family in the summer months stayed at a summerhouse called Windemere on Horton Bay where Hemingway would go fishing at different streams or row the boat out into the bay and fish there. It was at a young age that he learned about the serenity that one could get from being alone in the woods or by a stream. This was something that he always went back to. Despite the hectic life that he led, he always preferred living in isolated places.
When not out hunting or fishing alone or with his father, his mother – who once aspired for a professional career in music – gave him lessons in music.
In early September 1906, Ernest was enrolled at the Oliver Wendell Holmes School, Chicago Avenue in Oak Park. On Saturday afternoons, after school, the mother took children to see the collections at the Chicago Art Institute. But growing was not easy for Ernest. As he moved up through the elementary grades at the Holmes School, he had to put in extra efforts. He had to compete with his elder sister Marcelline who was in the same grade.
During his seven years stay at the Oliver Wendell Holmes School, he performed outstandingly in his class. While he was in the 5th grade, he turned to reading. He read popular boys magazines as Might and Main or Rough Riders’ Weelky, which contained Stories for Boys who Succeed. He also read literature as Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, Charles Dickens’s Christmas Stories for Children and Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Later on he also read Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Books and Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi. He adopted Twain’s humor and influenced by it he wrote Death in the Afternoon.
When he was in the 7th grade, in 1911-12, he was chosen for the lead in a class play and to write the class prophecy in the spring.
On September 6, 1913, Ernest joined preparatory course at Oak Park High. Ernest signed up for Latin other than Algebra, English and general science. He had the wide–ranging reading list as Freshman English was from the English ballads to Sohrab and Rustum, the Greek myths and several stories from Bible. In 1917, Ernest got a pair of brown leather boxing gloves from his father and he started shadow boxing all over the house. At one time or another that spring, he invited every member of the football team up for an afternoon of boxing in their mama’s music room. He beat them all, quite severely. On January 20, 1916 his first article appeared in the Trapeze. Entitled Concert A Success reported on a performance the Chicago Symphony Orchestra had given in Oak Park.
He graduated in spring of 1917 and rather than going for further studies he took up a job as a cub reporter for the Kansas City Star. His uncle helped him to land up with the job.
When in school, he had enjoyed writing for the high school newspaper called The Trapeze and this was where he wrote his first articles, which were mostly humorous and written in the style of popular satirist Ring Lardner. At Kansas City Star, Hemingway achieved perfection as a reporter. He also tried his hand as a feature writer. He worked here for eight months and moved to Chicago. He reported Bull-fights in Spain. The `bullfight’ is a symbol of life and death. It became his leading theme, which occupied him throughout his life.
The Kansas City Star was where he learned his first lessons in style. He learned that the kind of language that was most effective had short sentences and paragraphs, active verbs, authenticity, compression, clarity and immediacy. Later, Hemingway said of these rules : "Those were the best rules I ever learned for the business of writing. I have never forgotten them."
At an early age French magazines accepted several of his stories. The Querschnitt of Berlin printed a number of his sketches and also a longer story, The Bullifight. Even the leading literary journal, Atlantic Monthly, accepted his story Fifty Grand. The editor of a Hearst Paper offered him a contract, which could have guaranteed his financial security for years, yet he declined. He thought that his work would have suffered if he knew that everything he wrote was already accepted and paid for. He struggled on and kept his integrity. He said, "The integrity in a writer is like virginity in a woman. Once lost, it is never recovered."
World War I And Hemingway
he First World War was raging and when he turned 18, Hemingway tried to enlist in the army but was deferred because of his poor left eye. He then volunteered as an ambulance driver with the American Red Cross. He left his job at the paper and sailed for Europe in May 1918.
He first went to Paris, and on receiving his orders went to Milan. The day he reached Milan, he had to carry mutilated bodies and body parts from an exploded munitions factory to a makeshift morgue. Two days after this initiation to the horrors of war, he was sent to the town of Schio where his work was to drive ambulances. While distributing chocolates and cigarettes to soldiers in trenches near the front lines, he was wounded by shrapnel from an Austrian bombshell, which landed a few feet away from where he stood. It left him unconscious, killed an Italian soldier and blew the legs off another. What happened then has been debated for a long time. It is said that despite the many pieces of shrapnel lodged in his legs, Hemingway managed to carry a wounded soldier back to the first-aid station. While doing this, he was hit in the legs by several bullets from a machine gun. He was awarded the Italian Silver Medal for valor. Its official citation read : "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."
Describing his injuries to a friend, he said, "There was one of the 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."
While he was hospitalized in Milan, he fell in love with a Red Cross Nurse, Agnes von Kurowsky. Agnes, who refused to marry him, was the first of the great loves of his life. This unrequited love was the inspiration for his great novel A Farewell to Arms.
Lonely At Home
In January 1919, he returned home which he found dull as compared to the adventures of war and the lure of foreign lands. He was just nineteen and a half, but the war had given him a kind of understanding that made him mature. He could not get interested either in studies or in looking for a job, things that his parents were beginning to question him about. He sat reading either at home or in the library. He even gave talks about his war exploits to small civic organizations. His story Soldiers Home is about the state that a man going back home from war is in – the frustration that he feels when the people around him do not understand the immensity of what he has gone through.
It was at the last speaking assignment that he took that he met Harriet Connable, the wife of an executive from Woolworth’s Company, Toronto, who offered him a position to watch over her partially handicapped son. It gave him a chance to write for the Toronto Star Weekly, the editor of which Harriet’s husband Ralph promised to introduce him to. He moved to Chicago but continued to write for the Toronto Star Weekly.
A Movable Feast
"If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of good life it stays with you, for Paris is a movable feast."
Friend, Philosopher And Guide
Out of all his friends Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound were the closest ones. They were major influences of his life. Gertrude Stein was the first to read his stories and poems. Hemingway used to visit her at regular intervals and she used to listen attentively as she expounded her theories on style and language. She used to motivate him and praised his various stories, advising him on the art of story-telling and to concentrate exclusively on his work.
While Ezra Pound was the first to recognize Hemingway’s great talents. They were good friends, but anti-Semitic and fascist leanings of Pound’s political views destroyed their friendship. Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound were his guides. Pound read each one of his stories and gave suggestions to improve it. Gertrude Stein confined herself to a general criticism, Constructive and sometimes harsh. For their relationship Hemingway wrote, "Ezra was right half the time, and when he was wrong he was so wrong you were never in any doubt about it. Gertrude was always right."
Marriages And Children
He met Hadley Richandson, a young girl from Michigan in Chicago. She was a singularly gifted pianist and became a permanent member of the artistic circle. They got attracted, fell in love and married in September 1921. After falling in love with and getting married to Elizabeth Hadley Richardson, Hemingway moved to Paris where, as writer Gertrude Stein put it ‘the 20th century was’. He divorced her in 1927 and married Pauline Pfeiffer a fashion reporter. In 1928, the young couple left Paris for Florida, where they lived for 10 years. It was a peaceful place which could fetch wonderful creative ideas. From his first marriage with Hadley he had a son, John in 1923. From his second marriage he had two sons Patrick and Gregory born in 1928 and 1931. He divorced Pauline in 1940 and married Martha Gellhorn the same year. He divorced Martha in 1945 and married for the fourth time to Mary Welsh, in 1946.
Hemingway : The Political Reporter
In November 1921, he accepted an offer by the Toronto Daily Star to work as its European correspondent. Hemingway reached Paris armed with letters of introduction from novelist Sherwood Anderson. Paris was where literature was being changed and Hemingway was not going to miss the bus. With Anderson’s introduction, he soon met some of the most prominent of writers and artists in Paris and built relationships with them. His friends in the artistic circle in Paris included Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, Max Eastman, Wyndahm Lewis, Sylvia Beach, Lincoln Steffens and the painters Picasso and Miro. These people played an instrumental role in his development as a writer and an artist.
He did extensive reporting. At the Genoa conference in 1922, Hemingway gained an insight into the bustle and intrigue of high politics. He was the first to warn against the fatal danger of Fascism. Hemingway was neither a communist nor a socialist, but always had been an anti-fascist. He said, "Fascism is a lie told by bullies. A writer who will not lie cannot live and work under Fascism." He remained an anti-fascist for the rest of his life. Political ideologies never interested him. What bothered him the most was man’s inhuman behavior to fellow human beings and could never get away with the subject. He experienced such selfish and cruel behavior by man when he joined the Greek civilians on their flight to Macedonia in October 1922.
He spent most of his days here doing other pieces on politics as well as lifestyle pieces on social life in Europe, fishing, bullfighting, skiing and a lot more.
The Hemingways moved for a while to Toronto where their first child, John Hadley Nicanoz (named after a Spanish Bullfighter), was born. The move was made in order to get better hospital facilities available in North America. While in Toronto, he wrote for the Toronto Daily Star. A few months later, they headed back to Paris. Hemingway was delighted about the fact that he had taught the baby to put up his fists and make a fearsome face – stage one in becoming a man’s man.
He edited Ford Maddor Ford’s magazine the Transatlantic Review on Ezra Pound’s recommendation. Some of his earliest stories were published by Ford and though the magazine did not last long (only a year and a half, till 1925), it gave Hemingway a chance to work out his own artistic theories and see them in print
The Author Emerges
In four short years from 1925 to 1929, he shot up from being an unknown writer to the most important writer of his generation. He wrote the experimental In Our Time, then his first true novel The Sun Also Rises followed by Men Without Women. Then came A Farewell to Arms, which has been pronounced the best novel that came out of the First World War. The Sun Also Rises introduced the ‘lost generation’ and was a great success. His writing career was on a fast track but his personal life was slowly beginning to fizzle out. He divorced his first wife Hadley and married Pauline Pfeiffer who wrote, at times, for Vogue or Vanity Fair and moved to Key West.
Death Of Father
In December of the same year, his father who had been suffering from depression and paranoia shot himself in the head. Dr Clarence Edmonds Hemingway committed suicide. In Hemingway’s novel For Whom the Bell Tolls the hero, Jordon, touches the subject of his father’s suicide and said, "I’ll never forget how sick it made me the first time I knew he was a… coward. If he wasn’t a coward he would have stood up to that woman and had not let her bully him. I wonder what I would have been like if he had married a different woman." Ernest Hemingway went from Key West to Oak Park to arrange for the funeral.
"It’s the best place I have ever been anytime, anywhere; flowers, tamarind trees, guava trees, coconut palms… Got tight last night on absinthe and did knife tricks."
Hemingway and Pauline learned about Key West from their writer-friend, John Dos Passos. After living in a rented apartment for two years, the Hemingways bought a large house at 907, Whitehead Street, with some monetary help from Uncle Gus, Pauline’s wealthy uncle. It was in Key West that Hemingway finished A Farewell to Arms. Their son Patrick was born in June 1928. Three years later Pauline gave birth to Gregory, the last of Hemingway’s children. Here Hemingway also discovered the big game fishing, which later served as an inspiration for many of his books and became a life long passion.
He had made an expedition to Africa for five months. He was affected with a painful attack of dysentery in the African bush and due to this he had to stay long in a Nairobi hospital, and this ill stroke provided material for The Snows of Kilimanjaro. Harry, a writer dying of gangrene, finishes his life and in his quest for riches and luxury he sacrificed art, love, freedom and intellectual independence. Memories of his youth float through his delirium. Lot of opportunities were open to him which remained unused. Same spirit of discontent constitutes in his next novel, To Have and Have Not.
The impressions and experiences he collected during his hunting trips provided him with the background for The Macomber Affair. In the film he portrayed a marriage which he felt was typical of the decadence found in certain sections of rich American society. In those circles marriage had become a business, devoid of any sincere feeling and warmth.
During the next few years, Hemingway traveled a lot, mostly through France and Spain and came up with some of his experimental writings. In March 1937, he traveled to Spain to cover the Spanish Civil War for the North American Newspaper Alliance. He traveled with Martha Gellhorn, "the beautiful blonde in a black dress," whom he had met at Sloppy Joe’s bar and immediately taken a liking to. Martha used fake press credentials but later sold her articles to Collier’s. They had a four-year long affair before Hemingway divorced Pauline and married Martha. What he had learned from Spain and her war, touched him deeply and he wrote about it in For Whom the Bell Tolls and in other short stories and a play called The Fifth Column.
On their return from Spain and after their marriage, Hemingway and Martha moved to a large house outside Havana, Cuba, which they called Finca Vigia (or Lookout farm). This is where Hemingway lived for the next 22 years of his life with "9,000 books, 4 dogs and 54 cats" as novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez put it. Gabriel also said, "[It was the] only really stable residence Hemingway had in his life." During the time he spent here, he wrote vigorously and traveled a lot.
He was an avid reader. He considered Tolstoy’s novels, Anna Karenina and War and Peace and Dostoevsky’s, The Brothers Karamazov as priceless. Next on his list were Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, the short stories of Henry James and Sherwood Anderson. Ulysses and The Dubliners by James Joyce and the autobiography by Yeats. English books that he named were Wuthering Heights, Hudson’s Far Away and Long Ago, two novels by Henry Fielding, three by Captain Marryat and Kipling’s short stories. He also loved The Red and the Black, Madame Bovary by Flaubert and Maupassant’s The House of Madame Tellier from French literature, and Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann.
World War II And Hemingway
Looking for adventure during the Second World War, he undertook an undercover operation to hunt German submarines in the Atlantic, off the coast of Cuba. He gathered friends and other people, outfitted his boat ‘Pilar’ with bazookas and grenades, and looked for German U-boats. He called this gang the ‘Crook Factory’. All they actually did was fish, drink, and have a good time. The whole thing irritated Martha who thought that he was avoiding the responsibilities as a great writer to report the real war.
Hemingway did go to Europe to report on the war. First, he went to London and wrote about the effects the war had on England and about the RAF (Royal Air Force). He was injured in a car crash. He suffered a serious concussion and a gash on his head, which required 50 stitches. Martha’s harsh reaction to his condition marked the beginning of the end of their marriage.
In London, he met Mary Welsh who was a reporter for Time. Like in all the other wars, Hemingway fell in love again. Hemingway wrote, "Funny how it should take one war to start a woman in your damn heart and another to finish her. Bad Luck."
They went all over London and France after the allied invasion of Normandy and the liberation of Paris. Hemingway had formed a band of irregular soldiers and he was fond of saying that he was the first to enter Paris in its liberation. The story however seems far-fetched. However, he did liberate the Ritz hotel, which was his favorite and spent a week celebrating his return to the city that was for him a moveable feast. He then traveled to the North of France where he joined forces with his friend General Buck Lanham, and moved towards Germany. The fighting that he saw during the month that he stayed with Lanham was the bloodiest of the war and it made its way obliquely into Across the River and into the Trees, which he wrote on his return to Cuba.
Later he wrote The Old Man and the Sea, which won him both the Pulitzer and the Nobel Prize for Literature. He had not sacrificed the high standard of artistic integrity he demanded for himself. The language is highly imaginative, the description of nature was immediate.
In An Idyll In The Alps, he used indirect speech with jerky telegraphs which he later used with great effect in his novel The Sun Also Rises. The novel gained him fame overnight. It laid the foundation of his literary career and opened a new direction in American literature. It was a tremendous success. Sex has an unfailing magnetism for the public and the novel discussed the basic instinct at length.
In 1954, the Cessna airplane that was taking Hemingway and Mary to Africa crashed, which he survived only to go through another one, which injured him badly. He survived both to read his own premature obituaries.
Despite his severe injuries, the Hemingways traveled for one last time to Venice with a few friends and then went to Cuba. Due to his injuries he was unable to attend the ceremonies for the Nobel Prize but John Cabot, the US Ambassador to Sweden, read out his written acceptance, which bespoke his code as a writer.
Grace Under Pressure
The following years were a struggle against deteriorating health that kept him from working.
In 1959, he had been asked by Life magazine to write a short article about a series of Mano y Mano bullfights between two of Spain’s best matadors, Antonio Ordonez and Louis Miguel Dominguin. He traveled to Spain collecting matter for the article that soon exceeded the word limit and grew to 120,000 words.
He then did something he would never have done before. He asked his friend A E Hotchner to help him cut it down and together they brought it down to 65,000 words. It was published in three installments as The Dangerous Summer and was the last of his works that he saw in print during his lifetime. He was also working on memoirs of his Paris days.
The Castro revolution in 1959 forced the Hemingways to leave Cuba. They settled in Ketchum, Idaho.
He was getting increasingly paranoid and was convinced that the FBI was following him. He also became obsessively concerned about his finances. He was finally admitted to the Mayo Clinic at Rochester, Minnesota. He was given electric-shock therapy. One of its side effects was loss of memory. This meant that he could no
longer recall the images and facts that he required for creation. That which had become difficult, now became impossible.
The Bell Tolls
"All Stories, if continued far enough, end in death, and he is not true storyteller who would keep that from you."
Back home from the Mayo Clinic, one morning, Mary found him holding a shotgun in one hand and a handful of shells in another. Mary and the family doctor managed to take the gun from him and re-admitted him to the clinic. However, he returned home again fooling his doctors into believing that he was better.
On the morning of July 2, 1961, Mary who was still in bed heard a loud sound that she went to investigate. She found her husband’s body, in a red bathrobe that she had given him long ago. His head had been blown to pieces. The man who had always claimed to be fearless had finally given way to his fears and shot himself. Yet, he died as he had lived, in his own way.
Many rumors prevailed on why he killed himself. Someone rightly said that he killed himself because according to him –
"If I can’t exist on my own terms, then existence is impossible…that is how I lived, and that is how I must live or not live."